How the Games were: naked men picked by Zeus to serve as bodyguards

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The Independent Online

Scholars now believe the ancient Olympic Games were a divinely sanctioned, testosterone-packed system for selecting warriors for elite military service.

Those games, eventually banned for paganism, were also probably intended as homoerotic events, from which all women, apart from virgins, were banned.

Research suggests that by the 6th or 5th century BC, the Games had become a way for their patron Zeus, king of the gods, to give "divine" guidance about who should be granted membership of various crack military units.

Dr Stephen Instone, an authority on the ancient Olympics at the Department of Greek and Latin at University College London, said the Games were used to select bodyguards for rulers.

Vital evidence from the Greek mini-state, Thebes, suggests these military units were regarded as sacred brotherhoods and limited in most cases to 300 members.

Ancient texts reveal that in Thebes, and probably Sparta, the members of these elite units were expected to form a sexual bond with another warrior - or warriors - in the regiment. These sacred brotherhoods, strengthened through divine selection and lover-loyalty, were, in ancient Greek terms, the last word in elite masculinity.

Another piece of circumstantial evidence suggesting the Olympics were a mechanism for forming these units is that all women who were sexually active or had been were forbidden to see the athletes compete, unlike many other aspects of Greek religious festivals. The sportsmen themselves had to compete naked, which may have been connected with the homoerotic creed.

The religious power of the site derived from its association with Zeus. Greek legend has it that a thunderbolt hurled by Zeus from his home on the summit of Mount Olympus (170 miles to the north) landed at Olympia.

Dr Instone said: "The ancient Olympics may well have functioned as a method of making decisions relating to the appointment of elite military personnel. In the past, scholars have suggested that they started off as funeral games to mark the deaths of heroes, but this old theory really doesn't hold water."