Olympics Then and Now

an illustration of people runnig in the ancient Olympics, alongside a photo of modern runners

Since the first Olympics in 776 B.C., athletes have aspired to be Olympic victors. Then and now, the benefits of being an Olympic victor far exceed the prize received on the podium.

Images courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art and Unsplash/Jonathan Chng

The delayed 2020 Olympics, which begin this week in Tokyo, are the first Games to be postponed due to a pandemic and to be without in-person spectators.

Any first in the Olympics is noteworthy, as the Games have been going on for centuries. In ancient times, the Olympics were held in Olympia, Greece, typically in late summer every four years, from 776 B.C. until the late fourth or possibly early fifth century. The modern Olympics started in 1896.

David Gilman Romano, the Nicholas and Athena Karabots Professor of Greek Archaeology in the University of Arizona School of Anthropology, is an expert on the ancient Olympics. Romano is also the co-director of the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project, leading excavations at the site known as the "birthplace of Zeus."

The modern Olympics are different in many ways from the ancient Games. For instance, the modern Games are secular rather than religious, the location changes every four years and women can now compete. However, certain things remain the same, including the fact that so many athletes aspire to be Olympic victors – and that some may unfortunately cheat along the way, Romano said.

David Gilman Romano, pictured at Mt. Lykaion in Greece

David Gilman Romano, pictured at Mt. Lykaion in Greece, is the co-director of the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project, a major University of Arizona excavation since 2004.

Olympics Rarely Canceled

Before the postponement of the 2020 Olympics, the modern Games were canceled just three times, but never due to public health concerns.

Previous cancelations were all due to war. The summer 1916 Olympics were canceled due to World War I, and both the summer and winter Olympics were canceled in 1940 and 1944 due to World War II.

The Olympics of 1920, which followed the devastation of the 1918 influenza pandemic, took place on schedule.

The ancient Olympics were also never derailed by disease, as far as Romano knows. This may be partly because disease outbreaks were often more isolated geographically, and people didn't have quick ways to communicate changes to the planned games. A year ahead of the Olympic Games, organizers would send heralds out to announce that the festival would be held on the third full moon after the summer solstice the following year.

There were plenty of wars in ancient times, too, but they never caused the Olympics to be canceled. Romano said there was an Olympic Truce, most likely three months long, that would halt conflicts during the Games.

"The Greeks fought with each other all the time. So, the idea behind the Olympic Truce was to protect the athletes, coaches, dignitaries and spectators from getting embroiled in a battle on the way to or from Olympia," he said.

One notable occasion when the truce did not hold up was in 364 B.C., when a battle broke out between the Eleans and the Arcadians over control of the Sanctuary of Zeus during the wrestling event of the pentathlon.

No Spectators This Year

In early July, it was announced that the postponed 2020 Olympics won't have in-person spectators after a spike in COVID cases in Tokyo. Although billions will likely still watch on TV, the lack of in-person spectators will be a big change from Games past.

By the fifth century B.C., the ancient Olympics were a five-day religious festival held in honor of the Greek god, Zeus, and spectators were an essential part of the events. Romano said the festival included processions, dedications to Zeus, athletics, a sacrifice of 100 oxen and a large feast for athletes and spectators alike.

At the first Olympic Games, there were likely very few spectators – probably no more than 100 – and there was only one contest: a foot race of 600 feet with a handful of competitors. But by the fifth century B.C., the Olympic stadium could accommodate 45,000 standing spectators, who came from all over the Greek world "by boat, by foot and by horseback," Romano said.

The ancient Olympics also had some strict rules for spectators. Married women, for example, were banned from watching boys and men compete in the Games. If they were caught, they could be thrown off a nearby mountaintop. A separate festival was held at Olympia in honor of Hera, the wife of Zeus. That event was organized by women and included foot races and dances for unmarried girls.

In 428 B.C., the married woman Kallipateira snuck into the Games dressed as a man to see her son Peisirodos compete and win. She was caught when she rushed to the track to congratulate her son, but the punishment was waived because Kallipateira was not only the mother of an Olympic victor but she was also the daughter of Diagoras, a famous boxer and Olympic victor.

Cheating is as Old as the Olympics

In the modern Olympic Games, accusations of cheating primarily focus on doping. Romano is not aware of any documented incidences of doping during the ancient Games, although athletes may have ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms or special elixirs, such as teas made of crushed animal testicles, he said.

Some athletes also placed "curse tablets" – small strips of lead inscribed with a curse – in the surface of the stadium or the hippodrome, where the horse events took place, in hopes of influencing the outcome of an event.

However, the main source of cheating in the ancient Olympics was bribery.

a line of stone pedestals

In the ancient Olympic Games, statues of Zeus were set up to document cheating offenses. These monuments were set up on the path that athletes walked to enter the competition. Only 16 stone pedestals of the statues have survived.

Wikimedia Commons

"If an athlete won, even if he won illegally, he could still remain an Olympic victor, but his city-state paid a huge fine," Romano said. "There were statues of Zeus set up in the sanctuary paid for by these fines, with the story of the infraction on them so that everybody would know what happened."

In one famous instance of bribery in A.D. 67, the Olympic Games were held in an off-year so that the Roman emperor Nero, who fancied himself a famous athlete, could compete. He was declared the Olympic victor in six events – three that he introduced himself: lyre-playing, the 10-horse chariot race and tragedy, or acting.

"Nero paid the judges a huge amount of money – according to one source, 1 million sesterces – for him to carry out and win at these alternative Olympic Games," Romano said. Later, the Nero games were declared illegitimate by officials.

Olympic Glory Remains Desirable Prize

Preparing for the Olympic Games requires time-consuming training. In the ancient Games, athletes had to swear to Zeus that they had been training for 10 months. They also arrived in Elis, the city-state that hosted the Olympics, one month before the games to train under the supervision of judges, who would decide who was worthy of competition and who wasn't.

In ancient times, victors received an olive wreath for their efforts. Today, they get a medal. However, both then and now, the benefits of being an Olympic victor far exceed the prize received on the podium.

While today's victors may receive a lucrative sponsorship deal, ancient Olympic victors commonly received monetary rewards when returning to their home city, Romano said. For instance, in 600 B.C., an Olympic victor from Athens could receive a cash award of 500 drachmai – "a literal fortune," Romano said. Athenian Olympic victors also received a free meal in City Hall every day for the rest of their lives as a sort of pension plan. Victors were also widely celebrated. Sculptures and poems of the athletes were commissioned by the family or the victorious city, and coins commemorating equestrian victories were minted by kings.

"One thing that remains in the Olympics is the idea of competing for a prize, which is the original Greek meaning of the word 'athlete,'" Romano said. "That was true in the very beginning and that's true today."