Monday, April 14, 2008

April 14, 2008

     The Olympic torch has had its problems this year--protests here, a secret route in San Francisco--but if no one can see it, why take if off the plane at all--and this has produced at least one call--an op ed piece by Buzz Bissinger in the New York Times--to abolish the games.
     The idea of runners bringing the torch to the site of the games wasn't part of the original Olympics. That practice started in 1936, when Adolf Hitler's Berlin hosted the games.
     But in the original Olympics--I learned about them in a fascinating book, "The Naked Olympics" by Tony Perrottet-- yes, the athletes were naked;  the trainers sometimes were too, though the judges wore official robes.  Naked runners, and boxers, and so on--you have to wonder how NBC would cope with that.
     There were some other differences too.  Crowds got to the games mostly by walking--a two day stroll from Athens--forty miles or so.  And once they got to Olympia they slept--well, the rich might have servants and tents but most fans just sacked out on the ground.  Olympia had, of course, no plumbing--no showers.  The athletes could wash but everyone else went dirty.   It gets hot in Greece in the summer, so by the second or third day, body odor was presumably common and rank.
     For religious reasons, Perrottet writes, spectators were forbidden to wear hats.  Many collapsed from heatstroke, and some died.  There were no toilets, so people used the immediate neighborhood as a bathroom.  The Romans built the first permanent toilet block, but that was in the first century A.D.and the Games had been going on for centuries by then.  Another festival of smell, presumably; something like seventy thousand people--fans, workers, and so on--would attend.
     The sports were sometimes violent.  Athletes got injured, sometime killed, in events like chariot racing and pankration--a sort of combination of wrestling and kickboxing.
     But in other ways, the old Games were like today's professional sports.  If you won, your future was assured.  "Financially speaking," Perrottet writes, "a victor was a made man."  Cash, gifts, maybe a house, all kinds of rewards.  You had to win, though--no prizes for second or third.
     Well, it was a different time but some of the same forces--money, politics--that Mr. Bissenger objects to now were present then.  I think I'd vote to let the Games begin. 


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