The modern Olympic ideals differ dramatically from the way the games were actually played in ancient Greece, says a University of Maryland classicist who has heavily researched the Olympic past. The ancient games featured professionals with a “winning is everything” philosophy.
“Ancient Olympiads were more like the modern PGA golf circuit than the amateur ideal advanced for most of the 20th century,” says Hugh Ming Lee, a professor of classics at the University of Maryland. “The Greeks and Romans awarded honors to the most accomplished athletes and paid them for their efforts. These professionals traveled a competitive circuit. The Vince Lombardi notion of winning is much closer to the original Olympic spirit.”
Ancient athletes resorted to various “potions” to gain a competitive edge. “The dung of a wild boar was honored for the powers it conferred on charioteers,” Lee points out. “Even the emperor Nero tried it.”
Modern-day ‘Ultimate Fighting’ resembles the Greek’s pankration, where almost everything short of eye-gouging and biting was permitted. “If it weren’t for the nudity, the ancient games would have played well on modern TV,” Lee says.
The ancient Greeks played the games under a flag of truce to give athletes safe passage. The games offered a respite from war, according to Lee. The athletes ran the final race of the Olympiad in armor, perhaps to acknowledge the coming end of the truce.