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Corruption in Sport Existed Even at the Olympics in Ancient Greece

ancient olympics corruption
Ancient Greek vase depicting a race. Corruption was rampant in the ancient Olympics. Credit: MatthiasKabel/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 2.5

Bribery, cheating, doping, and overall corruption have at times tarnished the image of the Olympic Games in the past few decades. Many negatively compare the modern Olympics to its ancient Greek counterpart, stating that there was less corruption in the ancient games.

However, the famous “Olympic Spirit” in ancient Greece, where the games started, was not as noble and pure as idealists tend to believe.

On the contrary, some of the competitions themselves in ancient Olympia were also subject to cheating, bribery and even a primitive form of doping.

Ancient Olympics were ticket to fame, wealth

Competitors struggled to win fame, glory and wealth, and the city-states that they represented also saw the contest as a way to gain superiority over their rivals.

According to the book “The Games: A Global History of the Olympics,” by David Goldlblatt, many of the athletes were professionals who competed for prizes and status that would often lead to public office.

Therefore, it seems clear the idealized, corruption-free Olympics of ancient Greece was an attractive myth that lasted 2,500 years.

Behind this myth of purity, ambitious athletes sometimes tried to bribe their opponents, or even to sabotage them.
According to Nigel Crowther, the former director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies, during the ancient Olympics, athletes, their fathers and trainers made oaths not to “sin against the games.” But some of them indeed did so.
For example, Pausanias wrote that in 388 BC, the boxer Eupolus bribed his three opponents at Olympia. Games officials then punished all four contestants.

Consequences for cheating in ancient Greece

In about 322 BC, a pentathlete named Callippus offered his competitors money to lose the contest. Incredibly, according to philosopher Philostratus, trainers often lent money to athletes at high rates of interest for the sole purpose of bribery.
Also, some Olympic athletes were bribed to compete for city-states other than their own. After his Olympic victory, the runner Sotades of Crete was bribed to compete for the rival city of Ephesus. After that, his home city expelled him.
In the fifth century BC, wealthy residents of Syracuse persuaded Astylos of Croton to compete for their city and, a century later, the runner Dicon of Caulonia was a similar target.
In the former case, the citizens of Croton turned Astylus’ house into a prison and destroyed his statue.
When a case of corruption was discovered, the guilty athletes had to pay fines — both those who had offered the bribe and those who had accepted the money. But the result of the contest remained unchanged.
The athlete who won was proclaimed victor, even if he was corrupt.
In Olympia, there was a special row of statues called the Zanes. These were statues of Zeus erected with the fines paid by corrupt athletes.
Standing along the entrance of the stadion, they functioned as a warning for the athletes. They were also seen as peace-offerings to Zeus, because the athletes had broken the Olympic oath to the god, to whom the Games were dedicated.
Incredibly, we even have the fascinating stories behind each statue, thanks to the writer Pausanias. For example, in 532 BC an Athenian had bribed his opponent in the pentathlon.
 Therefore the Eleans fined him, but the Athenians sent a famous orator to Olympia who pleaded to drop the punishment.
The Eleans refused, and for that reason the Athenians wanted to boycott the Olympics.
But when the Delphic priests refused to give any oracles to the Athenians because of this boycott, they paid the fine after all. A total of six statues of Zeus were erected with this money.

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