Rediscover: The Ancient Olympics

The opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics airs tonight from Pyeongchang, South Korea, kicking off two weeks of skating, skiing, sledding and other sports that would have left the original Olympians scratching their heads. The city-states of Ancient Greece created the Panhellenic Games, of which the Olympics were the primary event, on a four-year cycle that celebrated culture as much as athleticism. From roughly 776 BC to 394 AD, contestants wrestled, ran and raced horses, among other events, for personal accolades and the honor of their home cities. The games were also important forums of Hellenic religious and artistic life, and became political tools for querulous city-states--though the Olympic Truce meant spectators and athletes were free to travel to the games even in times of war. After a long decline, the Ancient Olympics ended when Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned all pagan festivals. The modern games began in 1896.

Cambridge University classicist and athletics coach Nigel Spivey sculpts an unflinching monument to antiquity athleticism in The Ancient Olympics: A History (2004), with depictions of brutal events and athletes desperate for victory. Spivey also explores an underbelly of the games unfortunately familiar in its modern iteration: cheating and bribery. The Ancient Olympics strips away mythology to display the original Olympics as nakedly as its participants. It was last published in 2012 by Oxford University Press ($18.95, 9780199602698). --Tobias Mutter

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