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.
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.
The crowd went wild! A writer named Diodorus described the spectators cheering the battle, "impartially applauding the [valiant] deeds performed on both sides."
These days, if an army invaded the Olympics, you young whippersnappers would probably run like rabbits. But in the old days, there wasn't much difference between sports and war. If you don't believe me, ask Michael B. Poliakoff, the guy who wrote "Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence, and Culture."
"Sport provided for the Greeks a place to show all the individual courage and fortitude that were used in warfare," Poliakoff says. "It gave people a circumscribed arena for all those passions."
Sure, we enjoyed footraces, discus-throwing, javelin-tossing and all that stuff, but we really liked the "combat sports" -- wrestling, boxing and, of course, pankration, which Poliakoff calls "an opportunity to re-create the dynamic world of one-on-one combat."
Your modern Olympics don't have pankration and your boxing is a joke. You've got these wimpy, so-called boxers fighting with helmets on their heads and pillows on their hands. They waltz around for a couple minutes, slapping each other with the pillows, then they sit down and rest. You call that boxing? Phooey!
Back in the ancient days, the boxers wore leather straps on their hands to cut up their opponent's face. And there were no rounds, no rest periods; they just kept fighting until somebody collapsed or quit. Look at the paintings of boxers on the ancient vases: They've got cauliflower ears and broken noses with blood flowing out. We liked that. It showed that the guys were really giving their all.
The chariot race was practically a combat sport, too. You should have seen it! What a spectacle! Forty chariots, each pulled by four horses, going like crazy around the hippodrome, crashing into each other, sending the drivers flying! It was better than NASCAR.
Sophocles, the great playwright, described one of those Olympic chariot crashes: "As the crowd saw the driver somersault, there rose a wail of pity for the youth, as he bounced onto the ground, then flung head over heels into the sky. When his companions caught the runaway team and freed the bloodstained corpse from his rig, he was disfigured and marred past the recognition of his best friend."
Can anything in your modern Olympics match it?
Have you seen the TV people yapping about the preparations for the 2004 Olympics? What a joke! They're whining like babies: Will the stadium roof be done in time? What can be done about the traffic jams? Will there be enough hotel rooms?
You gotta be kidding. A roof on the stadium? Back in the old days, they didn't even have seats. We stood in the hot sun all day and we were thrilled to do it because, hey, it was the Olympics!
Traffic jams? Back in the old days, we walked to Olympia. That's 210 miles from Athens.
We didn't whine about it; we just put one foot in front of the other, covering about 15 miles a day. After a week, you got to Corinth, which had great bars and a temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, where hookers plied their trade. That made for a nice little respite, particularly since we didn't have our wives with us.
Married women weren't allowed at the Olympics. If you wanted to bring your teenage daughter so you could match her up with a nice handsome athlete, that was fine. But married women were barred. Now that I think of it, that was part of the fun: Guys like to get away from their wives. How else can you explain the enduring appeal of things like wars and the Wednesday night lodge meetings of the Loyal Order of Moose?
The media keep whining about the hotels in Athens. Will there be enough? Will they be air-conditioned? At Olympia, there was exactly one hotel, the Leonidaion, and only ambassadors bearing gifts for Zeus could stay there. Everybody else had to sleep outside. The rich folks had fancy tents. The rest of us just slept in the fields. We didn't grumble about it. If the ground wasn't comfortable for sleeping, we just drank more wine until we passed out.
You modern sports fans are a bunch of crybabies. In the old days, we expected to be uncomfortable at the Olympics. You were hot and dirty and hung over and you smelled like a donkey, but you didn't mind because the 40,000 other spectators were just as hot, dirty, hung over and smelly as you.
"You put up with it all," said Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher from the first century A.D., "because it's an unforgettable spectacle."
He was right. It was one helluva spectacle. Not just the Games but the whole scene. Between sporting events, you took a tour of the Temple of Zeus. You listened to orators and poets and storytellers. You watched the sword-swallowers, the acrobats, the dancers, the fire-eaters. There were beauty contests, Homer-reciting contests, eating contests.
"The Olympic festival," writes Perrottet, "was the Woodstock of antiquity."
Of course, some people hated the Olympics. In fact, one of the attractions of the Olympics was the soapbox orators who mocked the Olympics. One was Diogenes, a Cynic philosopher who said the athletes were ignorant brutes who possessed "less soul than swine."
Diogenes explained why he came to the Olympics to deliver speeches to the sports fans he despised: "Just as a good doctor rushes to help in places full of the sick, so it was necessary for a wise man to go where idiots proliferate."
Looking back on it, I guess idiots did proliferate. Hey, I was one of them. But it sure was fun while it lasted.
The End, and Beginning
Huh? What did you say? Speak up, sonny, I'm 2,000 years old, I don't hear too good anymore.
You want to know what happened to the ancient Olympics? Why they ended back in A.D. 394?
Well, the short answer is: The Christian killjoys killed them off.
In A.D. 312, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, which included Greece, I'm sad to say. The Christians hated the Olympics because it was a pagan festival. They didn't like us worshiping Zeus and they didn't like the nudity. As Poliakoff says, "This celebration of the flesh was highly problematic for Christians."
In A.D. 394, Emperor Theodosius I banned pagan festivals, including the Olympics. After that, the Christians stole the great statue of Zeus and carted it off to Constantinople, then burned the Temple of Zeus. That's what happens when religious nuts take over your government.
For 1,500 years, we didn't have any Olympics. Then in 1896, a French baron named Pierre de Coubertin started the modern Olympics, with the Games in Athens that year.
Since then, a lot of myths have arisen about the ancient Olympics. The goofiest is that the athletes were amateurs, competing for nothing but an olive wreath. Baloney!
Sure, the winners were crowned with olive branches, but that's not all they got. They also got lots of money and vats of precious olive oil, and sometimes they got free food for life back in their home cities.
"If you won at the Olympic Games," Perrottet says, "you never had to work again."
But the funniest myth is the one about the Olympic torch run. People ask me, Hey, old-timer, did you carry the Olympic torch back in the old days? That makes me laugh because the Greeks didn't invent the torch run. A German did. You may have heard of him. His name was Adolf Hitler.
Hitler had some weird ideas and one of them was that Olympia was some kind of ancient Aryan paradise. In the 1930s, he sent German archaeologists to Olympia to dig up the ancient stadium.
In 1936, when the Olympics were held in Berlin, Hitler and his personal filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, came up with the idea of the torch run. The torch -- made by Krupp, the German arms manufacturer -- was lit in a ceremony in the ancient stadium and then carried by runners to Berlin. You can see it in "Olympia," Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda movie about the Games.
Now, the Olympic torch run is a symbol of international brotherhood. Funny how things turn out, isn't it?
Huh? What? You want to know if I'll watch this summer's Olympics?
Of course I will. What else is on, "Survivor" reruns?
These modern Olympics ain't half as good as the ancient Olympics, but they're still kind of fun.
You know what I like? The old-timers would hate to hear me say this, but I like the women athletes. They're tough. And good-looking, too. Back in ancient Greece, everybody made a big deal about male beauty. Hey, lemme tell you: Male beauty is overrated. Female beauty beats it every time. I don't know how we got that so wrong in the old days. What were we thinking?
So I'll be in Athens in August. Look for me at the beach volleyball games. I love to watch those girls jumping above the net, slamming the ball, diving in the sand. They're incredible! Too bad they don't play naked.