Tony Perrottet: Beware of Greeks Bearing Placards

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Tony Perrottet is the author of “The Naked Olympics” and the forthcoming “Napoleon’s Privates.”]

WHEN it comes to Olympic protests, the demonstrators in London, Paris and San Francisco are a pretty wimpy bunch, at least compared to the ancient Greeks. Back in the classical era, protesters really knew how to disrupt an Olympics ceremony.

In 364 B.C., soldiers stormed the arena in Olympia and a pitched battle occurred on the field. It was history’s most dramatic clash of politics and sports. The management of the Games, according to Xenophon, had been wrested from the traditional hosts, the Elians, by a neighboring bunch, the Pisans — and the Elians weren’t pleased. They decided to invade the festival at its climax, when thousands of Greek spectators were happily watching a wrestling match.

At the sacred sanctuary of Olympia, the Pisans, and their allies the Arcadians, took up defensive positions, with archers on the temple roofs, but the Elians burst through their ranks. Hand-to-hand combat went on in the sacred precinct of Zeus.

Sports fans weren’t fazed. According to the author Diodorus, crowds “still wearing their festive robes, with wreaths and flowers in their hair” watched the fighting from the sidelines, “impartially applauding the doughty deeds performed on both sides.”

The violent protest worked wonders. The Elians were forced to withdraw, but the next Games were restored to their control.

Today, we admire the ancient Olympic ideal of athletics being above petty rivalries. The Greeks instituted a “sacred truce” to allow athletes and spectators to get to the festival, quite a feat in a land constantly torn by internal warfare. But the Greeks didn’t always live up to their ideal.

There were embargoes: the Spartans were banned from attending in 420 B.C., during the Peloponnesian War. ...
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