Eternal flame

25th June 2004 at 01:00
The parallels between today's Olympics and those of antiquity are striking.

Sean Coughlan reports

Political interference, cheating athletes, international rivalries, supporters from all over the world, fears of violence and an idealistic attempt to put conflict aside - it's the Olympic Games from a couple of thousand years ago.

While we think of the modern games as being plagued by controversy, the original Greek games also had their share of political problems, including countries being banned and the threat of invasion.

But until the Romans destroyed the credibility of the games, these pressures had been kept in check by the remarkably durable concept of an "Olympic spirit" which was meant to rise above the petty local differences within the Greek world. The modern games have so far only run a short sprint of 108 years, their ancient predecessors continued for a marathon stretch of more than 1000 years, from 776bc to 393ad, giving them the status of the longest-running sporting event in history.

While the modern games were suspended during world wars - including scrapping the planned games for Berlin in 1916 and for Tokyo in 1940 - the sequence of ancient games was not interrupted by wars. In fact, the opposite was the case - wars were interrupted by the games. Under the terms of an Olympic truce, the Greek cities, states and colonies that stretched around the Mediterranean were instructed to cease fighting, so that competitors and spectators could travel safely to the games. The truce, "ekecheiria" (holding hands), also stopped the carrying out of the death penalty and barred armed soldiers from entering the neutral territory where the games were hosted.

There were occasional breaches. The Spartans in the 5th century BC broke the truce and were barred from participating in the games. In the next century, the Arcadians attacked the site of the Olympics while the games were in progress.

Individual athletes could face fines for cheating. While the modern games are dogged by claims about drug use, the worry for the ancient games was that an athlete would bribe one of the judges (who were appointed by drawing lots) or breach the strict rules about training, including the requirement that they train in the Olympic village for a month before the competition.

The holding of the games every four years in a permanent site at Olympia had become one of the great public events of the Hellenic calendar: a sporting occasion steeped in political and religious significance, and an assertion of cultural identity.

But how did this combination of sport, ritual and power politics emerge? There is a mythological account of how the games started, involving that top-performing athlete, Hercules. But another more prosaic version suggests that they grew out of the tradition of games held in honour of dead heroes and religious festivals.

Olympia, in the north-western Peloponnese, was an important religious site, with a massive gold and ivory statue of Zeus. Around this monument (one of the Seven Wonders of the World) a sporting venue grew up, with its own running track, swimming pool, horse-race circuit, hotel for VIPs, training facilities and viewing areas for a crowd of 40,000.

This might be compared to having the Millennium Stadium on the same site as Canterbury Cathedral - and it suggests that the Greeks saw competitive sport as having an ethical and spiritual, as well as physical, dimension.

These were games with a sense of ritual and code of honour strong enough to overcome the bickering and warmongering of scattered Greek communities.

And the modern games, too, have acquired their own rituals and symbols - such as the Olympic torch and the ubiquitous five-ringed flag, suggesting an adherence to something more than winning. The Greek word for athletic contests was "agon", from which we take the words "agony" and "agonising", and it conveys that this was to be a serious test of character and not simply for pleasure.

The first Olympics only had a simple foot-race - and the very first Olympic champion was a fleet-footed cook, called Coroebus. Other events were added - there were longer foot-races, a pentathlon including discus and javelin throwing, wrestling, boxing, chariot racing, horse racing and a foot-race wearing armour. The marathon, although inspired by Greek legend, was never part of the original games - and was introduced when the modern games were revived.

Although there were separate games for female athletes, at Olympia all the contestants were male, and married women were even excluded from being spectators. Until Greece was brought into the Roman Empire, only Greek athletes were allowed to compete and slaves were barred from taking part.

Unlike the modern games, there were no awards for second or third place.

Only the winner collected the prize, which was a symbolic crown made from olive branches. But there were fortunes to be made by successful athletes.

When they returned home they could expect to have their success rewarded with sponsorship and gifts. As training was so arduous, these athletes effectively became professionals.

The status accorded to the winner also added to the power and prestige of the athlete's home city or colony - and competitors came from all around the Mediterranean coast in what is now Spain, Italy, France, North Africa and the shores of the Black Sea, along with the rival independent city states from across Greece. With such attention paid to the event, the games were used as a political platform. Alexander the Great used the celebrations surrounding the games to announce an act of clemency in allowing exiles to return to their home cities. Alexander and his father, Philip, also set up a permanent monument to their Macedonian dynasty within the Olympic complex.

A more ridiculous attempt at political interference came when the Roman emperor Nero decided to add to his glorious reputation by competing in a chariot race at Olympia. Despite falling out of the chariot, he was declared the winner, on the grounds that he would have won if he'd been able to finish. But Nero's place as an athletic legend was short-lived, as his victory was scrubbed as soon as the fiddling emperor died.

In modern times, there have been many attempts at using the games for propaganda. In 1936, the Berlin Olympics were used as a showcase for Nazism - a plan that badly misfired when the greatest performer at the games was a black American, Jesse Owens. The medal ceremonies were used as a political platform by American athletes in Mexico in 1968, when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the black power salute.

The Olympics have also faced boycotts, with countries using the global attention surrounding the event as a diplomatic weapon. The US refused to attend the Moscow Games in 1980 in protest at the invasion of Afghanistan and, in turn, the Soviet Union refused to compete in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. But this wasn't a new tactic. The 1956 Melbourne Games saw three different sets of boycotts, over the Suez Canal crisis, the Soviet occupation of Hungary and the recognition of Taiwan. There was also a boycott over sporting links with South Africa in Montreal in 1976.

The publicity attached to the games has also made it a target for violence - the most notorious attack on the modern Olympics came in 1972 in Munich, when 11 Israeli team members were killed by terrorists. In addition to the human cost of such an attack, there has also been outrage at the idea of attacking the Olympic spirit.

The concept of a temporary outbreak of harmony has become part of the bigger Olympic ideal. And there have been moves to formally recreate a modern version of the Olympic truce - with the United Nations general assembly adopting a call for such a ceasefire in recognition of the games.

This Olympic ideal, something greater than just physical excellence, was the driving force for the setting up of the first modern games at the end of the 19th century. This was a philosophical ambition as much as a sporting event.

The French aristocrat behind this revival, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was inspired by the idea of a classical culture where mental and physical strength, integrity and aesthetics went hand in hand. In the original Olympic games he saw the blueprint for a way of encouraging young people to test themselves.

But this romanticised ideal of ancient Greece was also strongly influenced by an equally idealised view of the British public school system. De Coubertin was impressed by the public schools' emphasis on competitive sport. In their playing fields he saw the belief in a "healthy body, healthy mind" as a link with the virtues and rigour of the ancient world.

The British influence on de Coubertin's thinking extended further. In his travels, de Coubertin visited and wrote in 1890 about the "Wenlock Olympian Games", which were held in Much Wenlock in Shropshire from 1850, and are still held today.

The organisers of this event were praised by de Coubertin for keeping the Olympic ideal alive, but the games that were played in Wenlock suggest an atmosphere closer to that of an English country fair than to Athenian debate. In this inspiration for de Coubertin's games, cricket was one of the events, as was football and a hopping race. More exotically, there was also a race for old women and a blind-folded wheelbarrow race.

Even though we now think of the modern Olympic Games as a hugely expensive, global showcase, what de Coubertin was trying to revive was more to do with education than entertainment. And he looked to see how this "Olympism" could be introduced to the French education system. His fear was that French school pupils lacked mental and physical toughness.

"Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the quality of body, will and mind," wrote de Coubertin. "Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles." Thus when he founded the modern games, it wasn't simply a sports event but an "Olympic movement", with its own rules and beliefs.

The revival of the Olympic Games was formally set in motion by de Coubertin's creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894 - which led to the first modern Olympics, in Athens in 1896.

Holding the first revived games in Athens might seem like a symbolic inevitability, but at the time there were rival bids and there were also those who were only interested in national games, rather than the internationalist spirit invoked by de Coubertin.

Historians of the Olympics have speculated how different the games might have been if they hadn't first been held in Athens. Instead of the high-minded invocation of the Olympian spirit, the games could just as easily have become a short-lived piece of showmanship. And the survival of the games was far from guaranteed. The two Olympics that followed - in Paris, where women competed for the first time, and St Louis - were both considered to have been less than an overwhelming success. They were stretched over several months and tied to high-profile international exhibitions, and had little impact on the public.

But the modern games grew in strength and attracted an increasingly wide number of competitors. And even though politics is often blamed for interfering with sport, the troubled history of the first half of the 20th century gave the games a new diplomatic significance.

Exclusion and admittance to the games became part of international politics, giving the events great symbolic importance. After the First World War, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Turkey were not admitted to the 1920 Olympic Games. Germany and Japan also did not compete in the 1948 Games in London. Giving the 1964 Games to Japan and re-admitting post-apartheid South Africa in 1992 demonstrates how the event has been used to invite countries back into the international fold.

But the original Olympic games ultimately fell foul of the international politics they had resisted for so long. While the Greeks had maintained their respect for the rules and rituals of the games, the Romans, who took control of Greece, were less punctilious. The site was plundered by a fund-raising Roman general and at one point the games were re-located to Rome. There were also claims that the games under Roman jurisdiction were gradually debased, with the introduction of novelty events such as slaves racing to win their freedom.

It's not known exactly how the games ceased - but a series of natural disasters, attacks and political decisions saw them disappearing by the end of the 4th century. Olympia had been over-run by a barbarian tribe from the north - and in 393 AD the Emperor Theodosius, who was a Christian, had outlawed pagan festivals, which would have signalled the end for the Olympics. Although it's believed that the games had already long been in decline.

The Olympic village also physically disappeared from view, as two floods and two earthquakes buried the site under four metres of silt. The excavation of the site in the 1870s became part of the inspiration for re-creating the games. And the modern Olympic villages, wherever they are located, seem to have re-created the tradition of blending both controversy and idealism.

* www.olympic.orgukorganisationmissionstrucetruce_uk.asp

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