Events in the intervening days will also take place in silent arenas, missing the hundreds of thousands of spectators who paid $ 815 million for their now unnecessary tickets.
After 48 years of teaching the classics, I can’t help but wonder what the Greeks – who invented the Games almost 3,000 years ago, in 776 BC – would do such a ghostly version of their festival. Olympic.
In many ways, they would see the prospect as absurd.
In ancient Greece, the Olympics were never about the athletes themselves; instead, the heart and soul of the festival was the experience shared by all participants. Every four years, athletes and spectators traveled from the remotest corners of the Greek world to Olympia, drawn by the desire for contact with their compatriots and their gods.
In the shadow of dreams
For the Greeks, for five days in the heat of the end of summer, two worlds miraculously merged in Olympia: the realm of everyday life, with its human limits, and a supernatural sphere of time when higher beings, gods and heroes populated the Earth.
Greek athletics, like that of today, immersed participants in performances that pushed the envelope of human capacities to its breaking point. But for the Greeks, the cauldron of competition could spark revelations in which ordinary mortals could briefly mingle with extraordinary immortals.
The poet Pindar, famous for the victory songs he composed for the victors of Olympia, captured this kind of transcendent moment when he wrote: “Humans are creatures for a day. But what is humanity? What is it not? A human is only a shadow of a dream – but when a flash of light from Zeus descends, a brilliant light falls on humans and their lives can be sweet as honey. ”
However, these epiphanies could only occur if witnesses were physically present to immerse themselves in – and share – the dizzying flirtation with the divine.
Simply put, Greek athletics and religious experience were inseparable.
In Olympia, athletes and spectators made a pilgrimage to a sacred place. Modern Olympic Games can legitimately take place in any city chosen by the International Olympic Committee. But the ancient games could only occur in one place in Western Greece. The most moving events did not even happen in the stadium which hosted 40,000 or in the wrestling and boxing arenas.
Instead, they took place in a grove called the Althis, where Hercules is said to have first erected an altar, sacrificed oxen to Zeus, and planted a wild olive tree. Half of the festival events easily absorbed spectators not in feats like the discus, javelin, long jump, running and wrestling, but in feasts where animals were sacrificed to the sky gods and to long-dead heroes whose spirits still persisted.
On the evening of the second day, thousands of people gathered in the Althis to re-enact the funeral rites of Pelops, a human hero who once raced in a chariot to win the daughter of a local chief. But the culminating sacrifice took place on the morning of the third day at Zeus’ high altar, a mound of plastered ash from previous sacrifices that measured 22 feet high and 125 feet in circumference. In a ritual called the Hecatomb, 100 bulls were slaughtered and their thigh bones, wrapped in fat, burned at the top of the altar so that the rising smoke and aroma reached the sky where Zeus could savor it. .
Undoubtedly, many onlookers shuddered at the thought of Zeus hovering above them, smiling and remembering Hercules’ first sacrifice.
A few meters from the High Altar, another more visual encounter with the god awaited. In the temple of Zeus, erected around 468 to 456 BC. In one hand he held the elusive goddess of victory, Nike, and in the other a staff upon which his sacred bird, the eagle, perched. The towering statue was reflected in a puddle of shimmering olive oil surrounding it.
During the events, the athletes performed naked, imitating heroic figures like Hercules, Theseus or Achilles, all of whom crossed the line between human and superhuman and were usually depicted nude in painting and sculpture.
The nudity of the athletes declared to the spectators that in this holy place, the competitors hoped to reconstitute, in the ritual of the sport, the thrill of the contact with the divinity. In the Althis stood a forest of hundreds of naked statues of men and boys, all former victors whose images set the bar for aspiring newcomers.
“There are a lot of really wonderful things that one can see and hear in Greece,” noted the Greek travel writer Pausanias in the 2nd century BC. ”
Communion and community
The Greeks lived in around 1,500 to 2,000 small-scale states scattered throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions.
Since sea travel in the summer was the only viable way to cross this fragile geographic network, the Olympics could inspire a Greek living in southern Europe and one residing in modern-day Ukraine to briefly interact in a festival celebrating not only Zeus and Heracles, but also the Hellenic language and culture that produced them.
Besides athletes, poets, philosophers and orators came to perform in front of crowds including politicians and businessmen, everyone communing in an “oceanic feeling” of what it meant to be momentarily united as Greeks. .
Egisto Sani / flickr, CC BY-NC
Now, there is no way to explain the miracle of television to the Greeks and how its electronic eye draws millions of viewers for modern proxy games. But the visitors to Olympia indulged in a distinct type of spectator.
The ordinary Greek word for someone who observes – “theatês” – connects not only to “theater” but also to “theôria”, a special type of seeing that requires a trip from home to a place where something wonderful. takes place. Theôria opens a door into the sacred, whether it is to visit an oracle or to participate in religious worship.
Attending an athletic-religious celebration like the Olympic Games transformed an ordinary spectator, a theatês, into a theôros – a witness observing the sacred, an ambassador bringing home the wonders seen abroad.
It’s hard to imagine television footage of Tokyo achieving similar goals.
No matter how many world records broken and unprecedented feats achieved at the 2020 games, empty arenas will attract no authentic gods or heroes: the Tokyo games are even less enchanted than previous modern games.
But while the medal count will bring fleeting glory to some nations and disappointing shame to others, perhaps a dramatic moment or two could unite athletes and viewers in an oceanic sense of what it means to be ” kosmopolitai ”, citizens of the world, celebrating the wonder of what it means to be human – and perhaps, briefly, superhuman too.
The ancient Greeks did not recognize certain aspects of the modern Olympics.
Vincent Farenga, professor of classical letters and comparative literature, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.