No Bob Costas? Why the Ancient Olympics Were No Fun to Watch

Spectators braved all manner of discomfort—from oppressive heat to incessant badgering by vendors—to witness ancient Greece’s ultimate pagan festival

A view of the ancient ruins of the Stadium at Olympia with its centerpiece 210-yard track. (Roger Wood/Corbis)
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In the hills above Olympia, I awoke before dawn, feeling bleary-eyed from the Greek wine I’d drunk with some rowdy archaeologists the night before. It was going to be a perfect summer day: from my hotel window I could see clear sky over the mountains of Arcadia, whose peaks covered the horizon like the waves of a wild blue sea. I needed some exercise—a jog to clear my head. But where should I run in this corner of the rural Peloponnese? Where else, it occurred to me, but in the ancient Olympic Stadium? I arrived at the ruins—about 500 yards from the center of Olympia, a town of about 3,000—just before the rising sun, wearing an old pair of Nikes (named for the winged goddess of Victory). I followed a trail past fallen columns of great temples, splayed out in the grass like skeletal fingers; purple wildflowers pushed up between memorials to forgotten sports champions. In the past 2,500 years, Olympia’s idyllic pastoral setting has changed little: the river Alpheus still gurgles in its shady bed alongside the Gymnasium; to the north rises a conical hill, bristling with pine forest, where, according to legend, Zeus wrestled his father, the Titan Kronos, for control of the world.

Ruins of a stone archway still frame the entrance to the Stadium, which on this morning was bathed in yellow light. Rising on each side of me were earth embankments, now swathed in succulent green lawn. And there, at the very center of the Stadium, was the famous clay running track, bordered by stone gutters. Ancient Greeks believed the track’s 210-yard length had been marked out by Hercules himself. For nearly 12 centuries, it was the focus of the greatest recurring festival in Western history.

I approached the ancient starting line—a white marble sill that is miraculously intact— kicked off the Nikes and curled my toes into its grooves. Nothing broke the silence except the buzzing of bees in the distance. And then I was off, racing in the footsteps of ancient champions.

At a comparable hour during festival days about 150 b.c., there would have been at least 40,000 spectators crowded onto those same green embankments. These were sports fans from every level of society. The majority were male; married women were forbidden to attend, although unmarried women and girls were allowed in the stands.

Ten bearded judges in indigo robes and wearing garlands of flowers would have taken their places in a booth halfway down the track. Before them, on a table of ivory and gold, were the first Olympic prizes—olive-wreath crowns cut from Olympia’s sacred tree. An excited murmur would fill the Stadium when, with the blast of a trumpet, the athletes began to emerge from a tunnel built into the western hillside.

They appeared one by one—parading like peacocks, entirely unclothed and unadorned, yet dripping from head to toe in perfumed oils that flowed in rivulets from their curled black hair. Competing nude was a time-honored tradition as central to Hellenic culture as drinking wine, discussing Homer or worshiping Apollo; only barbarians were ashamed to display their bodies. Nakedness also stripped away social rank, a nod to classlessness in the status-obsessed ancient world (although contestants still had to be freeborn males of Greek descent). Asacred herald declared the name of each athlete, his father’s name and his home city before asking if anyone in the crowd had any charge to lay against him. Then, to the cheers of admirers, the contestants warmed up under the eyes of their trainers.

The cries and jeers of the crowd subsided when the sacred heralds raised their trumpets, giving the call for the 20 athletes to “take their positions, foot to foot, at the balbis”— the marble starting line. Rather than crouch, sprinters stood upright, leaning slightly forward, feet together, arms outstretched, every muscle poised. A rope was stretched before them at chest height, creating a rudimentary starting gate. Contestants tended to eye the barrier respectfully: the punishment for false starts was a thrashing from official whip bearers.

The chief judge nodded, and the herald cried apete—go! And as the athletes sprinted down the track, the roar of the spectators would echo through the countryside.

For those in the crowd, it was a thrilling moment— if only they could forget their discomfort. Surviving a day in the Stadium, where admission was free, was worthy of an olive wreath in itself. The summer heat was oppressive even in the early morning, and many in the crowd would, like me, have been feeling the effects of the previous night’s revelries. For up to 16 hours, spectators would be on their feet (the root meaning of the ancient Greek word stadion is actually “a place to stand”), exposed to sun and the occasional thunderstorm, while itinerant vendors extorted them for sausages, often-stale bread, and cheese of dubious origins, to be washed down with resinated wine. Because summer had reduced local rivers to a trickle, dehydrated spectators would be collapsing from heatstroke. Nobody bathed for days. The sharp odor of sweat from unbathed bodies did battle with Olympia’s fragrant pine forests and wildflowers— and with intermittent wafts from dry riverbeds used as latrines. Then there were Olympia’s plagues of flies. Before every Games, priests at Olympia sacrificed animals at an altar to “Zeus the Averter of Flies” in the forlorn hope of reducing the infestations.

Even before they arrived, fans would have suffered manifold indignities. The lovely sanctuary of Olympia was remote, nestled in Greece’s southwest corner 210 miles from Athens, so to get there most spectators had traipsed rough mountain highways, at least a ten-day journey; international spectators had risked storms and shipwreck to sail from as far away as Spain and the Black Sea. When the weary travelers arrived, they found a venue sadly unprepared to accommodate them. “An endless mass of people,” complained second- century writer Lucian, utterly swamped Olympia’s modest facilities, creating conditions similar to a badly planned rock concert of today.


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