Notebook: Nothing new under the Barcelona sun: Never mind the noble myth: many Ancient Olympians were money-grabbing cheats, who would go to any lengths to win

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The Independent Online
WHEN the 25th Olympic Games of the modern era begin in Barcelona this week, there will be allegations of abuse of steroids and other drugs; disqualifications, if none so sensational as that of Ben Johnson last time in Seoul; and rumours of other forms of cheating. Afterwards the winners will cash in on their fame.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who revived the Games in 1896, had something different in mind. Games were not included in the curriculum of the 19th-century French schools (in contrast to Eton and Rugby, which he had visited) and he felt their absence enfeebled his country's youth. Games played in the amateur spirit, instilling notions of fair play, would make robust and good administrators for France and its colonies, he thought.

Today's Olympics are therefore a travesty of the baron's intentions: few, if any, athletes will be in Barcelona simply for the sake of their moral fibre. But are they so very different in spirit from the original Games? There have been enough archaeological discoveries in the last century to present a fairly clear picture of what happened two to three millenia ago, and it is not the one conceived by de Coubertin.

I went to Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, to meet Cathy Morgan, a Director of Studies in Classics and author of Athletes and Oracles. A brisk woman in her thirties - who once coxed the Clare College Ladies boat - she has worked at Olympia, sifting through layer after layer of ash from the offerings burnt on the altar to Zeus: at every Olympiad 100 oxen were sacrificed in his honour, the thighs going to the deity, the rest to the banquet for the athletes at the end of the five-day festival. Dr Morgan refers to Pausanias, who wrote a guide- book to Greece in the second century AD, and confirms that in his day the mound of ash rose to 20 feet.

The ancient Olympics went on for about 1,300 years and, unlike the modern Games, without a single interruption. In other words, 300 or so ancient Games took place. 'There is a popular tradition,' Dr Morgan says, 'that they began in 776BC, and it would be safe to say they ended about AD380, as Christianity outlawed pagan cults in the Roman Empire. But there could well have been games at Olympia before 776, as we think the festival started there in the 11th century BC. Boxing was depicted on frescoes on Santorini in the second millenium BC.'

What is, or was, Olympia like? 'It's a very big, open site between hills, unusually well-watered for Greece, which was just as well as the Games were held in July or August. Imagine a tent city thrown up there for one week of the year, and an enormous service industry to cater for the tens of thousands of visitors - mucky fields, people hawking wine, flies and heat, pimps and prostitutes and Herodotus reading his histories aloud.'

Thanks largely to Pausanias, we know that by 648BC the Games had evolved into their regular form. After an opening procession on the first day, the horse and chariot races took place in the Hippodrome, amid some excitement. One orator said in AD100 of the crowds: 'Who can describe your shouts, the commotion and the agony, the bodily contortions and groans, the awful curses you utter? If you were not merely watching horse races - and horses are used to racing - but were driven by the whips of tragedy, you would not be affected so cruelly.'

On the last three days, the remaining events were held in the Stadium, where the finishing line was towards the altar of Zeus. There were three foot-races of approximately 200, 400 and 4,800 metres; the contact sports of wrestling, boxing and the pancratium, an even more vicious form of no-holds- barred fighting; and the pentathlon. This consisted of the 200 metres, javelin, discus, wrestling and long jump, which the Greeks did from a standing start and with the aid of weights to throw themselves forward.

Some 30,000 or 40,000 spectators, all standing, could be accommodated in the Stadium. The athletes were all male, free, Greek or Hellenised, naked, and covered with oil. No woman could attend what was essentially a religious festival - every athlete swore an oath to Zeus - and the only way a woman could win a wreath of wild olive was by owning the successful horse or chariot (no credit went to the jockey or charioteer).

But there was cheating. Athletes bribed fellow competitors to lose. In the sprint races - which, when longer than 200 metres, involved going round a turning-post - there was any amount of tripping and shoving. Guilty athletes were fined, and the fines used to build statues to Zeus, with the misdemeanours recorded on them.

What about the prizes: don't they suggest that honour was all? 'The first thing to remember,' Dr Morgan says, 'is that there were no prizes for coming second or third. Taking part was minimally important. Winning was everything.' She consults Pindar's Odes. 'He has this line about the losers in the wrestling competition when they return to their cities: 'In back streets, out of their enemies' way, they slink; disaster has bitten them.' That Japanese marathon runner who came second in the Tokyo Olympics and committed hara- kiri out of shame was much closer to the Greek attitude.'

But at least the victors did not cash in, did they? 'Early on, in the first century or two, the Olympics seem to have been the preserve of aristocrats and the upper class, because the athletes had to be wealthy enough to train for 10 months before the Games. But soon they opened up to all classes of Greek society, apart from slaves, and cities began to sponsor their athletes so that they could train full-time.'

Towards the start of the Roman Empire, athletes became so numerous and professionalised that they formed a union. This was partly to protect the pensions for life which cities gave to victorious athletes; it was also to cash in on the kudos of winning one of the four Sacred Games at Olympia, Delphi, Corinth and Nemea, where the actual prize was an olive wreath or laurels or whatever. There were hundreds of Prize Games, when you could pick up several thousand drachmas for winning. One city in Asia Minor offered an appearance fee of 30,000 drachmas to an Olympic winner, when the pay of a Roman soldier was 200 to 300 drachmas a year.

Dr Morgan and I walked to the Great Court of Trinity College. It was around the quad here that the undergraduates ran in Chariots of Fire while the clock struck twelve. Harold Abrahams, according to the film, was upbraided by the authorities for violating the amateur spirit in having a trainer. 'Every athlete in the original Olympics had his trainer,' says Dr Morgan.

(Photograph omitted)