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Let the Games Begin!

David Stuttard

David Stuttard

After seven years of preparations, the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics is upon us! Power Games author David Stuttard looks at the role the opening ceremony played in the ancient Greek Olympics and what we can expect not to see tonight…

At last it’s here. The day of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. And I, for one, am very intrigued to find out just what kind of spectacle Danny Boyle and his team have in store for us. Which, of course, makes me think back to the Olympics of Ancient Greece. For they, too, had an opening ceremony. But it was very different from the kind of thing we might expect to see tonight.

It took place on the morning of the first of the five days of events. The afternoon before, all the competing athletes had arrived at Olympia together, having walked (yes, walked!) for two days in the August heat, some thirty five miles from the city of Elis, where they had spent previous month in training.

We do not know exactly what happened in the ceremony. The Olympic Games were held as part of a larger religious festival, so it is likely that a purification ritual was performed, which is likely to have involved animal sacrifice. On the journey from Elis, the judges had been smeared with the blood of a newly-slaughtered pig, which they had then washed off in a roadside fountain, and it is possible that a similar ceremony was performed now.

Probably there was also a proclamation, in which those who were barred from taking part in the forthcoming festival were ordered to withdraw. These included non-Greeks, anyone guilty of murder, and women. For the ancient Olympics were all-male events, and, for any post-pubescent female found attending, the punishment was death. The law stated that they should be thrown off a nearby cliff, though, in fact, the penalty was never carried out. The only woman ever discovered to have broken the rule was pardoned, as she came from a long and distinguished line of boxers.

We do know that the most solemn part of the ceremony took place in a building called the Bouleuterion, where the Olympic Council held their meetings. Here stood a statue of Zeus Horkios (Zeus God of Oaths) and, according to the 2nd Century AD traveller Pausanias, it was a truly terrifying sight. In both hands it held a thunderbolt, and Pausanias goes on to say that:

‘It is the tradition that, standing before the statue, the athletes, their fathers and their brothers – yes, even their trainers – should swear over a dismembered boar an oath to do no wrong against the Olympic Games.’

For almost four hundred years after the first Games in 776 BC, that oath was never knowingly broken. But in 388 BC, a boxer, Eupolus of Thessaly, was convicted of having bribed his opponents. All concerned were fined, and, from the money raised, more statues of Zeus were erected on the road down to the stadium. Moreover, the boxers were ‘named and shamed’, as the statue bases were inscribed for all to see with their identities and misdemeanours.

Despite Danny Boyle’s hints that we are to expect scenes of rural Britain, boars are unlikely to play a part in this evening’s extravaganza, though (given the summer we’ve been having) thunderbolts may just remain a possibility. In fact, despite their ancient pedigree, few of the original rules apply to these truly modern Games.

David Stuttard is author of Power Games: Ritual and Rivalry at the Ancient Greek Olympics, 31BC: Antony, Cleopatra and the Fall of Egypt, and AD410: The Year that Shook Rome, all published by the British Museum Press (£9.99).  To find out more visit the British Museum online shop.

Category: History


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