for National Geographic News
This year the Olympic Games return to their birthplace in Greece. But much has changed since the first games were held there almost three millennia ago. National Geographic News spoke with Tony Perrottet, author of The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games, to hear what the first Olympics were really like.
The Olympic Games were held every four years from 776 B.C. to A.D. 394, making them the longest-running recurring event in antiquity. What was the secret of the games' longevity?
It was the sheer spectacle of it. Sports [were] one part of a grand, all-consuming extravaganza. It was first and foremost a religious event, held on the most sacred spot in the ancient world. It had this incredible aura of tradition and sanctity.
Today's Olympics is a vast, secular event, but it doesn't have the religious element of the ancient Olympics, where sacrifices and rituals would take up as much time as the sports. And there were all these peripheral things that came with the festival: the artistic happenings, new writers, new painters, new sculptors. There were fire-eaters, palm readers, and prostitutes.
This was the total pagan entertainment package.
Today the Olympics are celebrated for their noble ideals of competition, friendship and culture. Do we find those ideals in the ancient games?
We have a very sentimental attitude toward the ancient games. But this romanticized image with gentlemanly behavior and chivalry was largely devised by Victorian scholars in the 19th century.
Perhaps the most inspiring ancient ideal was the moratorium on war during the games, a sacred truce that allowed travelers to safely get to the games. But the ancient Greeks were not as idealistic as to try to stop all wars. They just didn't want anything that interfered with the operation of the games. If you wanted to have a war in Sicily, the truce wouldn't stop you at all.
There were times when the truce fell apart. In 364 B.C. the regular organizers lost control of the games, because they had become involved in politics. To get revenge, they attacked the games' new organizers in the middle of a wrestling match. They had this pitched battle going on inside the sanctuary, with archers up on the temples.
The fans took it in stride. They stopped watching the wrestling match and instead watched the battle, applauding as if these were opposing teams at a sports match.
What is the origin of the games?
This has been lost in the mist of time. The ancient Greeks had many mythological reasons for why they were held, but no one knows for sure.
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