There are 100 days to go to the London Olympics (or rather 98 now). The UK media seem to have intensified their Olympic coverage accordingly. In the last few days a lot this has been about preparation and cost: in other words what is still left to do, and whether the money has been well spent.

Olympic organisation, ancient and modern

Clearly it must be an amazingly complicated job to organise something on this scale. It’s tempting to feel that there is something distinctively modern about the organisational complexity of the Olympics. Each new edition is conjured up from scratch in perfectly choreographed form, as a global spectacle, but we also get glimpses of the work which lies behind it—in fact that work is part of the spectacle in itself.

Allen Guttmann argued along those lines in his 1978 book From Ritual to Record. He sees ‘bureaucratic organisation’ as one of seven features that make modern sport distinctive from anything which had come before (the others are secularism, equality of opportunity, rationalization, quantification, the quest for records and specialisation).

But when we look back to the ancient world it is fairly clear that those arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny. The ancient athletic festival calendar, and each of the individual festivals within it, was enormously complex in bureaucratic, financial and organisational terms, and enormously expensive. That was the case particularly in the Roman period, when there were more than 500 regular Greek athletic festivals dotted right across the Mediterranean world.

Building works

Some texts even give us glimpses of the kinds of detailed last-minute preparation that the London organisers will be preoccupied with over the next few months. Here’s one text from the city of Delphi, dating probably from the 240s BC (Corpus des Inscription de Delphes 2.139; for an alternative translation see Stephen Miller’s sourcebook Arete, no. 81, although that doesn’t include the opening lines). It describes preparations for the Pythian festival (the second great festival of Greek world, second only to Olympia in prestige). It was published by the Delphic Amphictyony, which was the body in charge of running the Pythian festival, made up of representatives of a range of regions from northern Greece (hence the list of names at the beginning). It gives a list of at least 40 tasks, including extensive repairs to the stadium and to the gymnasium buildings which were used by visiting athletes. Each task is listed with a large price tag and the name of the contractor to whom the job has been awarded. [A stater is several days wage for an average labourer; a medimnos is about 50 litres]. Extracts of about a third of the text are below:

In the year when Dion was archon [i.e. chief magistrate] in Delphi, and the hieromnemones [i.e. representatives sent to the Delphic Council] were the following: Aiakidas, Nikanôr, Nikias, Agemachos, Lykôpos, Alkidamos, Pantainetos, Dion and Polykleitos for the Aitolians; Gannôn for Chios; Echekratidas and Nikaidas for the Delphians; Eupolemos and Lanikos for the Boiotians; Archidamos for the Phokians, the following were awarded the contracts for the Pythian works:

  • Agazalos: digging and levelling the covered practice track and the colonnade: 18 staters, 1 drachma.
  • Agazalos: digging and levelling the open-air practice track, 16 staters, 1 drachma.
  • Agazalos: provision of 270 medimnoi of white earth for the covered practice track, at a cost of 1¾ obols per medimnos: total 43 staters ½ obol.
  • Kritolaos: fencing of the covered practice track: 37 staters.
  • Olympichos: maintenance of the covered and open-air practice tracks, the rooms for ball games, and the gymnasium: 36 staters….
  • Smyrnaios: cleaning out of the Pythian stadium and renovation of the surrounding embankments[?]: 10 staters, 1 drachma.
  • Smyrnaios: digging of the Pythian stadium, and digging and levelling of the jumping pits: 110 staters.
  • Nikon: construction of the auditorium[?]: 44 staters, 1 drachma, 3 obols.
  • Xenon: provision of 600 medimnoi of white earth for the Pythian stadium, at a cost of 1⅔ obols per medimnos: total 83 staters 4 obols.
  • Melission: construction of a pedestal[?] in the Pythian theatre: 28 staters.
  • Euthydamos: fencing of the Pythian stadium: 10 staters.….
  • ??: cleaning out the hippodrome [i.e. horse-racing arena]: ??
  • Dionysios: digging out of the hippodrome around the turning posts: ??

Summary

There isn’t anything in ancient athletic culture to match the scale and complexity of the London Olympics this year. But there is evidence that ancient athletic festivals required vast expenditure and complicated organisation: the problems faced by the modern Olympic organiser are not completely alien to ancient experience. That was mitigated in part by the fact that the Olympics (like other festivals) stayed in one place: there was no need to build a stadium and training facilities from scratch every four years. Even so there would have been a lot of last-minute maintenance work when festival time came round every four years, in addition to all the other challenges of getting the festival to run smoothly and making sure there was enough funding. Keeping the site running also presumably required a considerable amount of funding for the permanent staff who ran the Olympic sanctuary and who catered for visitors who came outside festival time. The names of many of these staff are listed in large numbers of surviving inscriptions from Olympia: mostly religious officials and tourist guides. Presumably they too were particularly busy in the run-up to the festival every four years…

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