Just in time for the Summer Olympics, a fresh new history of the games that begot all of today’s quadrennial pomp, circumstance, competition, and urine-testing.
In a deft analysis of the rise and fall of the games at Olympia, Spivey (Classics/Cambridge) fashions a text that varies in tone from professorial to conversational. He begins with the Orwellian notion that sports are war without the shooting, an image he also ends with, then leaps into the murkiest stream of all, ancient history, and attempts to clarify. He explores the Greeks’ belief that citizens should be physically fit—virtually every male worked out regularly; Socrates was a wrestler—and describes the sorts of athletic venues their cities provided. Men worked out in the buff at the gymnasium, which featured spaces for sprinting, jumping, throwing, and wrestling; rooms for bathing and socializing; and opportunities for sexual excitement, if not fulfillment. Not until about the sixth or fifth century B.C. did athletic contests became more than local affairs, the author states, but once they did expand, they became very popular. Only men were permitted to see the naked athletes compete in foot-races, wrestling, boxing, chariot-racing, the pentathlon, and such other events as the little-known pankration, a no-holds-barred bout that proscribed only eye-gouging and biting. Spivey dispels much of the romance surrounding the competitions. They occurred during the hottest parts of the year and offered only the most primitive arrangements for drinking, bathing, and relieving oneself; the games were, he says, “a notoriously squalid experience for athletes and spectators alike.” Describing each event, the author reminds us that in those ancient competitions only winning signified; there were no awards for runners-up. He reminds us, too, that some of our current Olympic “traditions” are quite new. The torch relay, for example, was invented by the Nazis in 1936. Spivey’s later, less compelling, chapters explore the games’ political and mythological significance.
An essential resource: always reliable and instructive, often entertaining. (20 b&w illustrations)