The Ancient Olympic Games: Third edition by Judith Swaddling

Book Review by Thomas A. Timmes

Since 1896 there have been twenty-eight consecutive modern summer Olympic Games — minus the war years of 1914, 1940, and 1944 — which is a notable achievement. That number, however, pales in comparison with the two hundred ninety-two Games held consecutively at Olympia, Greece between 776 BC and 395 AD.

Judith Swaddling, Senior Curator of the Greek and Roman collection at the famous British Museum in London, has written a fascinating book describing the Ancient Games as they evolved through the years, and she draws numerous parallels between the ancient and modern Games. The number of similarities is striking including the less than noble issues of bribery, dishonest judges, and cheating.

First published in 2008, Ancient Olympic Games was revised and republished in 2011 and 2015. You can view a one minute YouTube video of Ms. Swaddling talking about this book at Swaddling has also authored or co-authored fifteen other books since 2001.

At the first modern Olympics held at Athens in 1896, there were forty-two events and two hundred fifty male competitors (two hundred of whom were Greek) from fourteen nations. By comparison at the 2008 and 2012 Games, there were three hundred two separate events involving 10,500 athletes from two hundred five nations. The modern Games have certainly evolved since their humble beginnings one hundred twenty years ago! Since the advent of the modern Olympics, five categories of events have been in all twenty-eight games: cycling, fencing, gymnastics, swimming, and athletics with forty-seven separate events.

Unlike the ancient Olympics, which were all held at Olympia and lasted for five days, the modern Games are held throughout the world and last for approximately sixteen days. And like the ancient Games, the modern Games continually add and drop various sporting events from the program. Significantly, the ancient Games included only one event for females, a one hundred and sixty-meter foot race, which the women ran while clothed, unlike the men who were required to compete naked in all events. Other than that single event for females, married women were precluded from participating or even attending the Olympics under penalty of death, while unmarried women were not refused admission. Interestingly, the 1900 Olympics included only tennis for females, which was replaced in 1904 with archery, and it was only in 1984 that the women’s marathon was introduced.

The author tells us that most of what we know of the ancient Games comes from such unlikely sources as statues, coinage, and pottery depicting scenes of Olympic sports. Fortunately, several Greek and Roman texts have survived the years and add invaluable tidbits of information.

Specific athletic events remained a constant throughout all the ancient Games. Short and long distance running, including running in full armor, were standard, and the Pentathlon, consisting of discus, jumping, javelin, running, and wrestling, was held in that order during one afternoon. Boxing and wrestling were very popular, but the crowds really loved horse racing. Competitors drove chariots with two or four horses and also participated in single horse races.

The names of the victors for the various ancient events were recorded and memorialized with statues, but records of their achievements, with few exceptions, were not. One exception was an ancient discus throw that measured thirty meters. Remarkably the current Olympic record stands at seven-four meters. Evidence suggests that the weight of the ancient discus was very similar to today’s discus, so why the disparity in distance? The answer according to Ms. Swaddling may lie in how the discus was thrown. There is no evidence that ancient athletes made more than a three-quarter turn before throwing, whereas today’s throwers spin around two and a half times before launching the discus. The centrifugal force achieved in today’s throwing style undoubtedly accounts for the vast difference in distance.

One other record from 450 BC, states that Chionis of Sparta achieved a record jump of 16.7 meters. While not stated, it is assumed that this was a triple jump, since today’s triple jump record is 18.29 meters.

Ancient Olympic Games is richly appointed with ninety-nine photographs and maps that make it easy for the reader to follow the narrative. It is available only in paperback for $19.95 and worth the cost.

As I watch the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, August 5-21, I will now have a much greater understanding of the historical significance of the Olympics and its connection to the Games held in Olympia so very long ago.

Thomas A. Timmes is the author of the Legio XVII three-book series. His fourth book, Legio XVII: The Eagle Strikes, was released in July 2016.

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