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Rather than Promoting Peace the Greek Olympics Fuelled Ancient World Rivalry, Says Historian

Originally published 11 May 2004

Today the Olympics are celebrated as an ancient arena that traditionally fostered peace between nations. However, in reality, sport and politics went hand in hand in the ancient world and the athletic competitions that took place in Olympia mirrored military struggles for primacy and prestige, says a University of Warwick historian.

The Greek Olympics provided a means for one city state to assert its superiority over another, providing an outlet for fierce inter-state rivalries.

As the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens draw closer members of the recently formed International Olympic Truce Centre, created as a new peace initiative to revive supposedly ancient ideals, hopes to foster peace and understanding between participating nations through an appeal to Antiquity.

But, the origins of Olympia lie in rivalry and competition between Greek states. Numerous statues of victorious athletes set up in the Sanctuary at Olympia were funded by the athlete’s city and were a proud statement of the victory of that particular state.

Just as there is tribal rivalry and irreconcilable divisions both on and off the sports field today, this was also the case in Ancient Greece. When footballer Sol Campbell moved from Tottenham Hotspur FC to Arsenal FC he was subject to an orchestrated hate campaign, and when Mo Johnston turned his back on Celtic for Rangers he was subjected to an avalanche of hate mail. Likewise, athletes who changed their allegiance to another city during Ancient times could be punished for this lack of patriotism by the destruction of their property and images back home.

Olympia served as a showcase for statements of military victory. Many of the statues were funded from the spoils of war, and served as reminders of military successes. Some commemorated joint Greek enterprises, such as the victory over the Persians at Plataea in 479 BC, celebrated in a huge statue of Zeus inscribed with the names of all the Greek states that took part.

Other statues were records of victories over fellow Greek states – of Thessaly over Phocis, Sparta over Messenia, the Eleans over the Arcadians. Even the great temple of Zeus which dominated this Panhellenic sanctuary was funded from the plunder which Elis, the city in charge of the sanctuary, had seized in a war with their neighbour and rival, the city of Pisa.

Dr Zahra Newby, from the University of Warwick, said: “An ‘Olympic Truce’ did allow participating athletes free passage to Olympia to attend the Games from the 9th Century BC, yet this truce was only ever a temporary measure, designed to restrict conflict in the area of the Games rather than to bring together all competing cities in peace and goodwill.”

The Olympics acted as a sign of shared Greek culture, but the Games also alienated non-Greeks in conquered states. Olympia served as an emblem of Greek unity, of ‘Panhellenism’. Its athletic games and religious rituals were a sign of the common culture that bound together Greek-speaking peoples from Greece itself or Greek cities in Southern Italy, Egypt and Asia.

However, the Olympics also marked out non-Greeks, such as the Persians, who were forbidden from participating in the games, as were slaves. The games alienated sections of society in their own land, although definitions of ‘Greekness’ gradually expanded to include first the Macedonians (including the father of Alexander the Great), and later the Romans.

For more information contact:

Jenny Murray,
Communications Office,
University of Warwick,
Tel: 02476 574255,
Mobile: 07876217740

Dr Zahra Newby,
Classics and Ancient History,
University of Warwick,
Tel: 02476 522367,
Mobile: 07798676055