“Ancient Olympiads were more like the modern PGA golf circuit than the amateur ideal advanced for most of the 20th century,” says Hugh Ming Lee, a professor of classics at the University of Maryland. “The Greeks and Romans awarded honors to the most accomplished athletes and paid them for their efforts. These professionals traveled a competitive circuit. The Vince Lombardi notion of winning is much closer to the original Olympic spirit.”
Ancient athletes resorted to various “potions” to gain a competitive edge. “The dung of a wild boar was honored for the powers it conferred on charioteers,” Lee points out. “Even the emperor Nero tried it.”
Modern-day ‘Ultimate Fighting’ resembles the Greek’s pankration, where almost everything short of eye-gouging and biting was permitted. “If it weren’t for the nudity, the ancient games would have played well on modern TV,” Lee says.
The ancient Greeks played the games under a flag of truce to give athletes safe passage. The games offered a respite from war, according to Lee. The athletes ran the final race of the Olympiad in armor, perhaps to acknowledge the coming end of the truce.
A year ago they wrote about the ancient Greek oarsmen, indicating that they were much fitter than modern elite athletes.
“Ancient Athens had up to 200 triremes at any one time, and with 170 rowers in each ship, the rowers were clearly not a small elite. Yet this large group, it seems, would match up well with the best of modern athletes. Either ancient Athenians had a more efficient way of rowing the trireme or they would have to be an extremely fit group. Our data raise the interesting notion that these ancient athletes were genetically better adapted to endurance exercise than we are today.”