Berkley Forum

Olympic Games

Responding to Olympic Values in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio

The historian Bettany Hughes wrote of the ancient Olympics that they bring us face to face with "the sweaty, visceral, intensely spiritual and ruthless business of winning the games."

So little has changed. Except that curious phrase "intensely spiritual" focuses our attention. Spiritual introduces religion and, surely, that has no place in the Olympics, either ancient or modern?

But we would be wrong there. The ancient Olympic Games were played in the presence of the gods, with Zeus in the foreground. At the conclusion of the games homages of money and food was presented to the deities.

Central to the importance of religion at the heart of the games was a focus on values. Prior to taking part in the games all participants had to undergo a "Scrutiny." Along with the religious oath-taking, there went an examination of screening and seeding of each athlete. Known as the Hellenodikai (literally "Greek judges"), the role of the judges was to assess each participant in terms of eligibility and training. This surveillance most probably served to deter the use of tricks that might favor some unfairly. Following selection, the oath-taking in the temple included a pledge that each athlete had been in training for at least 10 months, and that each would do nothing to bring the games into disrepute.

Sadly, just as today with the shocking example of Russian athletes in mind, cheating did happen in the Ancient Games and the Hellenodikai did all in their power to eradicate it. Even if performance enhancing drugs were not available then as now, the paramount importance of winning and the glory of so doing was temptation enough for some to trick the judges.

Europolos, a boxer from Thessalonica bribed several of his competitors in his attempt for the winner’s crown. Found out, his penalty was to build six statues of Zeus to line the entrance to the games. But city-states were not adverse in bribing athletes to change allegiance. So the city of Syracuse persuaded Astylos, a sprint champion, to run for them, and his city of Kroton in southern Italy, in retaliation, turned his former home into a prison.

But it has to be said that, rather like today, the average competitor in the ancient games was loyal to the values of the games, and intent on competing to the best of his ability. We should not denigrate the aspirations of the majority of athletes who know that cheating is a basic devaluation of their highest motives in participating.

Nevertheless, winning was indeed everything and our modern attitude that "participating is everything" would have sound amusing to ancient ears. You entered the competition to win and returning home second would have been failure.

Modern games, from the revival of the Olympics in 1894, have focused on the value of participation and the support of amateur sportsmanship. Well, a hollow laugh there because there is nothing amateur about the Olympics these days. You simply cannot hold down a 9:00 a.m.-to-5:00 p.m. job and compete at the highest levels of sport. If athletes do not have private money, they seek sponsorship or financial support from the government and private individuals. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as everyone has the chance to compete on equal terms.

So, what are my hopes for the Rio Games? It is impossible to go to Rio without seeing the massive statue of Christ the Redeemer dominating the city and the skyline. Who knows whether that inspiring image may remind the athletes that ultimately the games are "intensely spiritual"? Religion in terms of organized faith may be absent these days, but the spirituality within each of us may prompt competitors and spectators alike to muse that there is something truly transcendent and deeply human about racing for your country and seeking to be the best you can be.
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