Do we provide enough support for our Olympians? As the debate intensifies about Australia's performance at the London Olympics, the stock answers to this question are being rehearsed. The leaders of the AOC insist that we will just have to spend more to secure the "obvious" benefits of Olympic gold. Others argue just as earnestly that such benefits are "spurious". They hold that our splurging of public funding on elite sportsmen comes at the expense of our scientists, artists, doctors and physical-education teachers.
Is it possible to advance this perennial debate? What is needed is analysis of the benefits which Olympic medals bring. By studying why the ancient Greeks idolised their Olympic victors we might get fresh insights into how we benefit from the Games.
The Greeks would have shaken their heads in disbelief at our support of Olympians. They did not spend scarce public funding on getting athletes to the Games. Individuals were ready to compete at the highest level, because their families had paid out of their own pockets for the private classes of an athletics-teacher. Olympians paid their own way to Olympia and their own expenses during the Games, and the compulsory month of training before they took place.
In spite of this, the Greeks valued Olympic success even more highly than we do. Each polis or city-state gave its Olympic victors, for life, free meals in its town hall and free front-row tickets for its own local games. These were the highest honours which the Greeks could give. They were otherwise only rewarded to victorious generals and other public benefactors of the highest order. That they were given to victorious Olympians puts beyond doubt that the Greeks believed that such victors benefitted their city-states significantly.
The managers of our Olympics team may not be good at explaining the nature of this benefit. But the Greeks were. A good example is a speech about the victory of an Athenian in the chariot contest at the Olympics of 416 BC. In it the son of Alcibiades explained that his father had entered seven teams, more than any other before him, because he had understood the political advantage which victory would bring his polis. He knew that "the city-states of victors" became renowned. Alcibiades believed that Olympians were representatives of their polis. Their victorious were "in the name of their city before all of Greece".
What made an Olympic victory so politically valuable for a polis was publicity. The Games were the most popular festival in the Greek world. They attracted thousands of people. The stadium at Olympia seated no less than forty five thousand. The result was that whatever took place at the Games became known to almost the entire Greek world, as ambassadors, athletes and spectators returned home and reported what they had seen.
The Greeks exploited this opportunity. At the Games city-states set up dedications of arms, which advertised their military victories over each other. Some of these war memorials were even placed in the Olympic stadium. There was, then, the potential for all of Greece to learn of the victory which a polis had gained by the success of one of its Olympians. Such a victory gave states of otherwise no importance rare international prominence and those which were regional powers uncontested proof of the worth which they claimed in relation to their neighbours and competitors.
That the Greek city-states did view Olympic success as important for their international standing is apparent in their adverse reactions, when, they believed, one of their Olympians was deprived of his victory unjustly. In 322 BC, for example, Callipus of Athens, who had been proclaimed the winner of the Olympic pentathlon, was judged to have bribed his opponents. He was fined and stripped of his victory. Athens sent its foremost political leader to Olympia to try to have the judgement appealed. But Hyperides failed in this bid and so his city boycotted the Games for the next twenty years.
The only other way which a polis had to raise its international ranking was to defeat a rival polis in battle. The outcome of such a contest was uncertain and could cost the lives of many citizens. Thus a Greek city-state judged a citizen who had been victorious at the Olympics worthy of the highest public honours, as he had, at his own expense, raised its standing and done so without the need of his fellow citizens to take the field.
We still view Olympians as our representatives and are part of a system of competing states. Thus a lesson for us from the ancient Olympians is that international sporting success improves our international standing. The ancient Olympics do provide some justification for the increasingly large sums which we spend on our Olympic teams.
But we must not push these parallels too far. We are not ancient Greeks. International competition is no longer confined to sport and war. New bodies, such as the G20, OECD and the UN, increasingly rank states in terms of education, prosperity, physical health and level of democratisation. In this new order we will hold our own only when we invest just as heavily in our scientists, artists, doctors and physical-education teachers.
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