As the Rio Olympics captivate us with fantastical feats of athleticism, it’s hard not to reflect on the glorious origins of the Greek Olympiad, dating back to 776 BC, and very likely, much earlier.
One tradition that has flourished from those very first games until today is the time-honored practice of doing whatever the hell you can within your power, legal or not, to win first place. It’s never ever been about how you play the game, it’s always about whether you win or lose.
Perhaps it has something to do with the dearth of gold medals, brand sponsorships, and commercial deals in ancient times that raised the stakes so high. All you got after victory in Olympia was an olive wreathe and bragging rights for the next four years. Cheating your ass off to achieve that became the nature of the sport.
In a way, it’s a relief to know that the civilization that brought us philosophy, democracy, comedy and drama, geometry and architecture, also gave us bribery, identity theft, creative foul play and doping.
On yet another beautifully preserved fifth century wine vessel the British Museum stole from Greece and refuses to return, a wrestler with a tiny penis attempts to thumb out the eyeballs of his micro-penised opponent, who reciprocates by trying to bite off his wrist. (Mike Tyson must have been a student of the classics.) Above them, an all-seeing judge in a toga and matching cowhide headband brandishes a tree branch, preparing to whack the competitors senseless for foul play. One whack for biting, two for eye gouging, three for sand in the eyes, and four for testicle twisting.
In ancient times, bribes were almost as common as they are in modern day Greece. Top athletes were frequently bribed to claim a different city as their hometown. Kalamata, for example, was famous for its olives, not its javelin throwers. But the wealth they amassed from exporting their bountiful olive products made them flush for purchasing javelin throwers from other city-states. Many an athlete was more than happy to shift his allegiance. It just meant not going home after the games ended to have his greedy, disloyal ass kicked. Welcome to the birth of recruiting.
Bribes were also paid between athletes to fix results. Do you want the pride of victory, or a handful of drachmas to call your very own? Unsurprisingly, judges were also highly susceptible, as were event organizers, who were repeatedly found guilty of arranging favorable match-ups for the athletes they preferred.
How do we know all this? I offer the same reason, no matter what I’m aspect of the Classics I’m discussing and that is: archeologists have found textual fragments. Papyrus fragments are a safe justification for any ancient claim. They’re not all there, so you can fill in whatever you wish to fulfill your hypothesis. It’s a fragment! If you’ve used fragments one too many times, switch over to shards. Pottery shards were discovered depicting images of… Almost never fails.
The point is, there was a fundamental flaw in the bribery system, which was this: Togas don’t have pockets. So other than shoving your bribe up your ass, which was frowned upon even in ancient times, it was extremely difficult to hide the gold you took to do the wrong thing.
And bribes were merely one aspect of ancient cheating. Recently unearthed fragments found in even more ancient pottery shards, depict athletes ingesting all kinds of performance enhancing concoctions: oil blends, herbal infusions and hallucinogenic mushrooms. For heavier lifting, like naked armor racing, athletes chugged goat’s blood, ate sheep hearts and even calves testicles, because why not? You gain a competitive edge when you’re about to throw up– there’s no time to be nervous. Incidentally, Gatorade is launching a series of ancient throwback flavors for the current Olympics. I recommend the Dolphin Urine (TM) flavored energy beverage before hand to hand combat. Your breath has never been so lethal a weapon.
Unlike our sorry present day scenario, cheating at the ancient Olympics did not go unpunished. Heavy fines were levied when you were busted, and the money was used to erect a bronze statue with your name etched in marble at the base, cataloguing the humiliation for future generations to cherish. The bases of those statues still exist in Olympia, albeit in fragments and shards. You can check them out on your next visit to Greece…