Article — From the August 1928 issue

The Olympic Games

AUGUST, 1928. This is the year and this the principal month of the Olympic Games, the modern sporting revival of those sacred games of ancient Greece held in the valley under the shadow of Mount Erymanthus in western Sparta over two thousand years ago. The news despatches suggesting the friendly intermingling of the athletic youth of more than fifty nations make it seem jolly and delightful; there is a pleasant air of informal good sportsmanship about the reports that flutter daily across the ocean from Amsterdam. Yet occasionally a paragraph creeps in that leads one to wonder whether all is really well upon the sporting Potomac, whether these modern Olympic Games are working out quite as Baron de Coubertin and his committee hoped and expected when they first met in Paris in 1894. Indeed, in certain outspoken quarters there is a belief that it would be best to drop them altogether. Thus a recent editorial in the London Daily Express said, “The British nation, profoundly interested in sport, is intensely uninterested in the Olympic Games.”

Everyone familiar with sport, as well as every student of the classics, is vaguely aware of the existence of the Olympic Games several thousand years ago; but not everyone realizes what an important position they held in the Greece of 400 B.C. or thereabouts. For more than six hundred years, no matter who was fighting or what kind of warfare was being waged, a truce was always proclaimed throughout the land at the time of the Games in order to allow spectators and athletes to make the journey to Sparta in safety. A winner was escorted home in triumph in a chariot and taken into his native city through a breach in the walls made to signify that a town capable of producing such a man needed no protection. Poets like Pindar and Simonides composed hymns of praise in his honor; for a long time the Olympic victor was regarded as the expression of Grecian culture at its highest. But as the Games grew in importance and prestige their spirit and that of the victors changed immeasurably.

This change seems to have come about first of all through the addition of various events to the Olympic program. Originally the single contest was a footrace within the Stadium; then the chariot races were added, next came other races of various distances between the contestants. Very soon it was found that the earlier winners, men who devoted little or no time to preparing for the Games, were being beaten by men who took months to train seriously for the different events. Towns and cities discovered how beneficial it was to produce the winner at Olympia: grants of money and assistance were given their athletes, and before long the simple wreath of olives was by no means the only prize the victor at Olympia received. Indeed, so open and so apparent were the commercial recompenses dispensed, so far did the games begin to drift from the Olympic ideal of old, that men like Plate and Socrates denounced them in public, doubtless receiving the same sort of derision as those who venture to question our sporting panorama of the twentieth century. Then, as now, a class came into existence which openly devoted its time to the serious business of athletics. Its vocation, as well as its avocation, was the Olympic Games.

Before long whole towns began to compete for the services of athletes in much the same manner as our professional baseball players are bought and sold in the open market to-day. Thus we are told how Astylus of Crotona declared himself to be a citizen of Syracuse, and how Sotades of Crete became a citizen of Ephesus, both men receiving large sums of money in the transaction. Furthermore, not only were the amounts bestowed upon the winners by grateful townsfolk enormous, but not infrequently the victors were given the right of “Sitesis,” or free subsistence for life, in other words a kind of athletic pension. Solon alone among the Athenian lawmakers of his time dared protest at the corruption of the Games; indeed, it was principally owing to his efforts that the prizes for winners, which for some years had been given in the form of money, were limited to five hundred drachma apiece. So open was the venality of the ancient Olympics that the religious atmosphere in which they originated was lost sight of, and when athletes became out-and-out professionals, abandoning all other occupations, interest in the contests began to abate. It was the beginning of the end of the famous Olympics of Greece. These Games, conceived in a spirit of religious purity, became the victim of corrupt professionalism, and after a period of more than seven hundred years of existence, came to an end in 293 A.D.

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