Once for a head full of glory, now for a fistful of dollars


The 2016 Olympic Games of Rio are upon us. Are you excited? Are you really excited? No? I thought as much. But why is that? Unless you’re a professional athlete, related to one, or someone directly involved in the Olympic Games industry, you probably have no reason or motivation to actually watch the events. 

Even though I live a stone’s throw from ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the once sacred games held in honor of the immortal “Father of Men and Gods alike”, I find it very difficult to feel anything stirring in me when I hear or read news about the Olympics Games. 

Yet we’ve all seen the victorious athletes upon the podium weeping with joy when they receive their medals – be they gold, silver or bronze. Unarguably, it is their moment of triumph. A lifetime of arduous training is vindicated in that moment and placed in the spotlight of the world. A cynic might point out that their displays of overwhelming emotion might be caused by the prospect of all those million-dollar endorsement deals that come along with a victory in the modern Olympics. Personally, I think it’s a little bit of both. And don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing reprehensible in enjoying a well-earned financial recompense for hard work. 

But there is no glory in it. An ancient Greek athlete, covered with sweat and dust and blood under the sweltering sun of Olympia, would have been mortified were he to be presented with a pot of Median gold or a cloak of purple at the moment of his ultimate triumph. He would see it as the gravest of insults.

This might seem bizarre and strike our Western mentalities (ever so proud of their Protestant-born rationalism) as the quaint and graphic idiosyncrasy of a backwards savage. 

In order to understand what it truly meant to be crowned with an olive-branch wreath in Olympia, we must try to put ourselves in the place of that victorious athlete: 

Imagine being surrounded by seventy thousand people, cheering and roaring. They are not just a crowd; they are the whole world. To the Greek, barbarians (i.e. people of other nations) were practically nonexistent and their approbation mattered to him far less than the affection his own hunting dog showed him. 

Imagine, therefore, the entire world shouting out your name and the name of your father. You were neither alone nor a mere individual in that moment of elation. You were a shining beacon in the line of your ancestors and you knew your glory would be reflected on those who had come before you as well as on your progeny.

Since time in ancient Greece was measured by the number of the Olympiads, to be a victor in the games meant you also became part of time itself. People wouldn’t be able to refer to events, for instance, of the 74th Olympiad without mentioning or remembering your name. You, and the whole line of your people, became a part of the living history of Greece. 

Then all voices would raise the paean to Hercules and your moment of glory would merge with the moment of praise sung to the immortal hero. You would be carried aloft up to the gates of the towering temple of Jupiter. You would stand aghast beneath the shadow of its Doric robustness and there, lo! the gates would be open and you would glimpse the Olympian Zeus himself:

Trapped in his chryselephantine form, chiseled by Phidias and ever so subtly painted with life-like, transparent hues and glimmering gilding by the artist’s cousin, the Father of Men and Gods alike would be holding victory in his outstretched palm, as if offering her unto you. It was not the image of a god, a symbol or the idea of some abstract cosmic force which looked down on you at that moment but a divine being, fully alive and aware of your presence – as well as of the glory you had earned.

The judges, sat behind a splendid table of gold and ivory, would present you with a wreath made from olive branches. Your likeness would later on be erected in marble or bronze and set next to the statues of those immortalized champions of previous Olympiads whom you idolized for years and always kept hearing their names repeated on every tongue. You would be part of a pantheon of mortals.

And when you returned to your hometown what glory and praise awaited you there! If you were a victor in the brutal martial art of the pankration, a block of stone would be ceremonially removed from the city walls: for you were granted the honor of being considered “a living tower”, just like Ajax was for the Achaeans on the bloody fields of Troy. 

Imagine what profound enthusiasm, what unshakable feeling of self-esteem and, at the same time, collective pride would fill your heart and your very soul after having achieved what was, for all intents and purposes, the status of a demigod walking the earth.

To be offered money and wealth, such transient and perishable things, as rewards for entering into the realm of the sublime and the eternal would be to besmear your victory and to hold your triumph cheap.

Even though today such a perspective might be considered as hopelessly romantic, it was that very sentiment of romanticism which prompted the classicists of the Western world to revive the Olympic Games in their current form, degenerated and cheap as it may be when compared with the primitive purity of the games. 

It was that innate drive to glory in the soul of man, that thirst for immortality, which prompted emperor Nero to bribe the judges of Olympia so that he, a man who owned the entire known world and wanted for nothing, would get a taste of what all his wealth could not buy.

And, hopefully, some half-forgotten remnant of that noble dream still remains in the hearts of today’s Olympians: for the cynicism of the modern era has robbed them long ago of their greatest prize.  


Article Published: Wednesday, 10 August 2016