How Much Have the Olympics Really Changed Since Ancient Times?

1 January 2018

Many of the claims people have made about connections between the ancient and modern games are false. The Olympics presents itself as a vehicle for world peace and unity, justified by the idea that the so-called ancient Olympic “truce” involved a cessation in fighting across the Greek world during the games. But we now know that it was mainly just for protecting those who travelled to the games.

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Then there is the elitist ideal of Olympic amateurism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That was justified by the idea that ancient athletes competed just for the sake of it, but it is clear now that they were in it for money.

The history of the triple jump is strangest of all. It was invented for the 1896 Athens Olympics in response to an ancient text recording a long-jump record of more than 15 metres. When you look at the text more closely, it becomes clear that the distance was meant as a joke.

2. Holy cow!
Misleading claims like these have generally been based on a relatively small number of literary texts from the fourth and fifth centuries BC (the classical period). But if you really want to understand ancient sport you need to look also at the thousands of surviving athletic inscriptions carved on stone from the last three centuries BC (the Hellenistic period) and the Roman Empire (from 31BC onwards): few other texts give such a vivid glimpse of ancient day-to-day life.

When you look at that material you realize just how bizarre and alien some aspects of ancient sport were by modern standards, especially the religious element. Imagine cows being sacrificed between races in the middle of a modern Olympic stadium, for instance.

3. Calendar crunching
Yet this material also points us to some surprising similarities between ancient and modern. Many have argued that complex and bureaucratic sporting events were only developed in the 19th century. The evidence from the Roman Empire shows that this can’t possibly be right.

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