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Greek fire

2004 Olympics | The original Olympic Games were grand events with heavy religious significance, but they could not bring peace to fighting Greek city-states

Issue: "2004 Olympics Preview," Aug. 14, 2004

OLYMPIA, Greece - Milo of Kroton. Diagoras of Rhodes. Theagenes of Thasos. Not exactly household names today, although when they had their shining moments in this city, poets said their fame would live forever. Milton and company were among the 4,237 athletes declared to be champions during the 293 Olympiads that took place here over 1,169 years between 776 b.c. and a.d. 393, when the emperor Theodosius declared the games sub-Christian and stopped them. The dirt field with marble starting blocks on which the Olympians competed is hugely hot and stridently sunny at this time of year, as it was then: The games started with ceremonies of tribute to Zeus and other gods at the second full moon after the summer solstice of every fourth year. Treeless, sloping hillsides above the arena provided good views for spectators but also the threat of heat prostration, especially since hats were not allowed. The philosopher Thales of Miletus may have been a wise man, but he died in 547 b.c. after suffering sunstroke here. Other famous fans, including Plato and Aristotle, survived. Huge crowds ate and slept in tents. Among the spectators were ode-writers such as Pindar who made a good living through poetic sports-reporting. Sculptors such as Pythagoras of Samos and Polykleitos of Argos also came and received contracts. Although most athletes theoretically were amateurs, they often received training subsidies and in essence earned their living from sports. The value of prizes sometimes soared into the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars. A victor received lifetime free meals, exemption from taxes, and seats of honor in the theater and at festivals. Poets wrote hymns in his honor. A victor often entered his home city riding in a four-horse chariot through a section of the fortifications specially demolished to allow a memorable entrance. The games became bigger and bigger in the years before Christ. Initially they lasted only one day and included only sprints, but officials added middle- and long-distance events in 720 b.c., wrestling in 708, boxing in 688, and chariot races in 680. From 472 b.c. on the Olympic games lasted five days and other cities sponsored similar events. The games were for men only, and they performed in the nude. In theory, any Greek male who had not committed a crime or sacrilege could participate. In practice, athletes had to show up a month ahead of the games so judges could assess their ability, ethics, and character. Overt cheating-such as tripping up opponents in races-sometimes occurred, but the invisible kind-bribing an athlete to take a dive-was more dangerous. Officials dealt with that threat creatively: Cheaters had to pay to erect bronze statues of Zeus on pillars engraved with their names, specific infringements, and the fines they had to pay. Almost 23 feet of silt covered the sites here until they were excavated beginning in 1876, and the pillars in that hall of shame are once again visible. Married women (except for one priestess) were not allowed to view the games, and any who tried to watch surreptitiously were to be tossed off the nearby Mount Typaion. Interestingly, young women classified as virginal could watch, and-wearing short tunics-could even participate themselves in special footraces held separately. No female events requiring enormous upper-body strength, though. The Olympic games were clearly religious. A champion dedicated his trophy wreath to the patron deity of his city and offered a sacrifice on that pretend-god's altar. Temples between the stadium and the gymnasium, surrounded by tall trees, provided a respite from the sun. A fountain near Hera's temple provided water and acted as an air conditioner when a breeze moved through the spray. The basic sprint distance was one stadium, which equaled about 208 yards. Another race was about three miles long. Those events, along with others like the javelin throw, would not look all that different from the ones to be held next week. Others would: For the long jump, jumpers held heavy stones or lead weights in each hand. Jumpers ran up to the starting board and swung their weights backward and forward with arms outstretched. They then leaped, throwing the weights behind them just before they landed. This year's Olympics pay tribute to the ancients by having the shotput event take place here. But one ancient event with far greater fan appeal is not on the schedule: The Pankration was a combination of wrestling and boxing in which everything was permitted except biting and gouging out eyes (although that was allowed in non-Olympic matches held in Sparta). Statues in today's Olympic museum near the ancient gymnasium show the agony of supreme exertion. So what do we make of this? Psalm 147 notes that God does not take delight in the strength and speed of a man, but from Paul's frequent use of running metaphors we can infer that God approves of the character displayed when we run the race hard. So sports in and of themselves are not glorious, but the fortitude they (and other disciplined activities) help to produce can glorify God (see "Good Sports" in this issue). That's a good reason for Christian schools to have sports, as long as they keep them in perspective. The ancient Greeks at times did not keep the Olympics in perspective, and others have used them to sell neo-paganism. For example, the tradition of carrying an Olympic torch lit from a flame at Hera's altar here began with the Berlin Olympics of 1936 when Hitler, in love with fire, had his team light the torch at Olympia and carry it north. The ruins here are a lesson in the fleetingness of fame. The statues excavated here and now on display in a nearby museum show 20-year-old bodies, but those bodies aged and turned to dust. The Olympic peace was a human attempt to have lions lie down with lambs: For a three-month period surrounding the games, Greek city-states did not go to war with each other-but brutal fighting went on before and after, century after century, as a millennium worth of Olympic Games did not bring the millennium to man.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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