My bedtime reading while at Mainewoods Dance Camp last week was an interesting little book by Tony Perrottet called The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games (Random House, 2004).
Perrottet's very interesting field of study is ancient tourism, which was a more popular pastime than I had ever realized. He starts with some general history of the Olympics, packed full of historical details. I didn't know before that the ancient games were held regularly for nearly twelve centuries and were so famous that the Greeks counted time relative to Olympiads and their winners. Hearing to what degree athletics and what I can only call sports fandom dominated Greek society and created popular celebrities was fascinating.
Getting into the actual games, Perrottet covers not only the details of the various events of each five-day games and the athletes' training, diets, and risks (maiming, death), but also goes through the entire tourist experience of attending the games, day by day, and the county fair-style atmosphere surrounding them: declaiming philosophers and poets; the mass sacrifice of cattle to Zeus; freelance tour guides offering glosses on the many statues commissioned for Olympia by winning athletes; and courtesans offering carnal experiences, including the memorably named "lion on the cheese grater". Sadly, the ancient manual describing exactly what this entails has been lost to us.
Despite the title, and some matter-of-fact discussion of the sexual opportunities at the games (apparently not much has changed in three thousand years), this isn't a particularly prurient book. The title comes from the fact that the athletes competed naked. Their trainers were also required to be so, after a scandal in which a woman sneaked into the games disguised as one. There are plenty of illustrations of naked athletes, but all are redrawn from vases, drinking cups, and other sources, and are not particularly erotic.
Perrottet also discusses the real hardships of attending the Games: limited water, broiling heat and lack of shade, dubious food, and completely inadequate lodging. Despite all this, and the gruesome violence of the competitions, particularly the dangerous chariot races and the no-holds-barred hand-to-hand combat of the pankration, people came by the tens of thousands to attend the games under an Olympic truce that held rather more effectively than it does nowadays, when games have been cancelled due to war and no one even considers stopping all fighting for the duration.
Some of the best details come in Perrottet's extensive quotes from ancient sources, including an actual ancient sports training manual and other documents. Sketches made from obscure visual sources like the inside of drinking cups that show interesting details of particular sports as well as tidbits like a judge preparing to whip an athlete for a rules violation.
I've never had any special interest in the history of sports in general or the Olympics in particular, but this is a wonderful little book written, despite its heavy use of primary sources, in an entertaining, non-academic style. I can't vouch for the quality of the scholarship, but it's a great read which I recommend to anyone with even the slightest interest in ancient history or sports.
Read for yourself: