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Olympia The Story of the Ancient Olympic Games By Robin Waterfield

Release date: 16th January, 2019
Publisher: Landmark

List Price: £18.99
Our Price: £15.28
You Save: £3.71 (19%)
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It might be a little too much for some of today’s easily-offended, ultra-sensitive moppets to take, but the fact is that the ancient Greeks, those much-lauded creators of the ancient Olympics, couldn’t give two hoots for the notion that taking part was more important than winning.

As Robin Waterfield tells us in his Prologue to Olympia, for the Greeks, “winning was everything and losers felt ashamed of their failure.”

The ancient Olympics were, in fact, part of a religious festival and, in keeping with their promotion of individual pride, honour and most of all, winning, there were no team sports. Success was entirely dependent upon the victor’s own efforts and preparation. One athlete, Amesinas of Barce, practiced for one of the three combat events by wrestling with a bull.

The Olympics were born from a desire of more than 1,000 city states across the ancient Mediterranean world to compete with each other. Within each of these cities, sporting (and military) glory and individual strength were revered, almost to the point of worship. Indeed, the reason athletes were naked when competing (married women were not permitted to attend the ancient Games, though girls aged between 13-16 were allowed) is because the Greeks believed that finely-honed athletic bodies reflected an equally well-tendered soul.

Waterfield’s narrative is peppered with marvellous, often amusing anecdotes which makes for a very easy read; his dedication to research is similarly impressive. He’s particularly good when explaining the Games’ three combat events: wrestling, boxing and ‘pankration’, a form of mixed martial arts, only with greater degrees of violence than we would recognise today.

No draws were allowed in the boxing either. If a contest appeared to be heading for a stalemate, an adjudicator stepped in and made boxers throw punches at each other, though they were not allowed to defend themselves until one of them keeled over or gave up.

Then there was the chariot race, a finale which conjures up images of Ben Hur, only a more violent and occasionally deadly version. The race took place over eight miles, four snorting horses tethered and going flat-out to transport their respective drivers around 12 laps of an enormous stadium. It sounds quite a spectacle, especially as each competitor knew that only winning mattered and that ‘second was nowhere’.

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