The IOC website

I have just been looking at the International Olympic Committee website, especially their section on the ancient Olympics (direct link here, or else you can get to it by following the ‘Olympic games’ tab at the top of the main page, and then clicking on the ‘origins’ icon at the bottom right). It’s in four separate sections: ‘history’, ‘mythology’, ‘the athlete’ and ‘the sports events’, with a few hundred words on each page. It also has a cartoon history of the games which starts playing automatically in the top right hand side of each of those pages–giving some animated Greek-vase style images of ancient athletes and setting out some basic facts.

It manages to convey some basic information about the ancient games clearly enough, and the cartoon is mildly entertaining, clearly aimed partly at children.

But the whole thing is oddly cursory by the standards of the rest of the IOC website (compare, for example, the section on modern Olympic athletes–a database of all athletes ever to win medals at the modern games).

It’s also full of mistakes and anachronisms. That’s a particular problem in the cartoon. Errors include the following (quite a long list for a 7-minute cartoon with lots of pauses in the narration):

  • Demosthene, the famous Athenian orator (for ‘Demosthenes’)
  • Anacorath Diogene (for ‘Diogenes’)
  • Milon the Croton (for ‘Milon of Croton’)
  • Echiles (for ‘Aeschylus’)
  • Pherones (for ‘Pherenike’)
  • Posiodor (for ‘Peisidorus’ or ‘Peisirodos’)
  • Orsipp (for ‘Orsippos’)

[P.S. Some or all of the mistakes in that list seem to come from incompetent transliteration of a French original: so ‘l’anachorète Diogene’ (‘the hermit Diogenes’), ‘Milon de Croton’ etc.–see comments.]

It also talks confusingly and anachronistically twice about the ancient ‘Olympic movement’ (there was no such thing before the late 19th century):

  • Pindar the great lyrical Greek poet bard of the Olympic movement…
  • Pythagoras was not the only scholar to grace the Olympic movement: Aristotle, Plato, Echiles the poet… etc.

Outside the cartoon, the mistakes are less frequent, but still pretty glaring: for example the ‘sports events’ section claims that the ancient Olympics included the shot put (it didn’t).

The Olympic truce

Most of these errors are pretty inconsequential in themselves. One of them is more striking, however, and that’s their treatment of the Oympic truce. At an early stage in the animation we hear the following:

‘So when the Olympic truce was declared, soldiers had to stop fighting and put down their weapons during the period of the games’ [cue animation of various Homeric-style battlefield scenes, with the fighting ceasing as some heralds run between the battle lines].

The promotion of world peace has always been an important part of the modern Olympic movement. In fact the Olympic charter still asserts that goal in a prominent position right at the beginning–its second sentence is as follows: ‘The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised in accordance with Olympism and its values’ (item 1.1).

That’s clearly an admirable goal. However, one of the interesting things about that aspiration is that it arose within the early Olympic movement partly on the basis of a mistaken assumption that the ancient world instituted a worldwide cessation of fighting for the period of the Olympic games. In fact that was not the case: the ancient Olympic ‘truce’ (ekecheiria in Greek) was mainly a guarantee of safe passage for athletes and spectators travelling to and from the games.

Ancient historians have worked very hard to make that clear over the last few decades. For example, the German scholar Manfred Lämmer published an influential article along those lines in 1982. He received a lot of criticism from some scholars in East Germany who felt he was trying to sabotage the Olympic movement, but his arguments are now widely accepted (full English translation now in König (2010), Greek Athletics, Edinburgh University Press: 36-60). And the ancient truce usually is correctly reported in the modern media these days.

Clearly, however, the mistake is still being made–and it does seem unfortunate that it turns up on the IOC website. Unfortunately the same mistake was also on the ‘Olympic truce’ page on Wikipedia when I checked today (‘wars were suspended, armies were prohibited from threatening the Games, legal disputes were stopped, and death penalties were forbidden’).

Conclusion

Of course the goal of world peace is an admirable one. But its advocates surely doesn’t do themselves any favours by making misleading claims about ancient precedents. Arguably the mistake is not a very consequential one in this case–it’s hard to imagine anyone taking their inspiration for foreign policy from this cartoon. But maybe it is right to worry about this kind of thing a little even so, if it is symptomatic of a slightly cavalier attitude to the ancient inheritance within the modern Olympic movement–given how powerful (and how much open to abuse) the ancient Olympic heritage has been throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

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