"Zeus," appealed an ancient satirist, "protect me from your guides at Olympia." Tourist guides at the ancient games, like the electronic blanket that covers the modern Olympics, had a willing audience for the gory and glory tales of athletes' feats. Who could not be dazzled by the story of Milo, a famous ancient wrestler, who is said to have carried a 400-pound calf before the crowds at Olympia and then eaten the whole thing?
Today's televised broadcast of the Olympics to more than 500 million viewers worldwide may be even more bedazzling. It has altered the Olympics themselves.
The first televised coverage at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., cost CBS just $50,000 in rights and 15 hours of air time. It introduced sports never before seen by most viewers. It also was preoccupied with showing which nations won the most medals.
"The media has escalated the ferocity of the competition between nations, missing the point of just getting the world's youth together," states Horst Uberhorst, a sports historian at Ruhr University in West Germany. "The quest for the gold is a fabrication of the media."
Even at the ancient games in Greece, as audiences grew, athletes competed less for internal rewards than to "play to the grandstand." This allowed normally dormant national loyalties to be whipped up among spectators.
In the boxing match of 212 BC, for instance, Aristonicus of Egypt was cheered by the local Greek crowd until his Greek opponent yelled: "Would you prefer an Egyptian to carry off the Olympic wreath?" The crowd's redirected passion helped the Greek win.
Television has come a long way since Squaw Valley. Before NBC pulled out of the Moscow Olympics, it had planned 152 hours of coverage with advertisers lined up to pay $165,000 a minute.
For several weeks every four years, television has riveted the world's attention to one spot, amplifying social and political problems for the Olympics and becoming perfect theater for political acts, including terrorism.
The camera's awesome role at the Olympics led US officials to propose a "televised games" from various sites as an alternative to the Moscow gathering. But the ruling International Olympic Committee owns the television rights to the games and must approve every television contract.
In 1976 the IOC demanded one-third of the television revenue -- or $7 million -- and distributed it to national Olympic committees for use in coaching courses and sports administration scholarships.
The IOC's take from television rights gets larger every four years and it may become beholden to supporting television's role. The 1984 Olympics may reap more than $100 million, some of which will help run the IOC's headquarters in Geneva.
The 1980 boycott, which the IOC opposes, cuts deeply into its budget.
Another problem posed by television is that it popularizes various sports, creating larger and larger numbers of Olympic entries. "TV has been the greatest boost to the amateur sports. It has enhanced women's athletics," says Northeastern University sports scholar Peter Graham.
American television's absence from Moscow may put the Olympics back in perspective. "The boycott may be a blessing in disguise," speculates Dr. Graham.