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Olympic cheating not new, by Zeus!

Byline: Chris Upton

If you watched the coverage of the Olympic shot-put finals you will have seen where the games had their origins, the precinct of Olympia back in BC 776. But apart from the arena itself, which was re-built on a number of occasions in the Ancient World and then re-constructed again in modern times, not much of Olympia's glorious past remains on view.

When Pausanias, the Greek traveller and writer, wrote the first tourist guide to Greece in the 2nd Century AD, the place was still bristling with statues, temples and shrines. Statue making was an Ancient Greek industry; they erected them in honour of famous competitors, the gods who had assisted them, and the heroes who provided the model for athletic prowess.

Pausanias catalogues the lot, but was particularly taken by one group of bronze statues that stood somewhere between the running-track and the site known as the Mother's Sanctuary. All the statues were of Zeus and they were erected, not in honour of anyone, but in dishonour.

The current Olympics were proclaimed as a return to the spirit of the ancient games, though this ideal has been somewhat marred by drug-taking by (embarrassingly) a handful of Greek athletes. Their classical ancestors, however, were not above a spot of double-dealing either. The penalty for cheating in the classical games was a fine, but the fine was levied in the shape of a statue of Zeus, complete with a suitably chastening inscription. The king of the gods did not take kindly to his festival being tainted by corrupt practices.

Drugs were not a hazard that the ancient games suffered from, but there was plenty of bribery instead. Eupolos of Thessaly - in the 98th games - was the first to be so punished, along with the two boxers he bribed to throw a fight. The inscriptions, apart from naming names, stressed that the prize was won by speed of feet and strength of body, not by cash. They added that the fearsome images of Zeus, hurling his thunderbolt, should help to deter crooked athletes from defiling the sacred enclosure.

The next culprit - 14 Olympiads later - hailed from Athens. Kallippos attempted to bribe his opponents in the pentathlon to let him win. So upset were the Athenians by the punishment that ensued that they boycotted the games. But the fine was paid anyway.

The games enclosure at Olympia was under the control of the nearby city of Elis, and it was fortunate for the integrity of the competition that the Eleans themselves seemed to have prided themselves on their country honesty and piety. Not tied to any political alliance or league, the Eleans were as incorruptible (?) as any member of the International Olympic Committee who does not come from Bulgaria. They came down hard on any celebrity athlete from the big city who thought he could bank-roll his way to first place.

Not that bribery was the only cause for disciplinary action. In the 201st Olympiad one Sarapion, a fighter from Alexandria, took one look at his opponent and ran away. Pausanias remarks that he was only athlete ever fined for cowardice. Earlier on, during the 118th Olympiad, another Egyptian called Apollonios was excluded from the boxing competition for arriving after the competition had started, and the wild olive (the victor's prize) awarded to another boxer instead. This did not deter Apollonios. He strapped on the leather thongs, strode across the arena and thumped his opponent anyway. This did not help his cause in any way, but probably did help to increase the size of his fine.

So let this be a lesson to those who have recently broken the rules. A bout of thundery weather may ensue.

Dr Chris Upton is currently Yngling on Bartley Green reservoir.
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Title Annotation:Comment
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 25, 2004
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