Spectators braved all manner of discomfort—from oppressive heat to incessant badgering by vendors—to witness ancient Greece's ultimate pagan festival
By Tony Perrottet
n 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.
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.