Ancient Greek Athletics by STEPHEN G MILLER; The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture by William Blake Tyrrell; The Ancient Olympic by Nigel Spivey; The Ancient Olympic Games by Judith Swaddling; Olympics in Athens, 1896 by Llewellyn Smith - review by Peter Jones

Peter Jones

Peter Jones Welcomes Five Books on the Olympics

  • William Blake Tyrrell, 
  • Nigel Spivey, 
  • Judith Swaddling, 
  • Llewellyn Smith

Ancient Greek Athletics


Yale University Press 288pp £25 order from our bookshop

As STEPHEN G MILLER (professor at Berkeley) points out in his Ancient Greek Athletics, the distinction between 'professional' and 'amateur'. so often invoked to contrast modern with ancient athletics, is not an old one. If rich rewards are the difference between the two, it must be remembered that great prizes were awarded in the first reported athletic competitions of any sort - the spontaneous and quite informal funeral games for Achilles' beloved Patroclus in Homer's Iliad (c700 BC). Even in the early days of official games, Theagenes from Thasos (an athlete competing in the fifth century BC), had he won all the victories ascribed to him (highly unlikely), could have made the equivalent of thirty million pounds.


Nor were games played for their own sakes. Athlêtês means 'one who competes for a prize'. Greeks wanted to win; to lose in any walk of life was a disgrace. In Homer's description of Patroclus' funeral games, the competition on the track between the reek heroes vying for a prize is as ferocious as ever it is in battle against the Trojans, when they are fighting for their lives. Plato puts his finger on the commitment required of the athlete when he says (sneeringly) in his Laws, 'to dedicate your life to winning a victory in Delphi or Olympia keeps you far too busy to attend to other tasks'. But not everyone could be a winner. Stories abound of hopeless losers like Charmos, who came seventh in a field of six (a friend who ran on to encourage him beat him), and Marcus, so slow that the groundsman locked him in the stadium for the night, thinking he was a statue. '


Of all the books on athletics reviewed here, Miller's is the best and most detailed. He ranges widely over all the games (by the first century AD, there were about three hundred different ones. held all around the Graeco- Roman world) and the various problems associated with understanding them, from the great to the trivial: for example, what was the purpose of knotting a piece of string round the foreskin? (To discourage erections?) Or, why did athletes oil their bodies so thoroughly? (Warming up? Protection against the elements? Fluid retention? Aesthetic pleasure?)


Miller distinguishes usefully between the 'crown' games, where the prize for victory was a wreath of olive (Olympia), celery (Nemea), laurel (Delphi) or pine (Isthmia), and the 'money' games elsewhere. The 'crown' games were the most prestigious, and cash benefits flowed only as a consequence of victory; in the 'money' games, there were prizes in cash or in kind. Miller is very informative on the way in which, as a result of Alexander's conquests in the East and, later, the expansion of the Roman empire across the Mediterranean, these uniquely Greek games gradually ruined into a form of universal entertainment, with professional, fulltime athletic Gilds touring the world (rather like the Harlem Globetrotters), often demanding appearance money too.

The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture

By William Blake Tyrrell

Bolchazy-Carducci 264pp and CD £18.50 order from our bookshop

In The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture, William Blake Tyrrell (Michigan State University) takes on a broader brief. His very detailed and fully referenced discussion of the games is plumped out by a commendable determination to put everything in its wider context. But the book is not organised in such a way as to satisfy both requirements. For example, an interesting chapter on athletic festivals in Athens (prizes of vast quantities of olive oil up to a value of £450,000) becomes clogged by his eagerness to shoot off on tangents and tell us everything he can think of about Greek philosophy, the social standing of athletes, the precise location of gymnasia, and so on - interesting topics, but not when piled one on tot, of the other in this wav. There is. however. a very ;sea CD attached to the book, containing a great many of Blake Tyrrell's original sources in translation.

The Ancient Olympic

By Nigel Spivey

Oxford University Press 264pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

The Ancient Olympics  by Nigel Spivey (Cambridge) is a much better organised attempt at the broad-brush approach. Spivey sees the games as (in Orwell's phrase) 'war minus the shooting< where victory was Celebrated with praise-poems and statues, to the envy of all. He associates athletics with the citizen's responsibility to stay fit in the gymnasia ('stripping place'), a small-scale athletic arena for running, wrestling and throwing where wealthy young males enjoyed their leisure in search of a beautiful body and mind, and wealthy older males would educate them - and lust after them. He suggests that athletic nudity - a peculiarly Greek custom - had something to do with the desire to show what proper training could achieve for you. Spivey puts the games in their political context (he is good on their Romanisation, and the franchising abroad of the 'Olympic trademark') and brings the record up to the modern day, concluding that the 'values of physical culture articulated in Classical Greece have conquered the modern world'.

The Ancient Olympic Games

By Judith Swaddling

British Museum 120pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

For a straightforward exposition of the detail of the Olympics, it would be difficult to better The Ancient Olympic Games by Judith Swaddling (British Museum). Beautifully designed and Illustrated, this book is a pleasure to use. Shecuts right to the chase in every section, concentrating solely on the Olympics and guiding us expertly through the archaeology of the site, the regulations of the Games, the training schedules, the structure of the five-day festival, and details of the main events (running, pentathlon, discus, javelin, long jump, wrestling, all-in boxing, and chariots). She, too, ends with a brief survey of the modern games, but on this topic the book to read is by the one-time British Ambassador to Warsaw and Athens, Michael Llewellyn Smith.

Olympics in Athens, 1896

By Llewellyn Smith

Profile 255pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

The Olympic Games, a festival in honour of Zeus, god of Olympus (a mountain 150 miles away in northern Greece), were abolished with the advent of Christianity in AD 393. In his beautifully written Olympics in Athens, 1896, Llewellyn Smith follows the fortunes of the founding father of the modern Olympics, the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who was inspired both by the site of Olympia (only recently excavated at the time) and by what he took to be the 0lympic spirit. He was also much influenced by the English concept of character-building team games (he even approved of cricket); by the annual Wenlock Olympic Games in Shropshire (they continue to this day); by the enthusiasm for intercollegiate sports that he found in North America; and by the various different European athletic traditions (gymnastics in Germany, cycling in France).


Coubertin established the idea of a modern Olympic Games, committed to international (ie Euro-American) peace and brotherhood, by carefully hijacking a conference of two thousand delegates in Paris in 1894. For symbolic reasons, he desperately wanted Athens to be the first venue, but the Greek government, whose country's economic progress was slow and tourist facilities dodgy, took a lot of persuading before they finally agreed. In the end, the 1896 Games were a success, despite the rain and unexpectedly freezing weather. The 311 competitors were all thoroughly amateur: 230 of them were Greek, fewer than ten from the UK, and fourteen from the USA (mostly Princeton and Harvard), all happy to compete in whatever events took their fancy. The Westerners in particular hugely appreciated the sportsmanship of the occasion and the sense of participating in events linked with a heroic past. Huge crowds watched the events (up to 100,000 at one estimate), but they were scarcely mentioned in the British press.


Despite their small numbers, the Americans, as usual, won more silver medals (then awarded for coming first) than anyone else. One of those was for the discus, which their man, Robert Garrett, had never thrown in his life before; however, the swimmer Gardner Willims, plunging keenly into the sea (no pools) for a race, immediately surged out again exclaiming 'Jesu Christo, it's freezing'. The Greek hero of the day was Spyridon Louis, who won the Marathon amidst ecstatic scenes and was said to have been offered (among much else) free shaves and free rail-travel (with space for his bicycle in the goods van) for life. Olympics in Athens, 1896 is a terrific read, full of cracking stories, and offering a fascinating glimpse of the academic, political and social world of the time.


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