It's All About the Oil

August 6, 2008

A friend recently noted that this week’s column would probably run at just about the time the Chinese government was using the Olympic torch to burn down a Tibetan village. Perhaps, he said, this might be a good occasion to check out the latest edition of The Ancient Olympic Games by Judith Swadding – first published by the British Museum in 1980 and now being reissued by the University of Texas Press.

The earlier version contained a succinct overview of how the Olympics (originally held every four years between 776 BC and 395 AD) were revived at the close of the 19th century. The new edition has been expanded to include an account of the past century or so – during which time the games often served as a venue for propaganda, a medium through which great powers conducted their hostilities. All this, of course, in spite of official rhetoric about how the spirit of sportsmanship transcends ideology.

The update is necessary, I suppose, but in some ways anticlimatic – even a distraction. Let modern times take care of themselves; the author’s heart really belongs to the ancient world. Swaddling is a curator at the British Museum, and conducts most of the book as an amiable and instructive tour of what has survived of the world of the original Olympic competitions. The text is heavily illustrated with photographs of the surviving architecture at Olympia and artwork portraying the games themselves.

The most intriguing image, at least to me, was a photograph of an artifact known as a strigil. This is a device that is often mentioned in accounts of the period, but is hard to picture. The strigil was an “oil scraper,” used to peel away the layer of grime that built up on an athlete’s skin in the course of events such as the pankatrion, which is not found in the modern Olympics – a kind of no-holds-barred wrestling match that sounds absolutely brutal, and that doubtless left many who fought in it crippled for life.

The strigil, it turns out, looks something like a windshield de-icer with a little bottle of olive oil conveniently attached by a chain. Having oil rubbed into the skin before competition was supposed to prevent sunburn and otherwise be good for the athlete’s health. Any excess oil was supposed to be strigil’d off before the competition began. But a wrestler sometimes “forgot” to do this quite as thoroughly as he should. This gave him a definite advantage by making it harder for the opponent to get a grip.

More flagrant forms of cheating must have been a serious problem. Hefty fines for it were given out – that is, if the malefactor were lucky. If he wasn’t, justice was dealt out by tough characters armed with whips. Any racer who started before the signal was given should probably have just keep on running. There were also cases of competitions being “fixed.”

Swaddling writes that “instances of bribery were relatively rare.” She quotes an ancient author asking who would be such a lowlife as to try to corrupt a sacred event. (Apart from being a sporting event, the Olympics were also major religious gatherings, with scores of oxen being sacrificed for the occasion.) But you have to wonder if piety really kept everyone in line.

The author does not mention the statues of Zeus in a heavily trafficked area of Olympia, portraying the god in a menacing aspect. Inscriptions at the base of each statue warned people not to attempt to bribe the judges. If you did, Zeus would presumably hurl one of the thunderbolts he was carrying in his fist. This suggests that the temptation to offer the judges a little something was fairly common. Why go to all the trouble if everyone was already reverent and restrained?

Then again, it is easy to imagine why the athletes themselves would want to cheat. Winning immortal glory was one incentive; but so was avoiding immortal shame. The author quotes one Olympic sports commentator whose put-downs still work after two thousand years: “Charmos, a long distance runner, finished seventh in a field of six. A friend ran alongside him shouting, ‘Keep going Charmos!’ and although fully dressed, beat him. And if he had had five friends, he would have finished twelfth.”

Nor was Charmos the only victim of ancient stand-up comedy. Although Swaddling doesn’t cite it, there was the case of a boxer whose “admirers” wanted to erect a monument to his humanitarianism. Why? Because he never hurt anybody.

Greek doctors occasionally expressed irritation when athletes set themselves up as medical advisers and, Swaddling notes, “even attempted to write books on the subject.” You can just picture them performing live infomercials in the agora. Such grumbling aside, it seems there was a close connection between the Olympics and progress in ancient medical science. The latter “virtually came to a standstill when the major games ceased in the late fourth century AD.”

The close connection between the two fields was expressed in mythology: “Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine, learned his skills from the centaur Cheiron, who was credited with the introduction of competitive gymnastics and of music from the doubles pipes to accompany exercise.” (Someone should mention this to the people who run Jazzercise.)

Married women were not allowed onto the grounds of the Olympic festivities, though they managed to sneak in from time to time. Was there some dubious medical theory to rationalize this? In any case, the exclusion did not apply to all women. Both virgins and prostitutes were permitted to attend the games.

That sounds like something out of a Freudian case study. Swaddling simply notes the matter without trying to interpret it. I have no theories, but will offer a bit of related speculation. One of these days an archaeologist is going to discover an inscription that reads: “What happens at the Olympics, stays at the Olympics.”

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