- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004


By Tony Perrottet

Random House, $12.95, 214 pages, illus.


Imagine 40,000 people walking hundreds of miles along dirt paths, across mountains and plains, without nighttime shelter, all to watch a group of men run, jump, box and so forth at a religious shrine in a beautiful valley.

Once there, the visitors must stand in the hot summer sun, sleep in the open or in makeshift tents, live without sanitation and with a minimum of water. Joyfully, they cheer and shout, party extravagantly at night, and at the end of five days make the long journey home.

Every four years, for 12 uninterrupted centuries beginning in 776 B.C., Greeks trekked to the verdant valley of the river Alpheus and the shrine of Zeus in Olympia to watch the competitions in what was the most important religious and secular festival in ancient Greece, the Olympiad.

In his delightful new book, “The Naked Olympics,” Tony Perrottet tells the story of those original Olympic games. Despite Mr. Perrottet’s informal style, this is a thoroughly researched book, filled with fascinating facts, quotes from the ancients and delicious anecdotes.

The reader sees the splendid, oiled naked athletes; sniffs the thousands of human bodies and hundreds of animal sacrifices; tastes the wine and roasting meat; and admires the beauty of the surroundings, the art and architecture. We experience the glory of winning, the agony of defeat and the excitement of just being there.

The book is illustrated with charming line drawings by Mr. Perrottet’s wife, Lesley Thelander, based on designs on ancient Greek vessels. There’s a helpful timeline and a good index. The only thing missing is a map of the ancient Greek world, which would have helped the reader visualize the distances covered by the athletes, their trainers, families and fans.

The first Olympic games were proclaimed by the king of Elis as a festival to appease the gods and to combat a plague that had devastated Greece. Elis became the host city that eventually controlled the games.

For the first 13 Olympiads, running was the only sport. Subsequently, the games were expanded to include chariot racing, the long jump, discus and javelin throwing, and some events were accompanied by flute music.

Combat sports — wrestling, boxing and the pankration, “the signature events of the Greek athletic tradition” — were added. These “ferocious, vicious, and dangerous [sports], regularly provoking injuries, even fatalities,” were the crowd-pleasers.

The pankration was particularly vicious, as everything but eye-gouging was permitted; pankratiasts could have their bones broken, or even be asphyxiated, and this was sanctioned. For the boxers, there was neither a ring nor a round; body blows were not permitted — only blows to the head.

As a result of the brutality of the combat sports (and Mr. Perrottet gives several gruesome examples), many contestants died and many more were left wounded, needing a doctor. A resident physician was always on hand and a “healing place” was part of the Olympic venue.

“An injured athlete would recuperate on the sanctuary floor for weeks or even months, bathing his feet in the sacred fountain, reclining on animal skins, and waiting for [Asclepius, the god of healing] to grant him a vision. All around slithered harmless yellow snakes — because they shed their skins, Greeks regarded them as symbols of regeneration, the origin of their use as insignia for modern doctors.”

The “marathon race” was never part of the ancient games. One version of the origin of the marathon was the 26.3-mile distance between the battlefield of Marathon and Athens, which was covered by a warrior running to announce the Greek victory over the Persians in 490 B.C.

The courier “dashed from the battlefield to take news of the Greek victory to Athens. He staggered before the city magistrates, gasped out the words ‘Rejoice! Rejoice! We won!’ then collapsed and died.”

Nor was the Olympic torch part of the original festival. The torch was an invention of Adolf Hitler for the l936 Berlin games. “The Nazis knew a good propaganda symbol when they saw one. At noon on July 20, 1936, two weeks before the start of the games, a Greek ‘high priestess’ and 14 girls in classical robes gathered in the ancient Stadium of Olympia, and used parabolic mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on a wand until it burst into flame.”

Ironically, each of the magnesium torches carried by 3,075 relay runners from Greece to Berlin bore the logo of the German arms manufacturer Krupp.

Contestants in the ancient games competed naked. Women were not allowed to compete at Zeus’ games, although girls were given their own separate sporting event at Olympia, dedicated to Hera, wife of Zeus. In Sparta, girls, as naked as their male counterparts, were trained in the same sports as boys.

Married women were not allowed to attend the games. Those who came to Olympia were cloistered in camps on the south bank of the Alpheus River. Should they be caught at the games, they were subject to being thrown to their death from a neighboring cliff, although there is no record that this sentence was ever carried out.

Unmarried women were allowed to attend, but only under the surveillance of their families. In some cases, fathers brought unmarried daughters along to find husbands among the rich spectators or handsome athletes.

One matron from Rhodes did attend in 404 B.C. to watch her son compete. She cut off her hair and disguised herself as a trainer. Unfortunately, in her excitement over the boy’s victory, she caught the fringe of her tunic on the trainer’s barrier as she jumped over it, thereby “exposing her deception.” (Because she was from a well-known sports family, the judges let her off with a warning.)

Prostitutes were plentiful; brothels were set up in tents. The beautiful and witty hetaeras, whose role was similar to that of geishas, played an active part charming, entertaining, seducing. The most famous of these women might earn enough at the Olympics to purchase a villa.

The winners erected bronze statues of themselves. Although prizes at the games were limited to colored ribbons, exchanged on the last day for the traditional olive wreath, the rewards, once the victorious athlete returned home, were immeasurable: Houses, food and wine supplied for life and handsome financial arrangements were the norm. For the losers, there was only humiliation and disgrace.

The games and procedures for taking part were strictly controlled. Athletes had to be Greek free men; they were required to register at Elis by a given time; if accepted they would undergo rigorous training for several months at the gymnasium in Elis.

Infractions of the rules were severely punished. Living quarters and meals were supervised and regimented. Whereas the first Olympians ate “thick vegetable soup, bread, cheese, olives, fruit, and honeyed cakes,” by 480 B.C. high-protein diets were the rage and wrestlers and boxers gorged on beef, pork, and lamb, becoming, as the playwright Euripides put it, “the slaves of their jaws and the victims of their bellies.”

Judges too were carefully chosen. Although there was some bribery and corruption, there appears to have been very little chicanery. In the evenings, there was much eating, drinking and entertainment of all kinds, including poetry readings, eating races and carousing. The carnival atmosphere assured a good time for all.

Once the games were over, the champions “clattered off in their gilded chariots,” the rank-and-file sports fans straggled home (although some remained to party on), and crews from Elis came to clean up the mess left behind. “[T]he clockwork of the seasons, of festivals and generations, continued on its course. The organizers of Elis drew a deep breath — then began planning the next Games.”

As you watch the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece, your mind may play tricks and you well might imagine the sprinters running once again, in splendid nakedness, through the lush green grass of Olympia.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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