Athletic games in ancient Greece were not autonomous activities, but were held in the context of major religious holidays, as an element in the worship of a particular god, combined with prayer, hymns, animal sacrifices, consumption of the slaughtered animals, public and private banqueting and the opportunity for all forms of human contact.
These festivals, more than any other activity in the ancient world, represented the largest gatherings of people for a peaceful purpose: some 40,000 people would assemble every four years, only in Olympia. Aside from the locals, for whom access to the sanctuary was easy, spectators usually consisted of the ruling classes of ancient Greece’s city-states and of Greek colonies throughout the Mediterranean. Their presence in the great panhellenic sanctuaries not only allowed them to participate in athletic competitions, but also provided an opportunity to pursue politics on an individual and/or state level.
Theoretically, most of them arrived at the sanctuaries as part of their city’s official delegation. We can imagine the panhellenic sanctuaries as being regularly filled with the political and military leadership of all the Greek city-states, thus creating an ideal setting for politics and diplomacy. Olympia during the Games was the most important center for decision-making and alliance-forging in the Mediterranean.
The Triumph of Alcibiades
The presence and especially the wealth of a city-state’s ambassadors (theoroi) were beneficial in public demonstrations and claims to office. In 416 BC, for example, four years after first being elected general in Athens, Alcibiades joined the Games’ most high-profile event, the chariot race. He arrived at Olympia with seven four-horse chariots and assumed the position of “architheoros,” leader of the Athenian delegation, under whose purview also came the participation of the representatives of all the Athens-allied cities.
“Athletes, as representatives of their towns or city-states, were automatically considered
also to be spokesmen for the political and ideological policies of their regimes.”
This Athenian mission to Olympia was based purely on ulterior political motives. Here, one year prior to 415 BC, the Athenian leader seems already to have been laying his plans for the Sicilian Expedition. The 91st Olympiad became Alcibiades’ ultimate triumph. He won the top three places and shattered the Spartans’ past record of domination in the event – a fact he celebrated most splendidly by organizing his own victory parade, hosting a meal for all the spectators and providing fodder for all the horses.
A few months later, to support his views in the Athenian assembly concerning the Sicilian Expedition, Alcibiades claimed that his grand appearance and personal victories at the Olympics had brought great prestige to his native city and had made a larger-than-life impression on all the Greeks (Thucydides 6.16.1).
It was with this argument that the famous Athenian general succeeded in persuading his countrymen to adopt a major military campaign and to entrust its command to him.
Laughing with a Tyrant
There were also cases, however, in which a great city-state mission achieved the exact opposite results from those intended. This happened in the early 4th century BC when the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius I, aiming to promote himself and to increase his reputation among the Greeks, dispatched an official delegation to Olympia with several four-horse chariots and envoys that resided in luxurious tents. As Dionysius had a passion for poetry, he also sent poetry readers to publicly recite his own work, hoping to be glorified as a great muse. At first, this resplendent delegation stirred the other spectators’ curiosity and admiration. But once the bards began to read Dionysius’ pathetically poor poems, the audience broke out in laughter and mockery. At that moment the orator Lysias, there to read his own Olympic speech, urged the crowd not to accept the envoys of a tyrannical regime. Many of the spectators attacked and destroyed the delegation’s tents and more or less drove the Syracusans from Olympia (Diodorus 14.109). Lysias’ action stemmed not only from his anti-tyrannical ideology, but also from the fact that the Syracusans at this time were allies of Sparta.
Another revealing episode, in which we see the Olympic Games’ strong political role, occurred in 212 BC, in the 142nd Olympiad, during the men’s boxing final. One of the competitors was the powerful and famous Kleitomachos from Thebes, who had dominated the sport for many years. Opposite him stood the Alexandrian Aristonicus, whom King Ptolemy of Egypt had prepared and sent – in the hope that if his athlete defeated the well-known favorite, he himself would win points in the contemporary political arena: a typical case of self-serving political patronage in ancient athletics.
The spectators, however, instantly took the side of Aristonicus, since they viewed him as the underdog, and tried to spur him on. When he managed to inflict two hard blows to the face of his stronger opponent, the crowd rejoiced. Once the Theban Kleitomachos recovered, he called a stop to the fight, turned to the crowd and expressed his wonder at their attitude: Did they think he wasn’t fighting fairly or did they not believe that he was fighting for the glory of Greece, while the Egyptian competed for the glory of a king? And what did they prefer? To see an Egyptian defeat a Greek and take home the crown, or to hear the herald announce a Theban as the winner of the men’s boxing competition? As soon as Kleitomachos had said his piece, the spectators had such a change of heart that Aristonicus was beaten by the crowd rather than by his stronger opponent.
Such anecdotes not only highlight the power of the crowds, who could alter the course of a match, but also reveal the strong loyalties to national identity that lurked within the stadiums and hippodromes. Moreover, it is obvious that athletes, as representatives of their towns or city-states, were automatically considered also to be spokesmen for the political and ideological policies of their regimes.
The “Rigged” Pentathlon
Lust for victory sometimes led athletes to break the rules. Such was the case in the summer of 332 BC, during the 112th Olympiad. The Athenian competitor in the pentathlon, Kalippos, was caught bribing his opponents and consequently sentenced to pay a huge fine. Because he himself was unable to pay, his obligation was automatically transferred to his city-state. However, because the amount was exorbitant, the Athenians refused to cover his debt and sent the orator Hyperides on a diplomatic mission to defend their decision before the Elean Council, the Games’ highest administrative body. The Eleans rebuffed the Athenians’ excuses and insisted on payment of the fine.
The Athenians reacted by employing a tactic well known today from the modern Olympic Games in Moscow and Los Angeles: they threatened to stop sending their athletes and to boycott the next Olympics in 328 BC. The case thus having reached a deadlock, the solidarity that existed between the panhellenic sanctuaries then came into play: the Eleans appealed to the Oracle at Delphi, which announced that it would no longer serve the Athenians until they paid their fine, which they eventually had to do.
With the money collected from fines imposed on offending athletes who had tried to buy off their opponents, the Olympic authorities in the early 4th century BC began to erect a series of bronze statues dedicated to Zeus. By Roman times they had installed 17 such figures in front of the stadium’s entrance, for all incoming athletes to see and to discourage the recurrence of such misdeeds.
The didactic epigrams on the statues’ pedestals served the same purpose, one of which states that victories are won not by money but by the speed of an athlete’s legs and the strength of his body. Once he has been bribed, the shame of his corruption will survive long after his death.