Why you should care

Because the squeaky-clean Olympic Games of yesteryear were a lot dirtier than you thought.

The year was A.D. 67, and the games in Olympia, Greece, should have taken place two years earlier, but Nero, one of the biggest contenders, had been busy ruling the Roman Empire, so the spectacle was postponed. The emperor, who established the first Greek games in Rome in A.D. 60 — calling them Neronia — was known to have Olympic-size ambitions when it came to these regular competitions.

He had been practicing his singing and acting for years — making sure the games included these categories — and he knew how to gain the advantage in athletic contests as well. In the chariot race, for example, when he misjudged a curve and skidded across the stadium, Nero simply paid off his fellow competitors to ensure he was declared the winner. The early Olympics may have been designed to honor the gods and show off the physical and artistic prowess of the Greek people, but from payoffs to political favors, the virtuous image of amateur sport in ancient Greece is pure legend.

Following his victory in Olympia, Nero returned to Rome, where he was heralded as the most successful competitor since the birth of the games. During his triumphal procession, the tyrant was presented with 1,808 olive branches to represent his number of wins — a dubious record that no one saw fit to question. Still, it did nothing to boost his popularity, and Nero soon fled from power and killed himself. Galba, his successor, demanded that Olympia return the bribery money that Nero had distributed to the umpires and organizers to thank them for his triumph, not to mention the tax exemption he’d promised the host city. Instead, they repaid Galba by removing the A.D. 67 Olympic Games from the annals.

Even if those games were expunged from sports history, corruption remained the norm, so much so that Greek geographer Pausanias, whose records date from A.D. 115–180, refers to them as “the unsacred games.” And Karl-Wilhelm Weeber, author of The Unholy Games: Ancient Olympia Between Legend and Reality, describes a band of sporting professionals awash in purchased victories, fines, whippings, payoffs and political schemes. At the 98th games in 388 B.C., Eupolos of Thessaly managed to bribe three of his boxing opponents, including the champion from the previous games. Each boxer had agreed to fight with half his strength and let Eupolos win, but the bribes were discovered and scandal ensued. Though Eupolos is still recognized as an Olympic champion, his punishment was harsh: The convicted cheat had to pay for a life-size bronze statue of Zeus, godfather of the games. Eupolos may have been the first to be punished so, but today, several such statues stand at the entrance to the original Olympic stadium — testaments to the criminal misdeeds predating Deflategate and the FIFA scandal by thousands of years.

Some of the criminal activity had political fallout. When it emerged, for instance, that the pentathlete Kallipos of Athens had paid off a number of opponents in the games of 332 B.C., he and the bribed athletes were sentenced to construct several statues. Kallipos had run out of money, so his hometown sent a negotiator to Olympia in his defense. But the Hellanodikai — the Olympic judges and organizers — would not relent, and at subsequent games, Athenian athletes were noticeably absent. It’s unclear whether they were protesting or had been banned, but when the priest of Delphi, in solidarity with Olympia, denied them access to the oracle, they acquiesced and paid for the statues.

Yet another element in the myth of amateur sport in ancient Greece is the notion of the amateur athlete. The desire for glory was hardly the only motivator fueling the corrupt practices. Indeed, the top contenders earned enough in prize money to be full-time athletes. According to Weeber, there was no stipulation “prohibiting Olympic athletes from taking part in ‘Agons’ (contests) in which they could win prizes or money.” And he cites numerous examples of well-known athletes, including the boxer and wrestler Theagenes of Thasos, whose track record meant he “couldn’t possibly have done anything other than competitive sport for at least two decades.”

But chasing success in sport entailed significant risks. If competitors weren’t deemed fit enough for certain major sporting events, they suffered punishments that could be more severe than those exacted in cases of corruption. When an athlete was found unfit for competition — seen as damaging to the event’s reputation — backbreaking fines were imposed. The Hellanodikai settled minor cases in the arena with a whip, and beatings were doled out to anyone jumping the gun on the racetrack.

Like modern-day Olympics, the early games were big business, and city and regional leaders recognized early on that Olympia — and other large Panhellenic sports festivals — presented an opportunity to bolster their own standing. But, as chariot-racing champ Cimon learned under the tyrants of Athens in the sixth century B.C., the interweaving of sports and politics could be lethal: The rulers, determining that Cimon had grown too popular, had him killed.

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