The ancient Greek Olympics were riddled with corruption

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corruption of ancient olympics
Ancient Greek vase representing a race. Corruption was rampant in the ancient Olympic Games. Credit: MatthiasKabel / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.5

Bribes, cheating, doping and corruption in general have sometimes tarnished the image of the Olympic Games in recent decades. Many compare the modern Olympics negatively to their ancient Greek counterparts, claiming that there was less corruption in the ancient games.

However, the famous “Olympic spirit” in ancient Greece, where the games began, was not as noble and pure as idealists tend to believe.

Grecian Delight supports Greece

On the contrary, some of the competitions themselves in Ancient Olympia were also prone to cheating, corruption and even a primitive form of doping.

The ancient Olympics were a ticket to fame, wealth

Competitors struggled to gain fame, fame, and wealth, and the city-states they represented also saw the competition as a way to gain superiority over their rivals.

According to the book “The Games: A Global History of the Olympics” by David Goldlblatt, many athletes were professionals who vied for awards and status that would often lead to public office.

Therefore, it seems clear that the idealized and corruption-free Olympics of ancient Greece was an attractive myth that spanned 2,500 years.

Behind this myth of purity, ambitious athletes sometimes tried to bribe their opponents, or even to sabotage them.

According to Nigel Crowther, the former director of the International Center for Olympic Studies, during the ancient Olympics, athletes, their fathers and coaches took an oath not to “sin against the games”. But some of them did.

For example, Pausanias wrote that in 388 BC, the boxer Eupolus bribed his three opponents at Olympia. Games officials then punished the four competitors.

Consequences of cheating in ancient Greece

Around 322 BC, a pentathlete named Callippus offered money to his competitors to lose the contest. Incredibly, according to the philosopher Philostrate, coaches often loaned athletes money at high interest rates for the sole purpose of bribing.

In addition, some Olympic athletes have been bribed to compete for city-states other than their own. After his Olympic victory, runner Sotades from Crete was bribed to compete for the rival city of Ephesus. After that, his hometown expelled him.

In the fifth century BC, the wealthy inhabitants of Syracuse persuaded Astylos of Croton to compete for their city, and a century later the runner Dicon of Caulonia was a similar target.

In the first case, the citizens of Croton turned Astylus’ house into a prison and destroyed his statue.

When a corruption case was discovered, the guilty athletes had to pay fines – both those who offered the bribe and those who accepted the money. But the result of the competition remained unchanged.

The athlete who won was proclaimed the winner, even though he was corrupt.

In Olympia there was a special row of statues called the Zanes. These were statues of Zeus erected with fines paid by corrupt athletes.

Standing along the entrance to the stadium, they functioned as a warning to the athletes. They were also seen as peace offerings to Zeus, as the athletes had broken the Olympic oath to the god, to whom the Games were dedicated.

Incredibly, we even have the fascinating stories behind each statue, thanks to writer Pausanias. For example, in 532 BC, an Athenian bribed his opponent in the pentathlon.

Therefore, the Eleans fined him, but the Athenians sent a famous speaker to Olympia who pleaded to drop the punishment.

The Eleans refused, and for this reason the Athenians wanted to boycott the Olympics.

But when the priests of Delphi refused to give oracles to the Athenians because of this boycott, they ultimately paid the fine. In total, six statues of Zeus were erected with this money.



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