Ancient and modern

The ancient Greeks had no time for losers

24 July 2021

9:00 AM

24 July 2021

9:00 AM

Every red-blooded Englishman has believed that exercise in the open air is the finest prophylactic against popery, adultery and the fine arts. Baron de Coubertin, who dreamt up the modern Olympic Games, took a different view. He admired the spirit of games on the playing fields of Eton and thought that they might provide a model for games of the sort he imagined the ancient Greeks enjoyed at Olympia: competitive but amateur, fair, wholesome, played for the sake of it and also, he hoped, acting as a stimulus to world peace. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

The Olympic Games, founded in 776 bc, celebrated Zeus, god of Mount Olympus, at his sacred site, Olympia (the actual mountain is more than 160 miles away). The first foot-race in European literature, part of some funeral games, gives an idea of what to expect. It is described by Homer (700 BC: everything in Homer is a ‘first’ for European literature, Europe being illiterate at the time). Odysseus is struggling to overtake Ajax, son of Oileus. As they approach the winning line, he prays to Athena for help. Ajax promptly slides face-first into a pile of cattle dung and Odysseus wins. The furious Ajax, spitting out dung, accuses Athena of doing it, ‘and everyone laughed merrily at him’. And there is equally dirty work in the chariot race.

That was the Greeks for you: in all walks of life, only winning counted, by whatever means. So second and third won nothing: they were losers. The poet Pindar talked of such athletes ‘slinking furtively home through the back-alleys, bitten by the pain of defeat’. But since competitors at the Games had to turn up a month in advance to practise, they could use the time to assess the opposition and pull a sickie if they knew they would be humiliated. In this way many an athlete won the prize akoniti (‘without dust’): all his opponents had pulled out.

In addition, the judges were strict. In the practice month they could throw out any athlete not up to it or who might somehow disgrace the Games (e.g. a slave or foreigner). Only the best for Zeus Olumpios.

Next week: more fun and Games.

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