It was like the Super Bowl, Woodstock, Mardi Gras, a holy pilgrimage and Chippendale dancers all rolled into one.
The setting for the earliest Olympic Games some 3,000 years ago was both a sanctuary of soaring marble temples and a foul, drunken shantytown plagued by water shortages, campfire smoke and sewage. The athletes, glistening from olive oil, competed naked. Gymnasiums were restricted to keep the sex trade from overrunning events on the field.
With the 2004 Summer Games set to begin in Athens on Aug. 13, archaeologists and scholars are demythologizing and viewing the original Olympics as they really happened.
Contrary to the modern stereotype, the games weren't tightly scripted Homeric epics in which warriors dropped their weapons every four years to honor the twin virtues of amateur sport and brotherhood.
While the Olympics' 3,000-year history is dotted with the heroic champions like the wrestler Arrhichion who fought to the death, researchers say they also were plagued by cheating, scandal, gambling and outsized egos.
"The ancient Greeks were not as idealistic as we represent them to be," says David Gilman Romano of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and director of a new excavation at Mount Lykaion, 17 miles from ancient Olympia. "They had many of the same problems we have today."
The ancient games were held in a remote valley. Forty-thousand spectators crowded a hillside above a sacred precinct containing some of the greatest temples in the empire. Sport, they believed, was a high tribute to the gods, who favored the athletes who won.
Before the games, athletes pledged their piety as they were paraded past a row of statues of gods and former champions that were paid for from the fines of disgraced cheaters. At the feet of a 40-foot statue of Zeus -- one of the seven wonders of the ancient world -- they sacrificed oxen and boar and roasted hunks of the flesh in a sacred flame.
Then the games would begin, lasting five days. The athletes would consult fortunetellers and magicians for victory charms and potions -- the ancient precursors to steroids, classics experts say -- as well as curses on their opponents to fail.
The first recorded incident of actual cheating occurred in 388 B.C. when the boxer Eupolus of Thessaly bribed three opponents to take a dive.
Others were induced to swap allegiance, often at the risk of exile from their homelands. The city-state of Syracuse was as notorious as New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner in its quest for free agents that would bring religious favor and glory.
When Syracuse induced sprint champion Astylos to quit Kroton in southern Italy, fans in his hometown tore down his statue and turned his house into a prison.
Olympic corruption peaked under Roman influence; in A.D. 67, emperor Nero bribed the judges to include poetry reading as an event. They also declared him the chariot champion, overlooking that he fell out and never finished the race.
For the fractious city-states of the empire, the games held every four years offered a slightly less violent respite from their near-constant state of war. Athletes and spectators from all parts of the realm were promised safe passage to and from the neutral site.
The experience of competing against -- or cheering alongside -- battlefield rivals brought out the best and worst in human nature, especially when immortality was at stake.
"Sport was sort of like war," says University of Texas-Arlington classical history scholar Donald G. Kyle. "Participation wasn't enough. They wanted to win so badly, and they feared losing so much. What we're willing to do to win says an awful lot about our societies."
Archaeologists have uncovered some evidence of the complexity of the ancient games in excavations at Olympia and other sites that hosted preliminary games, including discus fragments, javelin points and metal objects that could be prizes or religious votives.
Greek art adds rich visual details to the historical record, with paintings on vases, urns and other fine pottery the most important source. They depict disfigured boxers with bloody noses and sprinters thundering down the track, elbows flying. Judge flogged the athletes for transgressions ranging from false starts on the track to eye gouging in the ring.
Literary sources offer still more details, from florid victory odes to inscriptions on statue pedestals.
Experts differ on the number of Olympic events. Was it 14 or 18? The mule cart race was held for just 56 years in the 5th century B.C. And, should the competition for heralds and trumpeters be counted? Regardless, the games were considerably smaller than the 300 rounds of competition staged now with 10,500 athletes from 202 nations.