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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Some Things Never Change : And That Includes the Olympics, Which Weren't All That Pure Almost 2,000 Years Ago

July 20, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Some unpleasant and hard things happen in life. And do they not happen at Olympia? Do you not swelter? Are you not cramped and crowded? Do you not bathe with discomfort? Are you not drenched whenever it rains? Do you not have your fill of tumult and shouting and other annoyances? But I fancy that you hear and endure all this by balancing it off against the character of the spectacle.

--Epictetus

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Epictetus never wrote promotional literature for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games--his copy deadline was 1,900 years ago--but the famous Greek sportswriter had a pretty fair idea of what was to come, give or take the $2.75 mini-bottle of water.

Epictetus covered the Olympics of the first and early second centuries A.D., which were also held just outside Athens, although not anywhere near a bug-eyed ringworm of a mascot named Izzy, as pagan rituals were taken much more seriously back then.

The original Greek Games, which, according to written record, were held from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D., had a good deal more in common with the modern Olympics than the oracles and scribes of antiquity could have ever fathomed.

Athletes performed in the nude, just as the U.S. water polo team did for that magazine photo shoot.

Winners were treated like gods, with poems written and statues erected in their honor, just like the Dream Team.

Losers, according to Epictetus, were not permitted "merely to be beaten and then leave" but were disgraced "in the sight of the whole civilized world." And this was long before NBC acquired exclusive broadcasting rights.

The original Greek Games were also ridden with scandal--"shamateurs," bribery, cheating, illegal use of performance-enhancing substances.

Most often, this substance was olive oil, which athletes were allowed to rub over their bodies before competition as protection against the sun. Wrestlers, however, were supposed to dust themselves from head to toe with powder, but the occasional unscrupulous competitor would slap an oily hand against a hip or a thigh to render it too slippery to grab.

According to the tenets of the Olympic ideal, athletes competed for no monetary gain, only for the honor of Zeus--and, presumably, a silk-screened toga that read, "I Won The Olympic Pentathlon . . . And All I Got Was This Lousy Olive Wreath."

Of course, this was only the ideal. Behind the hallowed altar of Zeus, where the Olympic flame burned, and away from the trumpets' glorious blare, athletes lured by the temptation of filthy lucre regularly tanked competitions and switched city-state allegiances in a pre-Shaq form of free agency.

Take, for example, the neighboring city-states of Elis and Pisa, which were at war more often than not. Say Elis had an up-and-coming charioteer, a real rookie ace, and Pisa was a little short of depth at this position. Pisa aristocrats could then huddle, surreptitiously pool their money and entice the young whippersnapper, under the table, to jump sides, provided the price was right.

These aristocrats then paid handsomely for victories, which brought resounding acclaim to their region. Olympic champions were rewarded with lifetime pensions, free meals for life, government-tax exemptions and payoffs so exorbitant that eventually an Olympian salary cap of 500 drachmas per "victory grant" was imposed.

In those days, 500 drachmas went a lot farther--the average working man brought home about 100 drachmas a year. Consequently, the drive to win was so intense, athletes commonly tried to bribe opponents to lose--and, failing that, would try to maim them.

Maiming was allowed, even encouraged, in such Olympic events as boxing and a sadomasochistic enterprise known as "pankration," which supposedly was a mock version of hand-to-hand combat.

Legal moves in pankration: kicking, stomping, punching, tripping, gouging and strangling.

Illegal moves: Archeologists and historians continue to search.

A typical opening strategy in pankration was breaking an opponent's finger. A little something to give you the early upper hand. Sostratos of Sikyon perfected this technique to the point that he was known, and feared, throughout all of Greece as "Mr. Fingertips."

Another pankratist, named Arrachion, won his event posthumously. Trying to escape a deadly stranglehold, Arrachion executed a dandy fracture of his opponent's toe, a winning tactic that caused his opponent to hold up his right hand in agony--the universal Olympic signal for surrender. At the same time, Arrachion slumped to the ground, his last breath having been squeezed out of him. But his opponent had already conceded. Arrachion was an Olympic champion--the first, and luckily still the only, to be so honored in death.

Boxing in ancient Greece had some advantages over the present-day concept--no Rock Newman, for instance--but also some drawbacks. One was length of bout. Olympic matches had no time limit--one fought until he dropped, unconscious in the dirt, or raised his right hand in defeat.

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