A few thoughts on the Olympics

The athletic contests held once every four years at Olympia, starting in 776 B.C., began as part of a religious festival honoring Zeus, the top god in the Greek pantheon. Athletes would swear an oath on the flesh of a sacrificed boar to obey the rules and competed for the glory of Zeus, the victors were thought divinely favored. The sole prize was a crown of olive leaves cut from Zeus' sacred grove. The ancient Greek Olympic Games, and the numerous other athletic games they held, served to reafirm their common culture just as todays Olympic games display, glorify and most of all sell our now common Western World culture. This similarity is of no great surprise being that we so often claim descent from the ancient Greek traditions and ideals.

One of those Greek ideals was wealth, the wreath of sacred olive leaves given to the winner, there was no second or third prize, was merely symbolic; just as our use of the small gold medal is today. the real payoff came back home where the local King or upper class rich would give lavish gifts, dora in Greek. Solon of Athens in the sixth century B.C. legislated rewards of 500 dracmas (more than $300,000) for his cities' victors at the games, the Greeks had no word or concept for "Amateur". The best and most famous athletes would even recieve what we today call "apperance money". The Olympics and the victors were seen as good for business, then as now. The Greeks went so far as to declare the winners of the chariot races to be the owners not the drivers, this is how women could win Olympic medals though they were banned from the games on pain of death.

To the ancient Greeks, who competed nude, the young nude male form was considered the ultimate object of beauty, and frequently desire by older men judging from the numerous Kalos or love-names found in the stadiums and on pottery vessels depicting athletics. Vase paintings show handsome young athletes pursued by mature men with gifts and in literature wrestling was a metaphor for sex.

The modern world is then much like the ancient; the cult of celebrity and it's inherent cash and social benefits, the lust for glory (kleos ) and greedful gain (kerdos ) by some. Like the ancient Greeks who were of one culture but fought amongst each other almost continually, even during the legendary Olympic truce, we also are of one culture and similar combativeness. So it goes.

I think Homer in his Odyssey captures the spirit and motivation for competion best : "There is no greater fame for a man than that which he wins with his footwork or the skill of his hands"



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