Charioteer most high
Of the weary-footed lightening
Zeus, thy circling Hours have sent me With the gamut of the harp’s song
To witness the loftiest of Games.
For Psaumis comes
On his chariot, crowned with the olive of Pisa.1
Greek vase painting of a Chariot race
Thus does the great Greek poet Pindar celebrate the victory of Psaumis of Kamarina in the Chariot races of Olympia c. 480 B.C.E.
No doubt many well be surprised to find out that the person who walked away with the much coveted wreath of olive leaves at Olympia was not the Chariot driver but the owner of the horses and team, who employed the driver!2 A surprise that is to those who think that there is a close resemblance between the ancient and modern games.
The modern Olympics are considered by many to be copied from the ancient Olympics of Greece. That may be the intention but in reality there is an enormous difference. Perhaps the most enormous difference is the modern cult of amateurism.
The modern Olympics had when they originated the idea that the only people who could compete were “amateurs”, i.e., those who did not earn a living / money from their athletic prowess. The idea was that some how earning a living sullied the “purity”, “idealism” of disinterested sports.3
The above lead to a truly absurd distortion of the ancient Olympics; for example:
The ancient Olympic Games … were strictly amateur... and for many centuries, as long as they continued amateur, they grew in importance and significance …Gradually, however, abuses and excesses developed… What was originally fun, recreation, a diversion, and a pastime became a business… The Games degenerated, lost their purity and high idealism, and were finally abolished … sport must be for sport’s sake.4
In 1913 the American athlete James Thorpe had his medals taken away and his Olympic record expunged because a few years earlier he had played Baseball for fifteen dollars a week for a few months. So that James Thrope was not a “pure” amateur and thus his medals would sully Olympic purity with the aura of filthy lucre.5
Pierre de Coubertin, founder and then President of the I.O.C., said with grave certainty:
It is enough to remember the careful way antiquity allowed participation in the Olympics only to those athletes who were irreproachable. Ought it not to be the same in the modern world? …If the Thorpe case convinces the whole world of the need for a change, it will undeniably have rendered sports a valuable service.6
Aside from being self serving and patronizing the above comments suffer from being flatly completely, spectacularly wrong!
To put it into a nut shell the ancient Greeks had absolutely no conception of the “amateur” athlete.7
‘Professional’ to him [Aristotle], as to every Greek, meant a man who received proper training and devoted himself more or less full-time to an activity an idiotes (we should say ‘an amateur’) did neither. The modern distinction –whether or not one was paid for the activity- did not enter into the picture for the simple reason that all athletes expected and accepted material rewards for victory, regardless of class or personal fortune.8
It is interesting that the modern word idiot is in fact derived from a Greek word that among other things meant ‘non-professional’ or amateur. In fact the general Greek attitude was one of derision for ‘amateurs’ who competed against professionals.9
Getting back to Chariot winners. The simple fact that the owners of the Chariot teams won the coveted olive wreath and employed, i.e., paid charioteers to drive their chariots and teams to victory should alert us to the clear difference between the ancient and modern games.10
Ancient athletes competed in a wide variety of games. Over a hundred games eventually developed all over the Greek world most with substantial cash or other prizes.11 Further even in games like the ancient Olympics in which aside from the olive wreath there was no prize there were considerable indirect awards. Like statutes being erected in honour of the athlete, the grateful city giving a large cash award to the victor, free sustenance for life, large rewards from wealthy men and so on and so forth.12
In the games not only were there cash awards there could be valuable goods like jars of olive oil.13 The Athenian statesman Solon is sad to have introduced the following bonuses for winners in the games; 100 drachmas for the Isthmian games, 500 drachmas for the Olympics. Some cities introduced lifetime pensions for winners.14
The result was that athletes could become very wealthy and some did. It is reported that one athlete got 30,000 drachmas for a single appearance.15
The athletes who competed in the ancient Olympics did not compete out of disinterested interest in the sport but for fame and fortune and many managed to achieve just that. Further the idea that the ancient Olympics involved “aristocratic” “amateur” athletes is nonsense. The athletes came from all social strata.16
Given that story that the ancient Olympics were a disinterested competition among amateurs is complete nonsense; just how did this idea emerge?
This idea emerged in 19th century when aristocratic snobs in an effort to enforce class bias created the distinction between “amateur” and “professional” athlete in order to prevent “lower” class athletes from humiliating their “betters” by defeating them in athletics.17
...to bring together in sport the two divergent elements of society that can never by any chance meet elsewhere on even terms… The labouring class are all right in their way; let them go their way in peace, and have their athletics in whatsoever manner suits their inclinations…Let us have our own sport among more refined elements.18
In order to get moneyed support the early Olympics had to kowtow to this elitist nonsense and so was born the myth of the “pure”, “amateur”. And the actual history of the ancient Olympics was fraudulently, deliberately falsified to provide a bogus pedigree for what always was nothing more than egregious bigotry.
Even Pindar whose works would be misused19 to justify the myth of ancient amateurism said:
Of prizes won in the Games,20
1. Pindar, Olympian 4, The Odes, Penguin Books, London, 1969, p. 227.
2. Finley, M. I., & Pleket, H. W., The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years, Clarke, Irwin & Co. Ltd., Toronto, 1976, p. 30.
3. Young, David C., How the Amateurs, Won the Olympics, in The Archaeology of the Olympics, Ed. Raschke, Wendy J., University of Wisconsin Press, London, 1988, pp. 55-75, at pp. 55-56.
4. IBID, p. 72. Quoting Avery Brundage a member of the IOC, (International Olympic Committee).
5. IBID, pp. 55-56, 71. James Thorpe was undoubtedly one of the very greatest of American athletes.
6. IBID, p. 55.
7. Finley, pp. 71-73.
8. IBID, p. 71.
9. IBID, p. 71-73.
10. IBID, pp. 26-34.
11. IBID, pp. 74-78.
12. IBID, pp. 77-78, Durant, Will, The Life of Greece, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1939, pp. 216-217.
13. Note 12.
14. Finley, pp. 77-79.
15. IBID, p. 77.
16. IBID, pp. 73-74.
17. Young, pp. 62-65.
18. IBID, p. 64. Quoting Caspar Whitney.
19. See Young.
20. Pindar, Olympian 1, p. 64.