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Shakespeare, Zeus and Olympia - the origins of the Olympic Games

David Goldblatt’s acclaimed book takes a comprehensive look at the background of the modern spectacle we know now.

Image: Martin Rickett

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldblatt.

Baron de Coubertin’s 1892 speech may have been the most significant public call for the creation of a modern Olympic Games, but it was hardly the first. More than half a century beforehand, in his poem ‘Dialogues of the Dead’, the Greek nationalist publisher and ideologue, Panagiotis Soutsos, imagined the ghost of Plato speaking to the newly independent but devastated Greek nation.

Now, finally free of Ottoman suzerainty, what was modern Greece? Where were its great spectacles, arts and athletics?

He was sufficiently fired by the thought to write to the Greek minister of the interior proposing that the Greek state should revive the ancient Olympics, rotating the games every four years around a distinctly modern nationalist circuit of locations: Athens, the new capital city; Tripoli, in the heart of the Peloponnese; Messolonghi, a stronghold of Greek resistance during the war; and the island of Hyrda, which had provided key naval forces to fight the Turks. Olympia itself, but for a few walls and columns, remained encased in silt.

On this occasion, the meaning of the ancient games was bound to a Greek nationalist project, but for over 300 years, fed by the rediscovery and reanimation of the lost literature of antiquity, all kinds of Europeans had been reinterpreting the ancient Olympics, drawing on its imagery and language, even staging their own Olympian festivals that tied the Greek games, however anachronistically, to causes as diverse as the politics of pleasure in the English Counter-Reformation and the popular celebration of the French Revolution.

In the 60 years between Soutsos’ poem and Coubertin’s address, there would be dozens more Olympic events, recreations and spectacles, now shaped by the emergence and globalisation of modern sports and the actual excavation of Olympia itself.

Soutsos was the first to call for a revival of the games, Coubertin was the first to bind that notion to some form of internationalism and make it happen, but both ideas emerged from a long and bizarre encounter between European modernity and an ancient religious festival – already a millennium past when Columbus landed in the Americas – about which they and we know only fragments.

Olympic Winter 1992 Albertville France Misc. More and more posters presenting French baron Pierre de Coubertin, considered as the man behind the modern Olympic games. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Conventional Olympic histories have it that Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned the games by edict in 392 CE, and that over the next 200 years the sanctuary of Olympia was destroyed by a combination of neglect and fire. Earthquakes and river flooding in the fifth and sixth centuries left most of the site broken and then buried deep in alluvial silt. What structures remained were scavenged for stone and the metal braces and dowels that held the great columns together.

The real target of Theodosius’ edict, however, was pagan practices, in particular those of the old polytheistic state religion of Rome: temples, oracles and sanctuaries, and the practices of devotional offering and sacrifice to the old gods. The policing of the Theodosian code was hardly comprehensive, with the emperor’s military forces busy fighting both a civil war within the empire and a border war with the Goths.

Rather than a sudden death, it is more likely that the games limped on in some reduced capacity, squeezed by a climate increasingly hostile to its central religious practices and associations. The Byzantine historian Lucian reported that ‘The Olympic Games existed for a long time until Theodosius the younger, who was the son of Arcadius’, suggesting that the Olympics finally expired under Theodosius II, around 436 CE.

By then, the heart of the games had been ripped out. According to George Kedrenos, the 11th-century Byzantine chronicler, the gigantic gold and ivory statue of Zeus that sat in his temple at Olympia had been transferred to the palace of Lausas and finally perished around 475 CE in one of the huge urban fires that periodically swept Constantinople, but his Olympian cult was already dead.

Lucian wrote, ‘After the temple of Olympian Zeus had been burnt down, the festival of the Eleans and Olympic contest were abandoned.’ Earthquakes and huge river floods in the middle of the sixth century finished the job. Once lost to the silt, the successive overlords of the Peloponnese – Byzantines, Franks, Ottomans and Venetians – paid the site no heed.

For over a millennium, all that really survived of the Olympic Games were words, and they would await the Renaissance humanist scholars who rediscovered and compiled the work of antiquity.

As the availability of books increased in the sixteenth century, in the original Greek, Latin and vernacular translation, key individual works with significant material on the games became easily available to the small but growing reading public.

In England, for example, in the last quarter of the century alone there were translations of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Herodotus’ Histories and Homer’s Iliad. From the latter, and its account of Patroclus’ funeral games at the wall of Troy, interested readers would have known that athletics could be a sacred rite.

From Plutarch they would have become familiar with Alexander the Great’s Olympic career, and from Herodotus they knew that Olympia offered glory — in its many varied and transferable forms — but not cash prizes.

Later readers would benefit, above all, from the brilliant, detailed first-hand accounts of Olympia and the games in Description of Greece by the second-century itinerant geographer Pausanias.

Modern Europe might still not have established quite why the Greeks played games or why they venerated them, but having read Pausanias, they could be in no doubt as to their importance: ‘Many are the sights to be seen in Greece, and many are the wonders to be heard; but on nothing does Heaven bestow more care than on the Eleusinian rites and the Olympic games.’

SHAKESPEARE William Shakespeare wrote about an early incarnation of the Olympic Games. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Writers were certainly tuning in. Composed in the early 1590s, Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 has Prince George attempting to rally his Yorkist troops:

And, if we thrive, promise them such rewards

As victors wear at the Olympian games.

A decade later, in Troilus and Cressida, the elderly Greek Prince Nestor describes his Trojan adversary, Hector, in battle:

And I have seen thee pause, and take thy breath,

When that a ring of Greeks have hemm’d thee in,

Like an Olympian wrestling

In 1633, Michael Drayton hailed as the ‘great inventor and champion of the English olimpicks.’ Drayton, a noted poet of the era, was just one of thirty-three contributors to Anallia Dubrensia, a collection celebrating Robert Dover’s Cotswold Games.

Held since 1612 in the natural amphitheatre formed by Dover Hill in Chipping Camden, in the west of England, the Cotswold Games mixed pageantry and patronage, offered feasting, dancing, games, gambling and cash prizes for sports and contests.

A mock castle was erected on the hill, and a large crowd gathered to watch hare coursing and horse racing, wrestling and shin kicking, stick fighting and hammer throwing.

Dover was born in Norfolk in 1582, into the Catholic gentry in Elizabeth’s increasingly Protestant England. Educated at Cambridge, he practised law at Gray’s Inn in London before retreating to his small estate in the country.

By all accounts a charismatic and charming man, a lover of festivities and mirth, he established and gave his name to the Cotswold Games as an act of both local patronage and national politics.

Rural contests and fairs were widespread in Stuart England, local patrons quietly supporting them, but Dover took centre stage at his own games, made them considerably larger than other events and introduced proceedings dressed in the cast-offs of King James I. This was a very deliberate celebration of the king’s rule and his attitudes to popular pleasures and pastimes, which, given the steady rise of more militant, ascetic and puritanical forms of Protestantism in seventeenth-century England, was a matter of pressing political importance.

By the 1630s, puritan landlords and gentry were banning such activities on their land and closing down rural fairs. The outbreak of civil war in 1642 and the defeat of the royalist cause in 1645 brought a halt to proceedings.

Dover died in 1652 under Cromwell’s sternly ascetic Protectorate, and the games disappeared. There were a series of revivals after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, but the olympick moniker was lost and Dover’s games, though always popular and boisterous, became ‘just another country drunken festival.’

Germany Schiller's Skulls This April 30, 2005 file photo shows a copy of the Friedrich Schiller bust created by German sculptor Johann Friedrich von Dannecker at the end of the 18th century in the museum ''Schillers Gartenhaus'', or Schiller's garden house, in Jena, eastern Germany. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The Cotswold Games may have lost their Olympic connection, but Olympia retained a place in Europe’s literary imagination and its popular cultures. Writing in the late seventeenth century, John Milton, in Paradise Lost, described the flight of Satan’s hordes as:

Part on the plain, or in the air sublime,

Upon the wing, or in swift race contend,

As at th’ Olympian games or Pythian fields

More winsomely, Voltaire, during his short stay in England in the early 18th century, wrote that, on arriving at a sporting festival on the banks of the Thames, ‘I fancied that I had been transported to the Olympic games.’

Friedrich Schiller, one of Germany’s enlightenment polymaths, took the ancient games as an example of ‘play as an element of the beautiful’ in his Aesthetic Essays.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: we find, in 1786, the London press reporting a ‘burlesque imitation’ of the Olympic Games in which the female contestants were ‘placed on a platform, with horses’ collars to exhibit through.’

Over their heads were painted the words ‘The ugliest grinner shall be the winner’ and they were awarded a prize of a ‘gold-laced hat’.

In 1794, The Times described a chariot race staged at Newmarket between Nanny Hodges and Lady Lads for the then indescribably large sum of 500 guineas as, ‘something like a revival of the Olympic Games to supply the turf gentry and the rapid decay of horse-racing’.

For another half century, popular — if not elite — knowledge of the Olympics was more likely to be garnered at the circus than in the library.

As late as the 1850s, Olympic spectaculars and recreations on horseback could be seen in New York at Franconni’s Hippodrome, across Britain with Pablo Fanque’s travelling Circus Royal, and in Edinburgh at Madam Macarte’s Magic Ring and Grand Equestrian Establishment.

Pablo Fanque, Britain’s first black circus master, and his ‘unrivalled equestrian troupe’ offered ‘new and novel features in the Olympian Games.’

Madame Macarte’s posters promised that, ‘the Extraordinary Evolutions of the Gymnastic Professors will forcibly recall to the Classical mind the old Olympian Games.’

The most ambitious but least successful revivalist was the fabulously named Colonel Charles Random, a man of uncertain social origins and even more uncertain military career, who purchased the considerable grounds of Cremorne House in Chelsea, west London, and, in 1831, created ‘the stadium’ – or, to give it its full title, ‘The British National Arena for Manly and Defensive Exercises, Equestrian, Chivalric, and Aquatic Games, and Skilful Amusing Pastimes.’

In 1832, and again in 1838 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria, he proposed staging his own Olympic Games. Sadly, it seems these efforts came to naught and the stadium’s main business for the next few decades was the fetes, fairs and spectaculars normal for a slightly risqué Victorian pleasure garden.

For Europe to acquire a more rounded knowledge of the ancient games, and for their influence on the continent’s imagination to crystallise, something more than words was required. Someone needed to actually go to Olympia and take a look.

The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldblatt is published by W. W. Norton & Company. More info here.

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