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Those Good Old-Time Olympics

Revisit the Arena Of Ancient Athens, Where Olive Oil Was The Only Greek Dressing

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2004; Page C01

Sure, these newfangled modern Olympics are fun, I suppose, but take it from an old-timer, they ain't nothing compared with the Olympics we had back in the ancient days. Geez, you shoulda been there.

Everybody's getting all fired up because the 2004 Olympics will be held in Greece, where the Olympics were invented nearly 28 centuries ago, but let me tell you, it's not going to be the same. They just don't make Olympics like they did back in 700 B.C.


(Jason Reed -- Reuters)



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Nowadays, these fancypants athletes wear all these spiffy costumes -- Lycra, nylon, spandex. Back in the old days, the athletes competed buck naked, except for a coating of olive oil -- and they looked great. Today, if an athlete showed up naked, they'd probably throw him in the hoosegow. I guess that's what happens when you let the ladies come watch the Games.

These days, they got so many sports you can hardly keep track of them: badminton, table tennis, synchronized swimming and who knows what else. In the old days, we stuck to your basic tried-and-true sports: your running, your wrestling, your chariot racing, your pankration.

What? You never heard of pankration? It was the king of combat sports -- a combination of boxing, wrestling, mugging and a good old-fashioned butt-kicking. In pankration, you could do almost anything to your opponent -- strangle him, kick him in the groin, bend his fingers back until they snapped like popsicle sticks. Now, that's entertainment! Of course, you weren't allowed to gouge a guy's eyes out. I mean, we weren't barbarians! If you started gouging somebody's eyes out, the judges would step in and beat you with sticks. Judges didn't pussyfoot around in those days.

Of course, the ancient Olympics weren't just about sports. They were a religious festival. Every event was dedicated to Zeus, king of the gods. On the third day of each Olympics, when the moon was full, the priests marched 100 white oxen to the Great Altar of Zeus, which had a burning pyre and a 27-foot bronze statue of Zeus. As flutists played hymns, the priests sprinkled the oxen with holy water, mumbled prayers, then slit the beasts' throats, one right after another. What a show! Gimme that old-time religion, that's what I say!

Nowadays, your secular humanists have taken the gods out of the Olympics, and that's dangerous. You start messing with the gods and you know what you get? You get table tennis and synchronized swimming.

You know what they did with all the oxen they sacrificed? They barbecued them and gave chunks of meat to the fans, free of charge! You washed the free beef down with free wine, then you strolled around listening to orators and historians and poets. The Olympics were a class act in those days, not like all this TV jibber-jabber you get now.

You're rolling your eyes, thinking, "Here goes Grampa with that good-old-days routine." Well, don't take my word for it. Ask Tony Perrottet. He's the historian who just published a book about the ancient Games. It's called "The Naked Olympics," and it sure brings back fond memories.

Perrottet says it better than I can, right here on Page 11: "In terms of audience satisfaction, our own revived Olympic games can hardly compare -- unless they were to be combined with Carnival in Rio, Easter Mass at the Vatican, and a tour of Universal Studios."

The Games Begin

It all began back in 776 B.C., when the first Olympic Games were proclaimed by King Iphitos of the city of Elis, acting on instructions from the Delphic oracle. There was only one event that year, a sprint won by Coroibos, a cook from Elis.

After that, the Olympics were held every four years, without fail, for nearly 1,200 years -- 293 consecutive Olympics. Compare that with your hotshot modern Olympics, which started in 1896 and have been canceled three times because of wars: in 1916, 1940 and 1944. Maybe you modern folks aren't as civilized as you think.

Of course, we had wars back in the old days, too. We Greeks were always fighting somebody, usually each other. But not during the Olympics. There was a "sacred truce" during the Games, and for a month earlier, to give people time to travel from cities all over the Mediterranean.

The truce worked, too -- every time except one. That was in 364 B.C., when the Arcadians had conquered the area around Olympia, where the Games were held. The people from Elis decided to fight back and they sent an army to attack the Games, arriving right in the middle of a major wrestling match. The Arcadians responded by putting archers on the roof of the Temple of Zeus and firing arrows down at the invaders.


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