What was it like to attend the ancient Olympic Games? With the summer Olympics’ return to Athens, Tony Perrottet delves into the ancient world and lets the Greek Games begin again. The acclaimed author of Pagan Holidaybrings attitude, erudition, and humor to the fascinating story of the original Olympic festival, tracking the event day by day to re-create the experience in all its compelling spectacle. Using firsthand reports and little-known sources—including an actual Handbook for a Sports Coachused by the Greeks—The Naked Olympicscreates a vivid picture of an extravaganza performed before as many as forty thousand people, featuring contests as timeless as the javelin throw and as exotic as the chariot race. Peeling away the layers of myth,Perrottet lays bare the ancient sporting experience—including the round-the-clock bacchanal inside the tents of the Olympic Village, the all-male nude workouts under the statue of Eros, and history’s first corruption scandals involving athletes. Featuring sometimes scandalous cameos by sports enthusiasts Plato, Socrates, and Herodotus, The Naked Olympics offers essential insight into today’s Games and an unforgettable guide to the world’s first and most influential athletic festival.
Combining a wealth of vivid details with a knack for narrative pacing and subtle humor, Perrottet (Pagan Holiday) renders a striking portrayal of the Greek Olympics and their role in the ancient world. While our modern games certainly pay homage to the Greek festival that was held uninterrupted for more than 1,200 years, the book's title refers to the most pronounced difference between the two: Ancient athletes competed in the nude, adorned only with olive oil. While Perrottet also outlines events ranging from the merciless chariot races to the pankration a sort of early predecessor of ultimate fighting in which strangulation was seen as the surest means of attaining victory he also puts the games in their heavy religious context and gives readers a strong sense of what they were like from a spectator's point of view. That they were cramped, hot and dizzyingly unsanitary apparently did little to dissuade throngs of people from the often treacherous journey to Olympia to catch glimpses of their heroes. And their experiences provided by Perrottet are what separate this book from staid history. His goal, he writes at the outset, is "to create the ancient games in their sprawling, human entirety," so readers are treated not only to a thorough picture of the games' proceedings but also to glimpses of the shameless bacchanalia, numerous (and often lascivious) entertainments and even corruption that accompanied them. It's an entertaining, edifying account that puts a human face on one of humanity's most remarkable spectacles. Agent, Elizabeth Sheinkman. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Random House Trade Paperbacks
June 07, 2004
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Excerpt from The Naked Olympics by Tony Perrottet
For the Love of Zeus
(Greek) light acquires a transcendent quality: it is not the light of the Mediterranean alone, it is something more, something unfathomable, something holy. Here the light penetrates directly to the soul, opens the doors and windows of the heart, makes one naked, exposed, isolated . No analysis can go on in this light; here the neurotic is either instantly healed or goes mad.
-- HENRY MILLER, The Colossus of Maroussi
IN THE HILLS above Olympia, I awoke with a start before dawn, feeling bleary-eyed from the Greek wine I'd drunk with some rowdy archaeologists the night before. It was going to be a perfect summer's day: From my hotel window I saw clear sky over the mountains of Arcadia, whose peaks covered the horizon like the waves of a wild blue sea. I needed some exercise -- a jog to clear my head. But where should I run in this corner of the rural Peloponnese? Where else, it occurred to me, but in the ancient Olympic Stadium?
I arrived at the ruins just before the sun, wearing an old pair of Nikes (named after the winged goddess of Victory). Even the guards were only half awake, nursing their potent coffees beneath the olive trees, but they waved me through the gates, letting me have the ultimate sports venue to myself. No tour buses would arrive for at least an hour to disturb my private Greek sanctuary. I followed a trail past the fallen columns of great temples, splayed out in the grass like skeletal fingers; purple wildflowers pushed up between memorials to forgotten sporting champions. Olympia's idyllic pastoral setting has changed little in the last twenty-five hundred years: the river Alpheus still gurgles in its shady bed alongside the Gymnasium; to the north rises an evenly conical hill, bristling with pine forest, where Zeus had wrestled his father, the Titan Kronos, for control of the world.
Soon a stone archway announced the entrance to the Stadium. My morning jog was suddenly starting to take on the contours of a redemptive ritual. The natural arena was bathed in golden light that unmistakable Greek brilliance about which Henry Miller had rhapsodized, just as Lord Byron had a century earlier and the orator Cicero two millennia before that the light that seems to pierce the centuries, molding the past with the present, blurring history with myth. Rising on each side of me were earth embankments, now swathed in succulent green lawn. And there, at the very center of the Stadium, was the running track a rectangular expanse of clay, bordered by stone gutters, vaguely suggesting a small landing strip. According to archaic legend, the track's 210-yard length was originally marked out by the demigod Hercules himself. For nearly twelve centuries, it was the focus of the greatest recurring festival in Western history.
I approached the ancient starting line a white marble sill that is miraculously intact kicked off the Nikes, and instead curled my toes into the premade grooves. Nothing broke the silence except the buzzing of bees in the distance. And then I was off, racing in the footsteps of ancient champions Greeks with magical names like Skamandros of Mytilene and Leonidas of Rhodes. During my weeks of reading about the original Olympic Games, these figures had always seemed unreal, illusory. But now, as my feet pounded the hard earth, it was easy to imagine a time when the gaze of ancient spectators and their gods was fixed on this spot and on mere mortals like myself.