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The Ultimate Pagan Festival

The whole experience was so famously uncomfortable that a master once threatened his disobedient slave with a visit to the Olympic Games.

Unless you’re Mitt Romney, I’m not sure that threat would work today. Let the Games begin!

And begin them here, with Tony Perrottet’s hilarious history, which will among other things make you wonder what all the fuss is about women Olympians’ uniforms. The heck with skirts on female boxers, let them just wale away at each other in the nude.

The original Games, writes Perrottet, were held under the terms of the sacred Olympic Truce:

This Olympic Truce was one of the ancient world’s most extraordinary traditions. It imposed an armistice across the land–an almost enchanted ban on the Greeks’ incessant feuding–whose terms were enforced by Zeus himself. During this sacred peace, no military attacks could be made, no judicial cases conducted, nor death penalties carried out…Its terms had originally been defined in 776 B.C. for the first Games and inscribed in concentric circles onto a hefty golden discus, which still hung in pride of place in the Temple of Hera at Olympia. And despite some notorious exceptions, the truce was honored.

In the “Countdown” chapter Perrottet goes into fascinating detail about the labor and expense of hosting a Games 2700 years ago. One example, translated into 2004 USD: Digging and rolling the practice running track in the Gymnasium: $814 (Paid to Agazalos). I think Agazalos stuck it to the organizers, a practice that continues to this day.

Then there was the Olympic boot camp, which trained such luminaries as

Theagenes of Thasos was revealed as Olympic material at age nine, when he heaved a giant bronze statue in the village market onto his shoulder and carried it off. Instead of having the boy executed for impiety, the village elders sent their superboy off to wrestling school.

Those little girl gymnasts don’t look so young now, do they?

The association of spectator sport with heavy drinking has a long pedigree, writes Perrottet. Greek wine aficionados could be encouraged by the teachings of a doctor named Mnesitheus, who argued that binge drinking had positive, purgative effects on health. He helpfully suggested how to avoid vicious hangovers: Don’t drink bad wine, don’t eat dried fruit or nuts, and don’t go to sleep until you have vomited.

London Olympics fans, take note.

There is a whole chapter on the chariot races, which allowed women to circumvent the ban on their participation in the Olympics. This feminist breakthrough was made by a Spartan princess named Cynisca, who won with her chariots twice, in 396 and 392 B.C. She erected a lavish memorial thanking Zeus for her triumphs; in the centuries that followed, other brash noblewomen followed her example. I think we ought to bring back the chariot races, myself.

There is something delightful and informative on every page of this wonderful little history. And it’s available on Kindle.

How smart are London cabdrivers?

From “Explaining Londoners,” New York Times Magazine, March 1, 2012.

To read the full story, including what Londoners think of hosting the Olympics, click here.