The choice of introductory books on the ancient Olympics is bewildering (if you type in ‘ancient Olympics’ to the books section on amazon.uk you get 1454 results; if you type just ‘Olympics’ you get 11,612). Here’s a quick review of some of the publications for children. I’ve picked five of them. 1 and 2 are on the ancient Olympics specifically; 3 is half ancient, half modern; 4 and 5 focus mainly on the modern games, but include some ancient material. There’s no special rationale for choosing these rather than others: they’re picked from the amazon.uk site; I have given priority to those high up the sales ranking and with good reviews; beyond that I just went for the ones that looked most promising and most interesting (like a last-minute present-buyer, perhaps…) But there are plenty of others out there too.
1. Avoid Entering the Ancient Greek Olympics (Danger Zone) by Michael Ford and David Antram (£5.99)
Part of the ‘Danger zone’ series, which aims to bring to life ‘the nitty and truly gritty facts’ behind a wide range of different periods of history. Fantastic cartoon-like drawings (in the Asterix mould), complete with over-muscled, villainous-looking athletes. All in the second-person singular: your father sends you off to compete at Olympia; you don’t want to go; but eventually you win through to become victor in the pentathlon. There are lots of ‘handy hints’ to keep you out of trouble (watch out for pickpockets, try to dazzle your opponent by making him face the sun, check your chariot before you set off in case one of your rivals has loosened a bolt etc. etc.). It gives a fairly conventional overview of the various sporting events, but pretty accurate and engaging (although the claim on p. 28 that Olympic victors were interested in winning for its own sake rather than for money is misleading–it’s fairly clear now that athletic victory was a very lucrative thing). There’s a good attempt to give some context on Greek education and warfare.
2. How the Olympics Came to Be by Helen East and Mehrdokht Amini (£6.99)
A British Museum publication. This too tries hard to avoid a predictable, pedestrian format. It combines the ancient Olympics with some Greek mythology, so you get two for the price of one. It’s divided into five chapters, one for each day of the ancient Olympics. Each one opens with really vivid description of the excitement of the races for participants and spectators. Then we cut to the gods up in Olympus, viewing the games through their tele-viewer, squabbling with each other, and listening to Tethys telling stories from Greek myth. There’s a special focus on stories involving contests–e.g. the story of Hippodamia and Pelops or Atalanta and Melanion–and it ends up with an account of the foundation of the Olympics. Beautiful drawings. It’s a bit allusive in places, especially in the opening pages, so might not always be clear to readers without a bit of background knowledge. And it doesn’t go into enormous detail on ancient Olympia, so it’s not the obvious one to go for if that’s what you want: it’s very much a story book, rather than a text book. But I think it is good to read.
3. The Story of the Olympics by Minna Lacey and Paddy Mounter (£5.99)
An Usborne young reading volume. The target audience of young readers means that there are very few words to play with, so it’s pretty brief. But it’s clear and engaging. It covers all the basics on the sporting side of the ancient Olympics very accurately. The second half moves on to Coubertin and the 1896 revival, and then lots on material on famous modern Olympic athletes. Bright and mildly comical drawings.
4. Fitter, Faster, Funnier Olympics by Michael Cox (£4.99)
This is for older children than the previous one. It’s fairly brief on the ancient games (8 pages out of 130 or so). Lots of gruesome details and comical asides, and a multiple-choice quiz on some Greek athletic vocabulary (‘What is or are dolichos? a) snacks served to spectators b) a running race c) ‘a nasty groin condition brought about by not changing your loincloth regularly enough’ etc. etc.) The rest of the book is along similar lines, organised event by event, with lots of entertaining silliness (if you like that kind of thing): there are timelines, more multiple-choice quizzes, collections of amazing facts on the various Olympic events and so on. The main problem is that it’s sometimes hard to know what’s true and what’s not–although I suspect the target audience won’t mind that very much. We hear at one point that ‘if an ancient Greek boxing match was going on too long, the boxers too turns to stand totally still while their opponent used them as a punch bag until one of them was finally knocked out’–p. 49–not true, as far as I know!
5. The Story of the Olympics by Richard Brassey (£7.99)
Along similar lines to 4, with lots of boxes full of amazing facts. Thinner but much more lavishly illustrated and really well produced, so maybe worth the extra money. There are 30 pages in total. Five of those are on the ancient games–this section is necessarily fairly thin, given the space. The rest is organised one Olympics at a time, from 1896 right through to 2016. There’s a lot to enjoy here: I especially liked the full page drawing of various misadventures from the marathon race in the St Louis Olympics in 1904: one runner cutting off the bottom half of his formal trousers at the start line to make shorts, another chased off course by a dog, another getting a lift in a car, another given strychnine by his trainer for energy etc. etc.
I think these are all pretty good in their own way. For what it’s worth I think number 2 and number 5 stand out if you want something an adult will enjoy reading with children. But young readers might give a different ranking. Some older children will certainly enjoy the more gruesome and comical approach of number 4–although it’s sometimes hard to extract the facts from the surrounding comedy. Number 1 has some of the same gruesomeness, but it is also at the same time by far the most thorough of all these five books on the detail of the ancient games, and it’s the stand-out choice if that’s your priority. Number 3 is probably the best bet for young readers (my four-year-old daughter liked this one best of all).
Postscript: modern representations of the ancient Olympics
It’s interesting to think about how these books and other popular accounts represent the ancient Olympics. One of the striking things is that they all offer a fairly similar story, with a tendency to rely on the same sources over and over again. For example most non-specialist accounts these days focus very much on the early period of Olympic history, with almost no mention of Hellenistic and Roman history. Most of them look in turn at the various different events or the different days of the festival. Most of them include some rehashing of ancient stories about the origins of the games and the very familiar stories from Pausanias about the great heroic athletes of the early days of the games. To take just two examples, the obligatory story of the wrestler Milo carrying a cow around turns up repeatedly in the books reviewed here (number 2, p. 34; number 4, p. 11; number 5, p. 11), as does the story of Polydamas wrestling against lions (number 2, p. 41; number 4, p. 10; number 5, p. 11).
Those are very familiar patterns and familiar stories from most of the web resources on the ancient Olympics too, even on some very good websites–e.g. here or here. It’s also true for the IOC site, which I’ve mentioned before.
There’s not necessarily any great problem with that. And none of this is meant as a major criticism of these five books specifically–they all do what they set out to do very well (and some of them do attempt an original format quite successfully, especially 1 and 2).
But I still think it would be nice to see a bit more variety in the way the story of the ancient Olympics is told, and especially the kinds of sources we use to tell it. The tendency to follow the same contours and to ask the same questions every time we talk about the Olympics is perhaps a hazard of the internet age. It certainly seems to be a problem of some modern journalism, where you often see the same news story repeated almost word-for-word in dozens of different places. If we stick to anecdotes from Pausanias it means that we’re cutting ourselves off from lots of other fascinating material. If some of these popular accounts were a bit more willing to branch out (as the best of the introductory books for adult readers now do–for a recent example, packed with translations from less often used sources, see David Potter’s 2011 book, The Victor’s Crown) I think it might help to convey the fascination of ancient Olympic history even more vividly.