ATHENS (Reuters) - Ancient Greek athletes sometimes resorted to cheating, bribing competitors and potions to secure victory at the Olympic Games, a far cry from the image of the classical sporting ideal, an expert said.
Organizers of the Beijing Olympics have vowed a drug-free Games after doping scandals have rocked the prestigious competition in recent years.
But the modern Olympics, revived in 1896 by Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin as an amateur competition, have much in common with the “winning is everything” attitude of their ancient counterparts when athletes went as far as consuming wild boar manure in search of sporting laurels, academics say.
“There is a danger of making ancient Greek athletes superhuman ethical people, but they were humans like us,” Hugh Ming Lee, classics professor at Maryland University, told Reuters. “There was cheating for sure, bribery for sure.”
“As in modern sports, most contests were honestly competed, so I would say it was unusual but it happened,” he said.
Ancient Greek and Roman athletes would bribe officials or pay competitors to ensure they secured a lucrative triumph.
“The winner simply took home a bunch of olive leaves but the pride was so great the home city would often give a cash handout to the athlete or free meals for a life-time,” Lee said.
According to Greek chronicler Pausanias, whose Second Century AD texts were used as a guide to excavate Olympia, disgraced athletes had to pay for a statue of Zeus to be erected at the stadium’s entrance to dissuade others from cheating.
Six statue bases still line the walkway to the arena in the Peloponnese, some 175 km (110 miles) southeast of Athens.
“Sometimes when a scandal occurs it distorts the picture because the scandal is so shocking, but some 90 percent of the athletic contests are honest. I would say it was probably the same (in ancient times).”
Roman Emperor Nero bribed officials to have Games postponed two years until AD 67 to coincide with his tour of Greece. He won the four-horse chariot race with a team of ten.
Like many Olympic competitors, Nero drank a potion of wild boars’ manure supposed to give an advantage to charioteers.
“Apparently Nero wasn’t the only one doing it, but is that like taking vitamins? Is that like taking an illegal drug? The distinction is not made,” Lee said. “Greatness in athletics doesn’t mean you are a great human being.”
When the Games returned to Greece in 2004, the country was shocked when local athletics heroes Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, who won sprint medals at Sydney in 2000, withdrew from competition after missing a doping test.
A more serious setback to the Games’ reputation came in December, when Olympic hero Marion Jones was forced to give back her five medals after admitting to doping.
In Beijing, the World Anti- Doping Agency (WADA) will conduct 4,500 doping tests, the highest ever. Unlike ancient potions, drugs such as steroids and the human growth hormone have side-effects like kidney damage and heart diseases.
Asked if ancient Greeks would be shocked by doping scandals, Lee said they had a strong awareness of human fallibility: “If Hercules was vulnerable, why not human athletes?”
Writing by Daniel Flynn