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Ancient Olympians Were Really In It for the Money

(ARA) - The athletes will be feeling a lot of nostalgia when the 2004 Olympic Games get underway next August. For the first time in nearly 100 years, the games are returning to their place of origin: Athens, Greece.

Today’s Olympic games are all about the heat of competition. Athletes from around the world will compete against each other to prove they are the best at what they do. The winners will take home medals and pride of country.

“A lot of people think that’s what the ancient Greeks competed for too, but they’re wrong. Ancient athletes were in it for the money,” says William Blake Tyrrell, a professor of classics at Michigan State University. Tyrrell has done extensive research on Greek athletics from the period stretching from Homeric times through the 4th century B.C. His findings are published in the new book, “The Smell of Sweat.”

The 350-page book covers the events themselves, the religious and athletic centers, the festivals in which the games took place, the voices of the games’ celebrators, the critics and the athletes themselves.

“In this book, you’ll learn that Greek athletics was a cut-throat business, engaged for victory and victory alone without even a glimmer of the modern Olympic notion of competing for its own sake and doing one's best,” says Tyrrell. “In ancient Greece, if one's best was not the best, then it was nothing. To miss by an inch was as disgraceful as to miss by a mile.”

Tyrrell focuses on the bias in earlier treatments of Greek athletics and the “myth of Greek amateurism” in the book’s introduction. Chapters one through six examine evidence from Homeric times to the Golden Age of Athens.

The text moves from discussion about the virtue of the warrior as a model for the athlete to the role religion played in the games and the development of Olympia as an early Panhellenic center. In the early days of the Games, “heavy events,” such as wrestling, boxing and pankration -- a no-holds barred fight considered the ultimate combat sport -- were the competitions held in the highest regard. Later on, games of skill such as the pentathalon, jump, discus and javelin took on more importance.

“Athletics was a mediated battle that replaced the individual glory that once was the warrior’s, the glory that Greeks had heard of all their lives from epic poets, but could not achieve,” says Tyrrell.

“The Smell of Sweat” is accompanied by an extensive bibliography and companion CD-ROM of sources, translated into English. It is good reading for students of Greek athletics and culture, and available on and in major book stores. Orders can also be placed directly with Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers by logging onto

Courtesy of ARA Content

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Courtesy of ARA Content

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