Olympic Self-Sacrifice

Paul Cartledge explores the differences between today’s interpretation of the Olympic Games and their significance in the ancient world

An artist's impression of ancient OlympiaThe modern Olympics seem so much part and parcel of our modern world – all those accusations of drug-taking and financial chicanery – that it is hard to remember they are only just over a hundred years old. Their founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, wished to foster both athletic excellence and international harmony, and as a conventionally educated French aristocrat he looked back to the ancient Greek Olympic Games for inspiration, believing fondly that that was exactly what they too had done, and why they had been founded. In fact, de Coubertin was wildly wrong: not only about the peaceful diplomatic mission of the ancient Games, but also, and more crucially, about their essential nature. The original Olympics, as we shall see, were desperately alien to what we understand by competitive sports today.

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