The only inn at Olympia, the Leonidaion, was reserved for ambassadors and other officials. The Sacred Precinct of Zeus—a walled-off enclave of temples and shrines—was besieged on all sides by a vast campground, and rowdy throngs competed for space in it, in keeping with their station. Most simply flung bedding wherever they could. Others rented space in temporary shelters or put up tents. Plato himself once slept in a makeshift barracks, head to toe with snoring, drunken strangers.
Thousands of cooking fires created a fog of smoke. Crowd control was enforced by local officials with whips. And yet, as attendance figures suggest, none of these miseries could keep the dedicated sports fan away. The Games were sensationally popular, held without fail every four years from 776 b.c. until the Christian emperors banned pagan festivals in a.d. 394—a run of nearly 1,200 years. For the Greeks, it was considered a great misfortune to die without having been to Olympia. One Athenian baker boasted on his gravestone that he had attended the Games 12 times. “By heaven!” raved the holy man Apollonius of Tyana. “Nothing in the world of men is so agreeable or dear to the Gods.”
What kept fans coming back, generation after generation? It was a question that the Athenian philosopher and sports buff Epictetus pondered in the first century. He concluded that the Olympics were a metaphor for human existence itself. Every day was filled with difficulties and tribulations: unbearable heat, pushy crowds, grime, noise and endless petty annoyances. “But of course you put up with it all,” he said, “because it’s an unforgettable spectacle.”
And sports were only part of it. The Games were the ultimate pagan entertainment package, where every human diversion could be found, on and off the field. Each Olympiad was an expression of Hellenic unity, an all-consuming pageant for pagans as spiritually profound as a pilgrimage to Varanasi for Hindus or Mecca for Muslims. The site had grand procession routes, dozens of altars, public banquet halls, booths for sideshow artists.
For five hectic days and nights, Olympia was the undisputed capital of the world, where splendid religious rituals— including the butchering of 100 oxen for a public feast—competed with athletic events. There were sacred sights to see: the sanctuary of Olympia was an open-air museum, and visitors went from temple to temple viewing such masterpieces as the 40-foot-high statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
And then there were earthly pursuits: the squalid tent-city was the scene of a round-the-clock bacchanal where students could squander their inheritances in lavish symposia (drinking parties) and some prostitutes made a year’s wages in five days. There were beauty contests, Homer-reading competitions, eating races. Masseurs offered rubdowns to the weary. Young boys in makeup performed erotic dances. There were palm readers and astrologers, soapbox orators and fire-eaters. A starry-eyed pilgrim might be excused for forgetting about the athletic contests—were they not themselves so theatrical.
Of the 18 core events in the Olympics program, some are familiar today—running, wrestling, boxing, javelin, discus. Others are less so. The Games began with a chariot race—a deliriously violent affair, where up to 40 vehicles crowded the track and crashes were guaranteed. Often, only a handful of chariots would complete the course. The hoplitodromia was a 400-yard sprint in full armor. The long jump was performed with weights, to the accompaniment of flute music. One of the favorite audience events was the pankration, a savage all-out brawl, where eye gouging was the only banned tactic. The more brutish participants would snap opponents’ fingers, or tear out their intestines; the judges (one coach noted) “approve of strangling.” There were no team sports, no ball sports, no swimming events, no marathon and nothing resembling an Olympic torch. (The marathon was introduced in 1896 and the torch was added at Hitler’s 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.)
All the vices of our modern Games were present at their birth. Despite the Sacred Olympic Truce, which supposedly banned all wars that might mar the success of the event, the ancient Games were often caught up in Greek internal politics. (The Spartans were banned from attending in 424 b.c. during the Peloponnesian War.) A military force from Elis once even attacked Olympia itself, in the middle of a wrestling match, forcing defenders into positions on tops of temples.
Corruption charges would regularly disgrace contenders. As early as 388 b.c., a certain Eupolus of Thessaly bribed three boxers to throw their fights against him. Not even judges were above suspicion. In a.d. 67, they accepted hefty bribes from the Roman emperor Nero, awarding him first prize in the chariot race—notwithstanding that he fell out of his vehicle and failed to complete the course.
In fact, money permeated every aspect of ancient athletics. The contestants, professionals all, lived on stipends from civic bodies and private patrons and traveled in troupes from one sporting event to the next, picking up cash prizes as they went. (Tellingly, the ancient Greeks did not even have a word for amateur; the closest was idiotes, meaning an unskilled person, as well as an ignoramus.) If an olive wreath was the official Olympic prize, champions knew that the real rewards were more consequential: they would be treated like demigods and guaranteed “sweet smooth sailing,” as the poet Pindar put it, for the rest of their natural lives.