July 23, 2021

Two and a half thousand years ago the cities of Greece faced the greatest crisis in their history. The invasion force led by Xerxes, the King of Persia, in 480 BC was on a stupefying scale. Europe would witness nothing to rival it until 1944, and the summer of D-Day. The best chance of keeping the Great King at bay, it seemed to the Greek high command, was to occupy the narrow pass of Thermopylae, where the terrain would serve to neutralise the Persian weight of numbers.

Naturally, for this strategy to succeed, as many men as possible would need to march north and take up position in the pass. The wait for the Persians to arrive was a long and excruciating one. June came and went. Still the Great King did not come. July went by. Then, early in August, came the news that all Greece had been half dreading and half anticipating: the Persians were at hand.

Yet most Greeks, now that the moment of truth had finally arrived, put off marching north to Thermopylae. Only 4,000 troops from the Peloponnese ended up making the journey. The Spartans, the most formidable warriors in Greece, sent only 300. Why the delay? The question seems to have puzzled the Persians themselves. Two days it took them to clear the pass. Heroic though the defence of Thermopylae had been, and enduring though the fame of the 300 Spartans would prove to be, Xerxes knew that he had been lucky — for a larger Greek holding force might well have proved impossible to dislodge.

Accordingly, when deserters were brought into his presence, he demanded to know from them what the Greeks were up to. The answer left him even more bewildered than before. The Greeks, it turned out, were at Olympia, “celebrating athletic and equestrian competitions.” Not even a Persian invasion, it turned out, could stop the Olympic games.

Nor today has Covid stopped them. The show must go on, global pandemic or not. That the Games are opening today in a country that has very low vaccinations rates, and therefore — unsurprisingly — seems to have very little appetite for them, has been presented by the International Olympics Committee as a soaring triumph of the human spirit. “The best athletes of the world are looking forward with anticipation to make their Olympic dream finally come true.” So Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC, declared in ringing tones. The implication was clear – to abandon the games would be to surrender limply to Covid. “Tokyo 2020 will give humanity faith in the future.”

It will also, of course, give the IOC $3 billion of TV revenue. The modern-day Olympic movement, although founded as a monument to amateurism, has long since mutated into a monument to capitalism. Recently, under the leadership of Bach, it has become ever more of a business. Gassy slogans about the human spirit cannot disguise what really lies behind the IOC’s insistence that the Games go ahead: profit. The Japanese Government, backed into a corner by the finest international contract lawyers that money can buy, has found it impossible to break free. The stadia may be empty, the locals resentful, the risks to public health immense; but at least, on the plus side, the IOC won’t see their insurance premiums rocket.

In antiquity, too, the Games were perfectly capable of inspiring humbug. Herodotus, in his account of the aftermath of Thermopylae, portrayed Xerxes and his advisors marvelling at the revelation that athletes in the Olympic games competed only for wreaths made of olive leaves. “What sort of men are we fighting against,” one Persian grandee is reported to have exclaimed, “that they contend with one another, not for financial reward, but for the honour of being the best?”

This – although it would certainly have made Herodotus’ listeners feel good about themselves — did not tell the entire truth. The Greeks had no word for amateur. Just as gold medal winners today can look forward to lucrative sponsorship deals, so were victors in the ancient Olympics likely to be royally treated by their fellow citizens. In Athens, they were given free meals for life, the best seats in the theatre, a lump sum of cash. In Sparta, they were granted the greatest reward that any citizen could hope for: the chance to die in battle in the place of honour, next to the king.

At Thermopylae, 300 had fallen in battle beside their king. Herodotus, by situating the Persians’ comments on the Olympics in the immediate aftermath of the battle, served to endow the Spartan war dead with an authentically Olympic glow of heroism. The athletes at Olympia and the hoplites at the Hot Gates had both of them paid due honour to the gods. Nothing was more important. This was why neither Herodotus nor anyone else ever blamed the Greeks for their failure to send all their reserves to Thermopylae. The Games were not simply games. They were a festival as holy as any event staged anywhere in Greece. It would have been unthinkable to abandon them. Terrible though the forces at the back of the Great King were, they were not so terrible as the wrath of the king of the gods.

“There are those who say,” observed Pausanias, a travel writer who visited Olympia some six centuries after the Persian invasion of Greece, “that Zeus wrestled there with Cronos, his father, for the throne of heaven.” This was to cast the games as a celebration of the entirety of Zeus’s reign: for it was only by toppling Cronos that he had ascended to the rule of Olympus. Paying honour to the king of the gods was not some incidental detail of the festival — it was the entire reason for the festival’s existence. Some fifty years after the battle of Thermopylae, the sculptor Phidias was commissioned to fashion a statue of the god for his temple at Olympia; and so potent did it prove to be, so imperious, so sublime that it came to be enshrined as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Even before its completion, however, there was no forgetting whose festival Olympia was. Zeus loomed as an intimidating presence throughout it. Before the games, standing beside a statue of the god, athletes would swear an oath over a dismembered boar not to cheat. Midway through the games came the blood-drenched centrepiece of the festival: the sacrifice to Zeus of a hundred oxen. At the end of the games, the winners were presented with their wreaths in Zeus’s very temple, before Phidias’ statue. A wreath was also placed on the head of the god himself. “Zeus, thunder-blaster,” wrote the poet Bacchylides in praise of one victorious athlete, “on the banks of the silver-flowing Alpheios you answered his prayers, you granted him your gift: eternal fame.” So might poets have written in praise of every athlete who ever won at Olympia.

How tame and insipid, by comparison, will be the fame won by athletes in this year’s Olympics. Isolated from the miseries and the traumas of the world beyond their bubble, they cannot hope to embody, as the victors at Olympia did, the mingled brilliance and darkness that, in the opinion of the Greeks, constituted the quality of human existence. Some said that the games had originated, not with Zeus wrestling his father to the grounds, but with the victory in a chariot race of Pelops, grandfather of the king who married Helen of Troy; others that they dated back to 776 BC, when a butcher named Koroibos had been the very first to win an Olympic crown. The Greeks were perfectly capable of believing two contradictory stories at once.

The age of heroes, they believed, had ended amid the carnage of the Trojan War, and would never return; and yet, at Olympia, it was possible for men still to be hailed as heroes. What we mean by the word is but a pallid shadow of what it meant to the Greeks. Heroes stood as close to the divine as it was possible for mortals to stand; and their feats were duly gargantuan, prodigious, terrible. A famous wrestler, it was said, consumed a daily ration of twenty pounds of meat, twenty pounds of bread, and two gallons of wine. A boxer dealt with retirement by hurling himself into a fire. Another boxer, driven mad after disqualification, killed sixty children by pulling down a school, then hid himself in a box, and was found, when the outraged parents smashed it open, to have vanished from the face of the earth. “He is the last of the heroes.” So the oracle at Delphi pronounced. “Offer him sacrifice. He has ceased to be mortal.”

Covid-wracked though the world may be, we should count our blessings, nevertheless: for we do not face plagues or wars on the scale of those that provided a near constant backdrop to the ancient Olympics. The Games were not a distraction for the Greeks, still less a vehicle for making money, but a mirror held up to everything that they believed was most brilliant about being human. Alien as they were, terrifyingly so, it is hard for us, living as we do amid the comforts of the 21st century, to regret them; but it is hard as well, perhaps, when we compare them to the modern Games, not to feel that something, just something, has been lost.