In celebration of the Olympic games, we offer the following excerpt from Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty, a thoroughly charming meditation on our love affair with athletes and their pursuit of excellence.
If you take a car from Athens to the Isthmus of Corinth, and then drive across the winding mountain roads of the Peloponnese Peninsula to the distant village of Olympia, some thirty miles inland from the Ionian Sea, you will soon begin to feel what a commitment it was to walk or travel on horseback to the ancient Olympic games. Yet hundreds of athletes and tens of thousands of spectators, protected by an Olympics truce, made the journey every four years, over the span of a millennium or more—from 776 BC to 394 AD (the conventionally accepted dates of the ancient Olympic games). As you try to imagine this bodily effort, for which there is simply no equivalent in the modern world, you may begin to wonder what the specific attraction of those five days spent at Zeus’ most famous sanctuary could have been.
One answer, a modern answer but valid nevertheless, comes when you arrive at this shady green valley, where the Kladeos and Alpheios rivers join under lush foliage, a place so different from the arid stony landscape through which you have traveled, with growing impatience, during several hours. For ancient guests who had walked for days and even weeks, this contrast upon arrival must have triggered intense feelings of sensual pleasure and relief. Unlike modern tourists, who have the luxury of returning to their air-conditioned hotel rooms for the night, the crowds in ancient Olympia (all men, except for the priestess of Demeter and her maidens) endured narrow quarters, a shortage of water, and blistering heat. And yet their lives held nothing more glorious or more desirable than being precisely there, in that place, to watch athletes compete.
Olympia was just one of the traditional places, along with Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea, where free men from the various Greek states and colonies came together for panhellenic games, but it was the oldest and most charismatic site. So outstanding was Olympia’s fame that the four-year rhythm of its games became the most widely accepted measure for marking time in ancient Greece. Each Olympiad (four-year period) was named for the winner in the first athletic event of the five-day competition. Unlike the spectators (and also the artists, musicians, and orators who came to showcase their talents on the margins of sporting events), athletes spent at least a month before the games at Elis, thirty-five miles from Olympia, where they trained to reach the peak of physical conditioning.
The five days of the Olympic festival were organized as a complex sequence of athletic events and religious rituals (though we miss the specific appeal of Olympia if we insist too much on the distinction between the two). The first day was dedicated to heralds, musicians, and athletic competitions for adolescents. The second day featured horse races, chariot races (including chariots drawn by mules), and, in the U-shaped 200-yard-long stadion, the core event—the pentathlon, consisting of a foot race, long jump, discus, javelin, and wrestling. All stadion races that were not part of the pentathlon took place on the third day. The fourth day was devoted to wrestling, boxing, and the pankration (a very aggressive, almost sadistic type of wrestling or kick boxing), mostly taking place at the palestra, a rectangular court surrounded by arcades. Back at the stadion finally, spectators could enjoy the hoplite run, a middle distance race for men in full armor.
Athletes in the panhellenic games performed naked, and since nakedness only became a condition several centuries after this athletic tradition began, we know that performing naked was a cultural rule, not a symptom of an archaic state of society. Before competitions, athletes would spread oil all over their skin, and some historians have explained this practice as a competitive strategy, especially for the wrestling contest, or as a performance enhancement. I am not convinced that strategic advantage was the most important reason, however. The oil made the naked bodies of athletes glisten with reflected sunlight, and this very palpable aura set them apart from ordinary men.