The complaints of a visitor to the ancient Olympics nearly 2,000 years ago sound eerily contemporary: "And what do you do at the Olympia? Don't you melt in the heat? Don't you get jostled in the crowds? Don't you encounter a thousand problems when you want to wash? Don't you get soaked when it rains? Don't you suffer from the noise, the shouting, and other hassle?" Yet the Games - perhaps the first example in history of cultural tourism - drew thousands of spectators from across the known world, eager to be part of a spectacle that would be both foreign and familiar to us today. "It seems to me you put up with all this because what you're going to see is worth it," adds the early tourist.
What these original spectators saw was quite different from the well-meaning myth of an international celebration of peace, goodwill, and athletic amateurism cooked up by Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin and inaugurated as the modern Olympics in 1896, says Nigel Spivey in "The Ancient Olympics."
To begin with, "games" is far too "frivolous" a word to describe what went on, says Spivey, a professor of classical art and archaeology at Cambridge University. These were winner-take-all "contests" (no prizes given for second or third place), marked by blood and broken bones. The Greek word for contest is agon, from which our word "agony" is derived. The verb athleuo (as in "athlete") means not only "I take part in a contest" but also "I suffer." In a sense, every athlete was trying to emulate the national hero, Hercules, who in ancient Greek mythology had faced and overcome a dozen nightmarish trials.
Philosophers like Socrates and Plato, known to hit the gym themselves to keep in shape, saw athletics as a duty, a way for citizen-soldiers to stay physically sharp and ready to defend their homeland. But the running, spear throwing, wrestling, boxing, and chariot racing represented more than just boot-camp rivalries. The competitors also sought kudos, or glory - and treasure. Along with their olive wreaths, winners might receive a prize such as jars of olive oil, worth perhaps $75,000 today. Other goodies awaited the victors at home - perhaps a lifetime of free dining, prime seats at the theater, or tax exemptions. The benefits might extend to the winner's family or even his descendants.
Only men attended the Games, and the athletes competed in the nude, as has been documented on many a vase and jar. This conformed to the Greek view that the body was a kind of artwork itself, anticipating today's bodybuilders, who take up flesh as sculpture. "The athletic body was the beautiful body," Spivey writes. "And the beautiful body was the outward form of the good, the virtuous individual." Greek art depicts athletes as having "the imprint of cosmic mathematical harmony," he says, "a sort of transcendental grace: a symmetry of form."
While in some ways grueling, the ancient Games also reflected their home in the Arcadian region of Greece, a place associated with "pastoral ease and escapism" and "shameless simplicity," Spivey says. It was the home of Pan, the goat-god of woods and fields. Thus, the Games shared the modern idea of sports as a "wished-for haven where we live for the sake of amusing ourselves." If we so strive at all in this peaceful place, he says, it is only "to show ourselves at our best."
Spivey's slender, somewhat scholarly volume, aided by a few black-and-white illustrations, could be easily toted along to a sporting event. Not so for Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece, a heavyweight contender that should adorn only the sturdiest of coffee tables. Those who manage to pry it open are rewarded with dazzling color plates, including illustrations; schematics; drawings; and photos of buildings, artworks, and artifacts that bring the Games alive.
Olympia was the Super Bowl of an exclusive circuit of other Games that sprang up at Delphi, Isthmia, Nemea, and Athens, says author Panos Valavanis, a professor of archaeology at the University of Athens, in his brief but illuminating text. They gave rise to extraordinary works of art. The Greeks built temples, treasuries (the ornate frat houses of visiting teams), and gymnasiums. Olympia sported the first stadium in history, named after the stadion, a foot race of about 200 yards that was held there. It also produced history's first hippodrome (for chariot racing).
Its athletes, who triumphed not only through their own merits but also with the divine favor of the gods, were immortalized in the poems of Pindar and Bacchylides. The sculpture of Zeus, the patron god of the Olympic Games, overlooked the action. Some 40 feet tall, covered with resplendent gold and ivory, it stood as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
In the late 4th century AD, after nearly 1,200 years, the Christianized Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned the Greek Games as a pagan ritual. In the 6th century, the site was rattled into ruins by a massive earthquake. Today's visitors find little trace of what once was there, but these books help fill in the blanks and let us imagine both the strangeness and the glory that surrounded sports in its infancy.
• Gregory M. Lamb writes about technology and health-care policy for the Monitor.