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The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years


One thousand years of the ancient Olympics in a single "authoritative" (The New Yorker) volume

A definitive survey of the Olympic games, from 776 B.C. to 261 A.D. Finley and Pleket transport readers back to the eighth century B.C., to explain in absorbing detail the games' events and their historical, social, and religious context. The authors also detail the similarities and dissimilarities between the ...
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One thousand years of the ancient Olympics in a single "authoritative" (The New Yorker) volume

A definitive survey of the Olympic games, from 776 B.C. to 261 A.D. Finley and Pleket transport readers back to the eighth century B.C., to explain in absorbing detail the games' events and their historical, social, and religious context. The authors also detail the similarities and dissimilarities between the ancient and modern games.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670524068
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/14/1976
  • Pages: 168
  • Product dimensions: 20.00 (w) x 20.00 (h) x 20.00 (d)

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The Olympic Games

The First Thousand Years

By Moses I. Finley, H. W. Pleket

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1976 M. I. Finley and H. W Pleket
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14941-7


Ancient and Modern

On September 1, 1870, France was heavily defeated at the battle of Sedan, not eight weeks after Napoleon III had declared war on Prussia. Three days later France was proclaimed a Republic; in another ten days the city of Paris capitulated. This pair of disasters, to which the subsequent loss of Alsace and Lorraine must be added, brought deep, long-lasting gloom to the French. It also provided the seed-bed in which the modern Olympic Games germinated.

The battle of Waterloo, it had been said and often repeated, was won over Napoleon I on the playing-fields of Eton. The tragedy was that the French lycées had an excessively intellectual programme; they had no playing-fields, their pupils played no games and received little physical training. That contrast became almost an obsession with Pierre, baron de Coubertin, who was only eight years old when Sedan was lost, and he had hardly come of age before he embarked on a campaign to remedy the critical French weakness.

Born in a very wealthy, very Catholic, very ancient aristocratic family, Coubertin believed in a natural elite. So he concentrated his efforts on his country's 'gilded youth' (jeunesse dorée), as they were popularly known. His models were the 'gilded youth' of two other societies: the ephebes of ancient Greek cities, who spent much of their time in the public gymnasia, where athletic and paramilitary activities and contests were punctuated, for those who wished them, with lectures by philosophers and itinerant orators; and, even more compelling, the public schools of contemporary England. Tom Brown's School Days, Taine's Notes on England and a visit, at the age of twenty, to Eton and Rugby, captivated him. Physical exercise and games, he argued again and again in speeches and in articles published by an association for physical education, were essential to a proper educational system. Through physical fitness, sound competition, true amateurism and the spirit of fair play, the natural elite of France, drawn from the aristocracy and the prosperous middle class, would provide their fatherland with new and inspired leadership at home and in the colonies overseas, would help recover the national self-consciousness and prestige shattered in the 1870 war.

For an elite, amateurism and fair play were, or should have been, obvious virtues and sufficient rewards in themselves; Coubertin spoke of 'the noble and chivalrous character of athletics', even of a 'religion of sport'. But how were the young to be won over? On his own testimony, Coubertin had been enthralled by the ancient Olympic Games in his boyhood, and he began to see practical possibilities in his youthful dreams. Why not recreate the Games? They would provide not only the right kind of model but also a valuable inducement. The prospect of Olympic championships, of winning medals—the modern equivalents of the ancient olive wreaths—would fire the imagination of the young and help convert them to the new vision.

Ironically, it was again the Germans who gave Coubertin the stimulus. The site of the ancient Olympic Games, which had completely disappeared in the Middle Ages, was discovered in 1766 by an English antiquary, Richard Chandler, while on a mission in Greece on behalf of the Society of Dilettanti. In 1829 a French team excavated the site for six weeks, but it was the Germans who made the real break-through. That story began in 1852, with a public lecture about Olympia, romantic, not very accurate, by Professor Ernst Curtius of the University of Berlin. In the audience were the Prussian ruler, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, and his son, the future Kaiser Wilhelm I, to whom Curtius had been tutor for a time. Twenty years later, after Wilhelm came to the throne of the new, unified Germany, negotiations with Greece produced a formal agreement whereby the German government undertook to bear the full cost of a large-scale excavation.

Between 1875 and 1881, under Curtius' direction, much of the monumental splendour of the ancient site was uncovered, though in ruins. Publication of the results of each year's excavation followed promptly, so that Coubertin, like others who had an interest in Olympia, could follow the discoveries in detail. And Coubertin, inspired by his dominant passion, quickly translated archaeology into an imaginative proposal. 'Germany', he wrote, 'has brought to light the remains of Olympia; why should France not succeed in reviving its ancient glory?'

Though an elitist, Coubertin was not a wholly typical French aristocrat of his time. He accepted the paternalistic views of contemporary 'social Catholicism' and foresaw a day when young men from the lower classes might share his new ideology of physical exercise and games. If compensation for lost earnings were necessary in order to involve them in Olympic competition, he would not oppose that. 'Inequality is more than a law,' he once wrote, 'it is a fact; and patronage is more than a virtue, it is a duty.'

Coubertin was also not a chauvinist. Though a French patriot, he divorced himself from the prevailing militaristic nationalism and he argued that a revived Olympic festival would further the cause of international understanding, brotherhood and peace. This did not make his task any easier: revenge, not amity, was the dominant slogan in leading French circles. There was powerful resistance to international games in which Germany, in particular, would participate. In the French sporting world there was also opposition to 'foreign influences': as late as 1901 one well known sportsman complained publicly, 'Having copied the Germans, we now copy the English. From one day to another, we unlearn our Frenchness.' And there was distaste, in the educational world as among aristocrats and gentlemen generally, for vulgar emphasis on sporting activities.

Nevertheless, by 1894 Coubertin had made sufficient progress to summon an international conference in Paris, at the Sorbonne, 'to study and propagate the principles of amateurism'. He then set off for Greece, and in October of that year he visited Olympia for the first time in his life. Two years later, in 1896, the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens. Practical considerations of access and facilities for both athletes and spectators ruled Olympia out. Athens provided a new stadium with a seating capacity of nearly 50,000 (Plate 1a) as well as the desirable Greek background. Not much about these first modern Games, it should immediately be added, was genuinely 'Olympic'. There were forty-two events in ten sports with 285 participants, all men, and without team competitions except in gymnastics. But only the running events, the long jump, the discus throw and wrestling were 'borrowed' from the original Games; the rest were either unknown to the ancients or were not included by them in their major Games. For all his romanticism, Coubertin had a contemporary aim, and the success of his scheme depended on a realistic choice of events—hurdling, cycling, the high jump, fencing and so on—appropriate to the athletic interests of his own day, not to those of a long dead civilization. It was the Olympic 'spirit', the Olympic ideology, as he conceived it, that was to serve his purposes, not the ancient Olympic reality.

There was nothing in ancient Greek practice, for example, to warrant the Olympic torch, carried halfway round the world as a symbol of Olympic internationalism. The torch races of antiquity were purely local relay races, with teams of naked men, wearing diadems, carrying their lighted torches in metal holders through the streets 'from altar to altar' (Plate 1b). They were part of a religious ritual in the strict sense, hence the diadems, the altars as end-points, and the climactic honour given the winner of placing his torch on the altar of the god or goddess being celebrated. Occasionally they were given a place in a Games festival, but never within the athletic programme proper. Nor did the ancients compete in races over very long distances. The marathon race has its origin in a famous legend: an Athenian, whose name is given differently in different versions of the tale-Phidippides in the most familiar account—ran the 42 kilometres to Marathon in order to join the battle against the invading Persians in 490 B.C., then ran back to Athens to bring news of the victory and dropped dead from his exertions.

It was fitting that the marathon race was won by a Greek in the first modern Games, to the delirious joy of the packed audience in the stadium (Plate 1a). Altogether, the United States and eight of the twelve participating European countries provided winners that year. Four came from France, five from Germany (as well as the co-winner in the tennis doubles). Coubertin's efforts had come to fruition, and he remained president of the International Olympic Committee until the completion of the 1924 Games. Only France refused to join in the acclaim. The French sporting press virtually ignored the Games, not only in 1896 but also in several succeeding meetings. The four French victories in 1896 were in traditional French sports, cycling and fencing, not in 'foreign importations'. When Coubertin died in 1937, he was financially bankrupt and, in the words of a biographer, 'one of the few Frenchmen left undecorated'.

The modern Olympics, as everyone knows, have produced not only heroes and spellbinding performances but also controversy, about amateurism, about over-emphasis, about politics. These the modern reader will have in the back of his mind when we turn to the past, to the world which first held Olympic Games. What were the events and the rules of the ancient Games, and how did they change? Who participated? How were they trained and rewarded? How were the Games managed? Were they then also the peak of an international network of sporting competitions, the goal of every dedicated amateur athlete? Were amateurism and professionalism an issue? What was the psychology, what were the values, among competitors, spectators and patrons? Was there criticism, and from what angles? Were the Games involved in politics, directly or indirectly, whether in local politics or in a wider arena?

As we tell the story, we shall resist the temptation to draw modern parallels or contrasts. Every reader will want to do that for himself. However, three distinctions had best be indicated at the beginning. First, the ancient Olympic programme became a restricted and stable one after a slow initial period of growth, as we shall see in detail in Chapter 3; all sorts of activities grew up on the fringe, but they were never incorporated into the official programme, the one that mattered. Second, whereas the modern Games change their venue every four years, the ancients never abandoned Olympia. Finally, and most remarkable, the ancient Olympics were held in every fourth summer without a break, despite wars and grave political difficulties at various times, until at least A.D. 261—more than 1000 years from their foundation, traditionally and credibly dated in 776 B.C. The modern Games, in contrast, have in their short existence been cancelled three times, in 1916, 1940 and 1944, because of two world wars.

The Greek world itself did not remain static for more than a thousand years. When the Olympic Games were established in 776 B.C., the Greeks were concentrated in a small area comprising the southern end of the Balkans, the islands of the Aegean Sea, and the coastal strip of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). In the same period, there began more than two centuries of steady migration, in small groups, westward to Sicily and southern Italy, along the Mediterranean coast to Marseilles in France and to Cyrene (Libya) in northern Africa; northeast along the coasts of the Black Sea; again later, after Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.), to Egypt, Syria and Babylonia. In all this considerable area, the immigrants founded separate Greek communities and thought of themselves as proper Greeks in every sense ('Hellenes' in their own language, then as now: 'Greek' comes to us from the Latin name for them, 'Graeci'), not as Sicilians or Egyptians or Syrians. They all spoke Greek, with significant variations only in dialect, worshipped the same gods in the same ways, organized their cultural life along the same lines, participated in the Olympic Games on an equal footing. But their common culture and their strong Hellenic consciousness never led them to unite into a single political system.'Hellas' was thus not a country or a state but an abstraction, like Christendom in the Middle Ages or Islam today. The games were pan-Hellenic ('all-Greek') rather than, strictly speaking, international.

The Hellas of 776 B.C. was also very different institutionally from the Hellas of A.D. 261, quite apart from the geography. The Games were not immune from the changes that occurred, so that their history is an intricate mixture of tradition and permanence with subtle responses to what was going on outside. In 776 the small, autonomous, still largely illiterate communities in the original homeland were rather loosely organized under the dominance of aristocratic landholding families, with poor natural resources and a low level of technology, yet already so overpopulated relatively, in some regions, as to stimulate the first western migrations in search of new lands to farm.

The next two or three centuries saw substantial progress and increasing differentiation in the economy and in social and political institutions. Many communities developed genuine urban centres—for example, Miletus, Athens, Corinth, Syracuse—with a rising volume of handicraft production and maritime trade, a higher standard of living, more and richer luxury products, able to support a denser population and to expend energy and means on literature and the fine arts. Improved and more frequent communication among the farflung sections of Hellas brought goods and ideas from one to the other, and helped to maintain the unity of language, culture and way of life we have already noted. Even those regions, including Elis, the district in which Olympia is situated, that remained predominantly agrarian and something of a backwater, were involved in these interchanges.

The more complex social structure, more wealth and improved technology helped bring about major changes in military and naval organization. In particular, from about 650 B.C. on, the massed phalanx of heavily armed infantrymen (known as 'hoplites' from the Greek word for arms, hopla) became the dominant force in the army. Hoplite service was compulsory for every able-bodied citizen rich enough to equip himself with the requisite bronze armour—helmet, breastplate and greaves—and with shield, sword and spears (Plate IIIa). Archers, slingers and other more mobile, light-armed soldiers were used as auxiliaries, drawn almost exclusively from non-Greek peoples, such as Thracians and Scythians, employed by one or another Greek community as mercenaries. The cavalry, the aristocratic service par excellence, was reduced to the minor role of harassment of the phalanx and pursuit of hoplites in flight, except in such flat areas as the plain of Thessaly or parts of Sicily. Much of the Greek terrain, uneven, rocky, mountainous, was unsuitable for cavalry, and, besides, horses were difficult to feed and water during the long dry summer months in which nearly all warfare was conducted.

Clearly the old monopoly of political power in the hands of a small number of noble landowning families was bound to be challenged under the new economic, social and military conditions. Everywhere there was an advance in political organization. The more backward regions, such as Thessaly or Aetolia, tended to retain looser tribal federations, with a simpler social structure of aristocrats and non-aristocrats. But in the more advanced urban communities, continuous and often bitter struggles for political rights and political power set in as early as the seventh century B.C.


Excerpted from The Olympic Games by Moses I. Finley, H. W. Pleket. Copyright © 1976 M. I. Finley and H. W Pleket. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Table of Figures,
1 - Ancient and Modern,
2 - Games and Festivals,
3 - The Olympic Programme,
4 - Spectators and Facilities,
5 - Rules and Officials,
6 - The Athletes,
7 - Training and Trainers,
8 - Games, Politics and Patronage,
9 - The Critics,

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