A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics

Neil Faulkner, Yale University Press.

Forget London 2012. Want to know what it was like to attend the Olympics 2,400 years ago? Then pick up a copy of Neil Faulkner’s “A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics.” Written in the style of a travel guide, the book tells you everything you would want to know—including how to get there, where to stay, and what to eat—about attending the Olympics in 388 B.C.

Informed by what we know generally about ancient Greece, and what we know specifically about the events included in the ancient Olympic program, Faulkner resorts to “informed guesswork” to fill in the gaps. In other words, the book is not intended to be a scholarly exercise; it’s “a sincere attempt to reconstruct a past historical reality as a lived human experience.” At this it succeeds splendidly, especially in regards to discussion of the contests and rituals of the Games.

The first thing to know about Olympia 388 B.C. is that “All athletic exercise, training, practice and competition are performed naked,” notes Faulkner. The second is that there are no women allowed. “Any woman discovered inside the Sports Complex during the festival … is to be thrown off the cliffs of nearby Mount Typhaion,” he warns.

Of course, the schedule of events in 388 B.C. has little in common with London 2012. There are four foot-races, boxing, wrestling and the pentathlon, plus equestrian events and a horseback race. There is also a two-horse chariot race (Sunoris) and a four-horse chariot race (Tethrippon), the latter a high-speed chase over eight miles, which is frequently disturbed by multiple-chariot pile-ups, which can “leave the track strewn with loose horses, capsized chariots, and bruised and bloody bodies,” notes Faulkner, the editor of Military Times magazine and a research fellow at the University of Bristol.

The most popular event, however, is the pankration, an “all-in wrestling contest in which virtually anything is permitted” (biting and eye-gouging excepted). Its champions are the most revered among Olympians, “not because it is more prestigious, but because of the risks and suffering,” writes Faulkner.

If the events sound more compelling than those of the modern Games, keep in mind that the Olympics weren’t spectator-friendly in those days. There were no seats and no shade at the Olympic stadium, and there were no bathrooms or lodging—anywhere. Even the Olympic Village was little more than “a vast, tented encampment, with inadequate water supplies, heaps of stinking refuse, and huge, open, improvised latrines.” So after five days of sun and stink, not to mention crowds, noise and flies, you’re probably more than ready to go home … by horse, mule or ox-cart, of course.