A Bunch of Amateurs
If you've never been to Atlanta, Georgia, in July, you don't know what you're missing. It's like walking around in a huge kettle of boiling soup with your ski clothes on. Then the sun comes up.
In case you haven't heard, they're going to stage the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta this year. At least it looks that way. Since landing the games in 1990, the city has faced budget crises, hassles with assorted international sports federations, racial and political disputes, stadium construction problems and accusations of price gouging. Little matter. Unless General Sherman drops by again or the air conditioning fails, Atlanta says it will be ready to host 10,000 athletes from 197 countries beginning July 19. "On-time and on-budget," the city fathers are pledging. What they cannot promise is relief from the brutal heat and the killing humidity. How'd you like to be a marathon runner in July in Atlanta? That's 26 miles' worth of boiling soup. Enough to make you go out for the swimming team. Or, better yet, luge.
On the other hand, what's a little heat prostration among friends? Just pour another gallon of Prestone into the old radiator and move on to the 10,000-meter. At least Atlanta won't be the 640 B.C. Olympics.
We've been reviewing some old videotape, and things were tougher back then. A lot tougher. For instance, if you were a boxer in 640 B.C., you didn't have to put up with guys like Don King, which was a big advantage. But the Marquess of Queensberry wouldn't be born for another 26 centuries, so the rules were a little different. For example, there were no three-minute rounds, no time limits and no gloves. The fighters wrapped their fists with rawhide strips laced with long metal spikes, and the contests usually went on to the death. There is at least one recorded instance of a disqualification after a fighter plunged his fist, karate-style, into the stomach of his opponent and tore his entrails out in a bloody wad. What are the odds Peter McNeeley would have gotten into the ring with Mike Tyson if his big payday meant taking that kind of punishment?
The ancient Greeks staged their games in honor of Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning, and they threw a helluva party. Many of the events were held in moonlight while entire herds of bulls were sacrificed to the gods on flaming altars--obviously the inspiration for those tailgate barbecues Green Bay Packer fans have in the parking lot at Lambeau Field. But democracy wasn't always what it should have been in its birthplace. If you think the Old South used to be exclusionary, get a load of the rules at Olympia. First of all, no barbarians. No slaves or women, either. In order to be eligible, you had to be a male Greek citizen--right down to the privates. Everybody--shotputters, hundred-yard-dash men, wrestlers--competed stark naked (which makes you wonder what year they added the high hurdles), and married women were prohibited from attending. If Mrs. Stephanopoulos, say, could score a ticket from a scalper, she had to hope the security guards were looking the other way: Any housewife caught in the stadium was promptly taken to the nearest cliff and thrown to her death. Down in Atlanta, they'd probably have to use the roof of the Peachtree Plaza Hotel.
However, virgins were allowed in the ballpark. That way, they could get a good look at the ideal men they might one day marry. Sort of like a troop of Girl Scouts going to an Oakland Raiders game.
Only one problem: A lot of the Greeks didn't live as long as the Raiders. The rules of early Olympic wrestling encouraged finger-breaking and head-smashing, and the only limitations in the Pankrotian, which quickly became the hardest ticket in town, stipulated no biting and no gouging. Otherwise, competitors could snap spinal cords and crush kneecaps to their heart's content. In the four-horse chariot races, which proved popular among gamblers, the course was not oval-shaped like Belmont Park, or even round: It was a strip as straight as a ruler, at the end of which drivers were required to reverse direction and go back where they came from. These turnarounds got pretty congested, and one historical account claims that at a memorable Olympiad in the fifth century B.C., 43 of the 44 chariots crashed, killing nearly two dozen drivers. Those are not the kind of odds Michael Waltrip or Dale Earnhardt would like to face the next time they're down at Daytona.
Of course, not even Michael and Dale get the kind of rewards accorded to winners in the ancient Olympics. If, in 640 B.C., you hit the tape first in the 200, they sent a nice bevy of harlots and a case of wine over to the house, named a couple of villages for you and put a sculptor to work erecting your statue. Magic Johnson's agent will be interested to learn that the Greeks also threw immortality in as a kind of performance bonus. And the gifts and honors lavished upon the winners included exemption from taxation: Bet you a pan of moussaka that would have gotten Steve Forbes off the campaign trail and into heavy training for the discus in a New Jersey minute.
But there was a catch to all this glory. In 640 B.C. there were no silver or bronze medals. On the contrary, the great lyric poet Pindar once wrote that Olympic losers "crept home" to their villages, where, if they were not slaughtered outright by the shamed townsfolk, they lived the rest of their miserable days in disgrace. The Greek goddess of victory, Nike (known around Athens as "Just Do It"), was thought to be displeased by even a close second in something like Olympic chest-smashing. So the penalties for failure were severe. Not only that, if a sprinter jumped the gun, the judges beat the daylights out of him with rods and sticks--something Carl Lewis should keep in mind if he gets past this year's Olympic trials.
Eventually, history tells us, the obsession with winning and the rewards that went along with Olympic victory tainted the ideals of the games. Starting to sound familiar? Idealistic amateur athletes were in time supplanted by ringers--skilled foreigners who landed phony Greek passports through government corruption and bribery and who took hefty kickbacks by local gamblers who were in on the fix. The evidence suggests that the ancient Games continued until 426 A.D., when an army led by a killjoy Roman general named Theodosius II demolished the temples of Olympia.
For better or worse, the Olympic Games remained as dead as the World Football League for the next fifteen centuries, until France's Baron Pierre de Coubertin--obviously neither a barbarian nor a slave--got the bright idea of reviving them in 1896. Since then, the modern games have thrown out finger-breaking for baseball, and those killer chariot races have been replaced by water polo and field hockey. You can still box at the Olympics, but the rules committee no longer expects you to bring your opponent's head with you to the winners' banquet.
But some things never change. The Olympic organizers are still pretty fond of bull, and the last time we checked, five or six virgins had tickets for the gymnastics finals in Atlanta. Corruption has also crept back into the proceedings: At the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, the steroid-stuffed Chinese women's swimming team didn't bother carrying their luggage into the hotel; they carried the hotel out to their luggage. Just last week, the steroid controversy surrounding fifteen-year-old American swimmer Jessica Fosch continued apace: Sanctioning bodies were allowing Fosch's body into the pool at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis, but the Chinese, among others, were still demanding that she be suspended from the games.
In an apparent bow to 640 B.C., Atlanta is also giving foreigners a hard time this year. When a man named Wade Miller tried to order Olympic volleyball tickets a couple of weeks ago, he gave his address in Santa Fe, New Mexico, then had to spend the next half-hour convincing two Olympics salespeople that both Santa Fe and New Mexico are parts of the United States. People living outside the U.S. are not allowed to buy Olympics tickets directly, and in old Georgia, Miller clearly hadn't made the grade.
Meanwhile, as the opening ceremonies draw closer, I can't help but think of what must have been the first Olympic promotion. Back in the seventh century B.C., the very perspiration of the winners was thought to be sacred, so it was bottled and sold to spectators as a magic potion. Given the weather forecast in Atlanta, there should be plenty of perspiration to go around, and it's only a matter of time until some entrepreneur seizes the moment to capitalize. Hey, no sweat.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.