Mark Golden


On his book Greek Sport and Social Status

Cover Interview of May 06, 2009

A close-up

My ideal reader would begin reading at the end of the book.  (Maybe I ought to have written it in Hebrew.)  The final chapter explores the ways the modern Olympic movement and its boosters seek to enhance its status by invoking the traditions of the ancient Olympics.  In fact, many of the elements of the Olympics often alleged to have Greek roots—the motto, the torch relay, the marathon—were never a part of the Greek festival.  More surprisingly: the modern Olympics were revived—successfully—by Greek and English movements long before Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s first Athens Olympics of 1896.  Coubertin’s version caught on because he had the support of an international elite who shared his vision of competition among amateurs—those wealthy enough to train and travel without the hope of a material reward.  This vision too was based on and justified by Greek practices.  But Coubertin and the others got it wrong.

The Greeks had no notion of amateurism.  Though Olympic winners took home symbolic prizes only, they were generously rewarded—by law—on their return.  And nothing prevented them from entering any of the very numerous Greek festivals which did offer prizes of value, the equivalents of the purses in golf tournaments today.  The irony is that today’s Olympics, with their competitions between professionals and their cash bonuses for medalists, are closer to the Greek games than Coubertin’s were.