Winter Olympics 2002! Ancient Olympics!

Breaking news: The Skeleton event, absent due to good sense for a number of years, will once again be a medal event. Seems they've again found some suicidal competitors who are willing to go down-ice head first on a tiny, bare bobsled frame (which is the "skeleton").

As you undoubtedly already know, the 2002 Winter Olympic Games will be held in Salt Lake City, Utah, from February 8 though 28. With the right TV connections, those of us in Rome might be able to watch American, Italian, British, or French coverage of the various winter events. If you don't have the right TV connections, don't despair. The Internet can supply your yearning for up-to-the-minute information on who's beating whom in the ice and snow sports. Some of the Internet coverage will be in the form of live ("streaming") audio and video, which you can get if you have a higher-end computer and a fast connection.

For those who only tuned in to get links to Internet coverage of the games, here are some of the best:

Official web site of the Salt Lake Olympics:

Utah Education Network:



CBS SportsLine:


For anyone who's still with me, we'll now get into the "ancient" part of this article. First, there clearly were no "winter sports" in the ancient Olympics. The Greeks had the good sense to stay inside in cold, snowy, icy weather.

We know that the ancient Greeks called their games "Olympic" because of the location where they took place. That was not in central Greece in the shadow of Mt. Olympus, as you might imagine, but much further south, in the town of Olympia in the Peloppenese, that large piece of Greece south of the Gulf of Corinth, which almost cuts Greece in two. In Olympia was an ancient temple of Zeus, and thatís where, in the times of distant legend, a set of religious games was instituted. The legends vary, but in many of them Herakles (Hercules) was a star performer. It boils down to this: after one of his famous "labors" -- the mucking-out of the Augean Stables -- the king of Elis welshed on his deal to forgive Herakles for earlier crimes of passion. When he had the free time -- after he finished his other labors -- Herakles returned to Elis and sacked the city. Then he put on the first Olympic games at that local temple honoring his father, Zeus. That would have been about 1300 BC.

Several mythic versions add significant details: Herakles, of course, won the one race that constituted the entirety of the games; he took only one deep breath and then ran the entire distance -- one "stade" -- which thereafter became the standard length (about 600 feet, see note below) for future Ancient Olympic main events and for "stadiums" built in the ancient world; he wrapped a fragrant bough of laurel, also known as "bay" around his brow so as not to offend Zeus with the odor of his exertions; he lit a sacred fire, and while it burned nobody was allowed to wage war or extract personal vengeance (the "Olympic Truce": if you broke it, it meant -- big surprise -- war); etc.

Some legends say that, rather than instituting the games, Herk merely formalized games that had been instituted by an earlier character named Pelops. Pelops wished to marry Hippodamia, the daughter of King Oenomaus of a Greek town named Pisa. Oenomaus had promised his daughter to whatever man who could win a chariot race against him, but any suitor who lost the race would also lose his head. Through treachery, Oenomaus had kept his daughter unmarried, and through treachery Pelops won the race, killed the king, and carried off Hippodamia. Pelops celebrated his victory (or maybe the funeral of King Oenomaus) with games -- actually just a foot race -- at Olympia. Pelops then became the new king and Peloppenesia, the part of Greece that surrounds Olympia, was named after him. Separate legends also named Iphitus, King of Elis in 884, or Zeus himself as founders of the games at Olympia.

Although Pelops, Iphitus, and even Herakles are now thought to have been real people, who later were mythologized, none of their Olympic legends have any necessary relationship to reality. And only the Olympian priests ever took the Zeus story seriously.

It is, however, well documented in the historical record that, in 776 BC, the already existing games were reorganized, and that year a footrace was held in honor of Zeus at a straight course laid out near His temple in Olympia. It was that particular race that was considered by the ancient Greeks and by the Romans (and by the 19th/20th/21st century Olympic movement) as the beginning of the quadrennial Olympic Calendar.

And in ancient times it was a real calendar, not just the symbolic calendar of the Olympiads of today. From the time that Koroibos of Elis won that 776 BC race until Emperor Theodosius 1 abolished the games in 393 AD (because he, a Christian, thought the games were an unwelcome pagan holdover), through all those 1069 years, Greeks everywhere reckoned their years and the dates of their events in "Olympiads". At first, an Olympiad was just designated by the name of the winner of the race that started it. So the first Olympiad was known as the Olympiad of Koroibos. Something might be recorded as occurring "in the first month of the third year of the Olympiad of Koroibos". After a while, it just became too hard to remember all of those difficult Greek names, so, in about the middle of the 4th century BC, they went back and numbered them all from the start. From then on, dates were more like "the 6th day of the fourth month of the third year of the 300th Olympiad". Still pretty complicated, but maybe it was easier in ancient Greek. The Romans, of course, finally settled on officially counting their own dates "ab urbe condita", which means "from the founding of the city (Rome) in 753 BC", but when they wanted to appear "cultured" they too would append an Olympiad date. In Constantinople, from it's founding through Theodosius 1 (and probably long after -- things like that change slowly), Olympiads were routinely used for dating all past events.

The ancient Olympic Games, like so many other ancient Greek things, were for men only. Married women weren't even allowed to watch, because it was universally accepted that their watching the nude male competitors would be displeasing to Zeus. Some smaller sets of games did allow women watchers and even competitors -- also naked, of course. This was said to be especially the case in Spartan territory. And when Emperor Domitian tried to reintroduce Greek-style athletic games -- "agone" -- in Rome, he also, after a while, allowed women to compete. But, even with the buff boys and girls, the gate was too small, and his new stadium, now Piazza Navona ("in agone" was corrupted to "Navona), switched to chariot racing and gladiator fights before the end of its second season.)

The prize for winning an ancient Olympic event -- and there was only that single one-stade run in the first years -- was a simple twisted olive-branch crown, a green palm frond, and a free meal at the Olympia Prytaneion (City Hall). Koroibos was demonstrably an amateur -- had a day job as a cook -- but he and later winners were honored and rewarded by their home towns. Typically, they were wined and dined (publicly, daily, and for life) at public expense. They were often given houses in the best neighborhoods and, almost always, a very large cash reward. Sometimes they were also exempted from any future taxes. It didn't take long for professionals to show up, itinerant athletes that competed in Olympic, regional, and local games, all of which had such rewards associated with them. In fact, the word "athlete" is most commonly derived from an ancient Greek word, which we might transliterate as "athlein", which meant, approximately, "to contend for the reward". So the 20th century argument that "professionalism" wasn't compatible with the "ancient Olympic spirit" was always, at best, uninformed.

Only Greeks could compete in the early ancient Olympics, and even Philip of Macedonia (the Great Alexander's dad) had to prove he was descended from Greek gods to compete. He famously won the chariot race, which, by that time had been added to the Olympic event card. Over the years, other events were also added and the list eventually included longer and shorter foot races (one of which, in armor), boxing, wrestling, pankration (boxing and wrestling combined), discus, running and mounted javelin, long jump, and horse racing. Five events were also included in a Pentathlon category. Wrestling, boxing, and pankration were known as "heavy" events, because with no weight classes or time limits, bigger athletes became always won. The boxing and wrestling rules were fairly extensive, but in Pankration only biting and eye-gouging were illegal -- kicking, choking, finger breaking, and blows to the genitals were OK.

When the Romans took over the territory, they were also allowed to compete, and many of the listed names of winners (and most of the lists survive) had, at least, a Roman sound to them. That may have been because Greeks started using Roman sounding names, but, just as likely, it might have been because many Greeks athletes, who were also in Greek armies, were enslaved: slaves couldn't compete. The most notorious case of Roman competition was when Nero showed up and registered to compete in six events. Naturally, he easily won all six, including a special ten-horse chariot race, even though he fell out of his chariot and didn't finish. He hung out in Greece for a while and then returned to Rome where he proudly displayed his six olive-wreath crowns and his palms. That was in 67 AD, the year before he suicided to escape the howling Roman mob (June 9, 68 AD).

The ancient Olympics were always at Olympia (and there is now a fledgling movement to move them there permanently again). "Professionalism", as noted, was rampant almost from the start. There was cheating, drug use (under cover of religious ceremony -- the games were always, supposedly, a "religious" observance), use of extra-national ringers, gambling, bribery of judges and competitors, and, as in Nero's case, blatant political "fixing." Some modern authors have said that the whole shebang was just "sublimated warfare", but, if that was he case, the games and even the abuses served a noble purpose -- better sublimate than fight. It would have been very much like the ideals of the 19th century "Olympic Movement", which re-instituted the games in Athens in 1896.

But wait! What about the ancient traditions of the Olympic torch and the five interlocking rings? Well, Herakles certainly must have used something, maybe even a torch to light his trucial fire, but the relay with the torch was actually instituted by those ritual-loving Nazis for the 1936 Olympics. The idea had originated with Carl Diem, a German who had been planning the 1916 Olympic Games at Berlin. The 1916 games were canceled because of World War I, but twenty years later Diem was back, organizing Hitler's 1936 edition of the games. Diem, seeking to give the games an ancient (if somewhat Germanic) aura, organized the torch lighting at Olympia, the relay of the flame to Berlin, and the evening opening ceremony, which, since then, has become a regular fixture at subsequent editions. The Krupps armament firm, which made the 1936 relay torches (Hitler's gunsmiths), proudly stamped its name on each one.

The five interlocking rings were designed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, for a 1914 Olympics Congress meeting in Paris. They were apparently meant, to symbolize the first five editions of the modern Olympics. They were used at the actual games starting in 1920. They didn't become "ancient" until Hitler's cinematographer, Leni Reifenstahl, had the rings carved into a rock at Delphi as a prop for her epic film on the 1936 Berlin Games. Novelists and popularizers Lynn and Gray Poole, un- or dim-wittingly, wrote up the prop as a real artifact in their 1963 History of Ancient Olympic Games and soon the misidentification of the "altar of Delphi" crept into Olympic lore. The story of the rings' antiquity resurfaces with almost every edition of the Olympics, despite the fact that Greek archeological authorities have long since removed the "ancient" Reifenstahl prop from the area. The Poole book is also still sited as a reference for study of Olympic history, despite this and other egregious errors -- it's all over the Internet. Caveat Emptor!

There are many thousand Internet sites dealing with the ancient and modern Olympics. With the help of the Google search engine, however, the following ancient Olympics links bubbled to the top:

The official site of the International Olympic Committee:

From the Ancient History Sourcebook -- excepts from ancient primary sources:

From the Perseus databank -- athletes' stories: and from the New York Times --"The Guy Who Ate a Cow and Other Olympic Stories:

Olympics as sublimated warfare: and

And these more general sites on the history of the Olympics: (the official site of the Torino 2006 winter Olympics) and and and

Finally, an Internet site that persuasively argues a link between the length of the Greek "stade", the "nautical mile" (invented by the ancient Greeks) and the length of a degree of longitude at the latitude of Athens. Was this just dumb luck? Or did Herakles have extra-terrestrial help? Have the UFOlogists caught on to this correspondence yet?

Go to for other articles.

P.S.: Why do I keep calling the quadrennial games "editions?"

In ancient Rome, the Latin title of the person who sponsored a set of games was the "editor". The set of games was, in Latin, an "edition".