Saturday, August 16, 2008

Book Review: The Naked Olympics

Tony Perrottet's book (The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games, Random House, 2004) is a fun, almost novel-like description of the ancient Olympics, held in Olympia (not to be confused with Olympus) from around 776 B.C. until A.D. 393.

The book's unstated thesis may be that those ancient games had as much ego, politics, and corruption as our modern Olympics have. Perrottet describes a Greek world positively sports "crazed," and claims that our current sporting events "hark back to those energetic pagans--as does our correlating obsession with youth and the body beautiful."

Perrottet outlines gymnasium culture in ancient Greece as well as spectator culture and the accompanying difficulties in traveling to and enduring the Olympic spectacle. Fans routinely dealt with poor accommodations, lack of clean water, and disease that ripped through the isolated Olympia.

He then describes the games themselves. The original ceremony had a single event: a sprint of some 210 yards (a distance marked out by Hercules himself). Other events were later added: a longer sprint (2 x 210 yards) and a distance race; wrestling, boxing, and a no-holds-barred fight called the pankration; a four-horse chariot-race; and the pentathlon, where athletes competed at javelin, discus, standing long-jump (with weights), a foot-race, and wrestling (apparently as a tie-breaker).

The book is filled with interesting anecdotes: references to ancient Greek graffiti; details about disruptions of the ancient games; stories of cheaters; a discussion of the role of women in Olympic culture; and depictions of victory celebrations and banquets.

The book's biggest weakness may be that in his mad dash to show the modernity of those ancient games, Perrottet does not sufficiently explain the specificity of their antiquity. While he refers to the "sacred track," the "ritual importance" of oil, the shrines and sacrifices at Olympia and the "holy pilgrims" who attended the games, he calls all of this merely a "divine sideshow" and fails to completely make the connections between sports and religion in the ancient world.

When he describes wondrous sculpture of Zeus as being continuously massaged with oil, he does not link this to the athletes and their well oiled bodies (a link that would make the athletes avatars of the gods). Nor does he give much weight to the fact that the athletes performed the same feats as gods did before them, or that the games began in response to an order from the oracle at Delphi.

Seen in this light, what we might view as the ancient games' excesses, could be seen as forms of extreme devotion, a devotion different from ours to be sure, but devotion none the less. "Fans" attended the games to see the exploits of the gods reenacted. The thrill of spectatorship--the "sports craze"--could be interpreted as a sort of spiritual communion with the supernal forces--fans act as if possessed when their team or athlete wins. The nudity can be seen as a way for the athlete to offer his mortal body up for sacrifice to the gods. Even the partying (imbibing large quantities of wine) can be seen as a form of divine communion, drunkeness being an altered state that imitates the ecstasy of heavenly inspiration. Some of those who leered at the young athletes were certainly, as Perrottet claims, lecherous old men, but some were perhaps attempting to be intimate with the gods, represented by the victorious athletes.

Despite this omission, Perrottets book is compelling and enlightening; a good read to supplement the twelve hours a day spent in front of the TV watching the modern Olympics.

A final word on the book's title: I have read elsewhere that ancient Olympians weren't entirely naked: Olympians apparently tied their foreskins shut. What prudes!

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