Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics Sarah Olsen

The Olympics: where athletes from around the world come together in a forum free from the rancor and violence that divides nations, concentrating on wholesome competition, untainted by commercialism or politics.


Well, not exactly. As Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics Sarah Olsen explains, the Olympics is a much more complicated mix of nationalism and globalism, and it’s a tension that goes all the way back to the first series of athletic competitions between city-states in ancient Greece.

Olsen teaches “Sport and Spectacle in Ancient Greece and Rome,” which looks at the ancient Olympics and other games, in her words, as “part of a continuous culture of performance and competition” that reverberates to this day.  

Wine mixing bowl.
From the Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium Collection: Wine mixing bowl. Decoration depicts athletic instruction, including a bearded coach and two jumpers holding weights.

The course covers the Olympics and other such physical competitions of ancient Greece; another section deals with Greek drama, which had its own competitions pitting city-state against city-state. Olsen and her students also look at the later spectacles of the Roman Empire.

The revival of the Olympic Games, which started stirring after the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, and the eventual founding of the International Olympic Committee in 1890, involved a generous dose of nostalgic ideals about the ancient games, according to the professor.

“There’s an embrace of Hellenism, even when there isn’t really historical continuity,” she said.

The ancient contests weren’t ideal. There was cheating. Some competitors had a better chance because wealth could mean better training and health. And then there were the perks.

“You just won a crown, not a monetary prize,” Olsen said. “But ancient athletes went home to their city-states and they were celebrated and feasted and got all kinds of gifts.”


A Roman strigil
From the Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium Collection: A Roman stigil, used to scrape the oil and dirt off athletes’ bodies after working out in the gymnasium.

Held after the second full moon of the summer solstice, the ancient Olympics were one of four major festivals held at religious sanctuaries throughout the year. The other festivals were held at Delphi, Nemea and Isthmia, but those held at Olympia became the most famous of the Panhellenic Games. Olsen’s course focuses on the Archaic period, from 750 to 500 B.C.

The games brought competitors from the Greek city-states, places like Athens, Argos, Corinth, and as far away as Sicily and North Africa, wherever Greece had colonies.

In a recent class, students broke into groups to examine different aspects and competitions of the Olympian games. About half of the students in the course are Amherst athletes, who were able to give a particular perspective on the ancient competitions.

Veronica Rocco ’19

“You’d have to run slower, and slow down halfway,” said Veronica Rocco ’19, captain of the women’s cross-country and track teams, describing the dialos, in which competitors ran 200 meters to and from a marking post. Faced with a hairpin turn instead of an elliptical course like those used today, they ran relatively slowly and could be more prone to injury, she said.

There are a number of significant differences between the ancient games and the current, which students were quick to point out. The nudity, in particular. Athletes—men and adolescent boys, as there were no women Olympians—were compelled to compete in the nude, and there were special judges devoted to enforcing the nudity. (Notable exceptions included chariot drivers and jockeys.)

Students in Professor Olsen's Sport and Spectacle class

And while this seems to be the one “fun fact” about the ancient Olympics that most people retain, the origins of the practice are murky.

“There are different mythic origin stories for that,” Olsen said. “One is that a guy lost his pants, basically, while he was running, and then everybody did it.”

While many see the nudity as enforcing egalitarianism, questions linger, she said: “Is it just that it’s really hot in Greece? Is there some other kind of ideology? Is it eroticism?”

In the combat sports—boxing, wrestling and pankration (a competition which combined elements of wrestling and boxing with kicking and other moves)—competitors could be beaten unconscious or even killed.

Chad Simons ’20

“If I felt bad about killing a man, a judge would whip me until I did,” said Chad Simons ’20. “There was no ring, no time limit.”

Breaking your opponents’ fingers was allowed in wrestling. Boxing gloves were mere straps, and “you could land a full punch,” said Giancarlo Ventre ’20. It was full-fledged warfare.”

And while the Greeks might have been flummoxed to see an Olympics which included skiing and curling, in some ways the modern winter games can give us insight into the original games, Olsen said.

Students in Professor Olsen's Sport and Spectacle class

The ancient Greeks “held tragedy and comedy competitions; they had competitions for choral dancing,” she said. “For them, I think, thinking of something like figure skating as a competitive endeavor is not such a stretchto think that music and dance and artistry like that can also be something you compete in.”