The Ancient Olympics: A History

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The word "athletics" is derived from the Greek verb "to struggle or to suffer for a prize." As Nigel Spivey reveals in this engaging account of the Olympics in ancient Greece, "suffer" is putting it mildly. Indeed, the Olympics were not so much a graceful display of Greek beauty as a war fought by other means.
Nigel Spivey paints a portrait of the Greek Olympics as they really were--fierce contexts between bitter rivals, in which victors won kudos and rewards, and losers faced scorn and even assault. Victory was almost worth dying for, the author notes, and a number of athletes did just that. Many more resorted to cheating and bribery. Contested always bitterly and often bloodily, the ancient Olympics were no an idealistic celebration of unity, but a clash of military powers in an arena not far removed from the battlefield. The author explores what the events were, the rules for competitors, training and diet, the pervasiveness of cheating and bribery, the prizes on offer, the exclusion of "barbarians," and protocols on pederasty. He also peels back the mythology surrounding the games today and investigates where our current conception of the Olympics has come from and how the Greek notions of beauty and competitiveness have influenced our modern culture.
As a Cambridge classicist and athletics coach, Nigel Spivey is uniquely qualified to write this eye-opening account of the Greek Olympics. Anyone interested in the ancient world or in the Olympic games will be fascinated by this revealing history.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A fascinating book, with much to teach, especially for those who only have a hazy knowledge of the ancient Olympics.... Spivey clearly shows how violent and dangerous the games of ancient Olympia were. He brings alive the place, the time and the brutal men who came together to fiercely compete for honor and glory. He also describes how the contestants were chosen and describes each competition, including boxing, the pentathlon and wrestling."--USA Today

"Just in time for the Summer Olympics, a fresh new history of the games that begot all of today's quadrennial pomp.... An essential resource: always reliable and instructive, often entertaining."--Kirkus Reviews

"A good survey of the Olympics, well informed and concise.... If we had been able to visit Olympia in its classical heyday, he says, we should not have liked it much: 'it must have reeked to high heaven'; it was bloody and noisy; and it 'should not be idealized with too much faded grandeur.' As for the origin of the Games, in his view, that is simple: it is war."--The New York Review of Books

"Lively and accessible.... The book is learned without being scholarly, and it is brief enough to finish in time for tonight's broadcast of the opening ceremonies.... Much of the book's fascination lies in seeing faintly recognizable events made strange by a radically different context. It quickly becomes apparent that the similarities between the ancient and the modern games are at best superficial; it is the difference that makes for interest."--The Wall Street Journal

"Thoughtful and approachable."--The Boston Globe

"A delightful tour through ancient Greece with plenty for the sports-minded, historian, Greek scholar and linguist."--St. Petersburg Times

"His writing exhibits the edge British scholars retain when it comes to tempering trenchancy and erudition with grace and wit. For his versatility and balance I would make him winner in the pentathlon. But with his coaching experience and his emphasis, as the dust jacket puts it, on 'the ancient games as they really were--brutal, fierce and deadly,' he might prefer to walk off with the pankration."-- The New York Sun

Kirkus Reviews
Just in time for the Summer Olympics, a fresh new history of the games that begot all of today's quadrennial pomp, circumstance, competition, and urine-testing. In a deft analysis of the rise and fall of the games at Olympia, Spivey (Classics/Cambridge) fashions a text that varies in tone from professorial to conversational. He begins with the Orwellian notion that sports are war without the shooting, an image he also ends with, then leaps into the murkiest stream of all, ancient history, and attempts to clarify. He explores the Greeks' belief that citizens should be physically fit-virtually every male worked out regularly; Socrates was a wrestler-and describes the sorts of athletic venues their cities provided. Men worked out in the buff at the gymnasium, which featured spaces for sprinting, jumping, throwing, and wrestling; rooms for bathing and socializing; and opportunities for sexual excitement, if not fulfillment. Not until about the sixth or fifth century B.C. did athletic contests became more than local affairs, the author states, but once they did expand, they became very popular. Only men were permitted to see the naked athletes compete in foot-races, wrestling, boxing, chariot-racing, the pentathlon, and such other events as the little-known pankration, a no-holds-barred bout that proscribed only eye-gouging and biting. Spivey dispels much of the romance surrounding the competitions. They occurred during the hottest parts of the year and offered only the most primitive arrangements for drinking, bathing, and relieving oneself; the games were, he says, "a notoriously squalid experience for athletes and spectators alike." Describing each event, the author reminds us that in thoseancient competitions only winning signified; there were no awards for runners-up. He reminds us, too, that some of our current Olympic "traditions" are quite new. The torch relay, for example, was invented by the Nazis in 1936. Spivey's later, less compelling, chapters explore the games' political and mythological significance. An essential resource: always reliable and instructive, often entertaining. (20 b&w illustrations)Agent: Caroline Dawnay/PFD
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780192804334
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 8/28/2004
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 7.80 (w) x 5.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Nigel Spivey teaches the classics at Cambridge University. He is the author of Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings, Greek Art, Etruscan Art, and Enduring Creation: Art, Pain, and Fortitude.

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Table of Contents

1 'War minus the shooting' 1
2 In training for beautiful goodness 30
3 The programme of agony 70
4 Sweet victory 125
5 The politics of contest 169
6 Olympia : the origins 206
7 Olympia : the afterlife 238
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