Tony Perrottet’s book ‘The Naked Olympics: the True Story of the Ancient Games’ was released to coincide with the Athens olympics of 2004; talking about it might not be wholly timely, but can there be a wrong time to talk about naked, oiled men and the slaughter of 100 white oxen? I thought not. (And by the way, the book isn’t about ‘naked running’ – a phrase runners use to describe the now rare experience of heading out without a satellite watch pacing their every step).
Perrottet highlights a healthy number of differences between the ancient games at Olympia and their modern incarnation – as we might have guessed, badminton and dressage were not included. In fact, few of today’s disciplines were: events were limited to boxing, wrestling, ‘pankration’ (a vicious combination of boxing and wrestling), chariot racing, pentathlon (discus, javelin, standing jump, running, and yes, more wrestling), and running. The latter took place as lengths of a straight track, over distances of roughly 200m, 400m, 1500m, and 5k.
But although it mentions these differences, the book does its smallminded best to boil everything down to American capitalist values. We are shown why various aspects of the Greeks’ games show them to have been Americans who just didn’t know it yet – they are ‘brash’, ‘nouveau riche’, they spend their time in ‘sports bars’ seeking out ‘potential for business’. Perhaps some of these elements are even correct; but the impression the author gives is of someone ignoring historical variety in the name of some pretty predictable values.
Despite himself, though, Perrottet presents us with some of the good stuff. Who knew that the games were held, every four years, continuously from 776 BC to 394 AD (when they were banned by Christians)? Or that every competitor had to prove his Greek heritage? The Greeks were far from the modern Olympics’ universalist message – Johnny foreigner just wasn’t allowed to play.
So, what’s the message that we can take from the Greek Olympics? To take part, you needed to be good either at fighting, or at short sprints. You needed to not be a barbarian from outside Greece, and certainly – horrors! – not a woman. But if you still qualified, you got a chance to be crowned with laurel leaves, to enjoy glory without end – and also without payment or reward. Something that the author of ‘The Naked Olympics’ does his level best to ignore.