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History of Cheating in Olympics Goes Back to Antiquity

cheating in the Olympics
Cheating in the Olympics is nothing new, as depicted in a scene of the sport pankration, in which one wrestler tries to gouge out the eye of his opponent — while the referee prepares to strike the offender with a baton. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

The history of cheating in the Olympics unfortunately goes as far back as the ancient Games. Due to human nature, the temptation to cheat and get around the rules seems to be part and parcel of these oldest of all athletic endeavors.

Doping? It happened, albeit in a somewhat different way. Athletes in ancient Greece were encouraged to partake of such substances as animal hearts, boiled hooves and even testicles, since they were thought to have imparted strength. So long before there were blood tests for excess testosterone, it was playing a part in sports.

Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a 1st century ancient Greek physician, once opined on the purportedly salubrious effects of such ingestion:

Cheating in Olympics took the form of bribery and ingesting a range of ….interesting substances

“For it is the semen, when possessed of vitality, which makes us to be men, hot, well braced in limbs, well voiced, spirited, strong to think and act… But if any man be continent in the emission of semen, he is bold, daring, and strong as wild beasts as is proved from such of the athlete as are continent… Vital semen, then, contributes to health, strength, courage, and generation.”

Other concoctions including mysterious herbal teas also were used by athletes as a way to give them that added boost over their competitors.

During the Olympic Games in the third century BC, athletes were already trying to boost their performance using mushrooms. Philostratus reported that doctors were significantly helpful in athletes’ preparation for the games and bakers prepared a type of bread with analgesic properties.

In the first century AD, it was also reported that the Greek runners were drinking a herbal beverage to increase their strength and to be capable of competing in endurance events.

In these old days, however, there was no being allowed to take part after being found out — you were not allowed to compete under a different flag or as part of another entity, such as Russian athletes have been allowed to do as “The Russian Olympic Committee,” after their nation was found guilty of state-sponsored doping during the Sochi Winter Olympics.

No, the punishment there was more immediate, including public flogging, the imposition of fines, the inscribing of miscreants’ names on zanes, or statues of Zeus, which lined the entrance to ancient Olympia, and complete bans on competing.

Zanes Olympia
The “zanes,” or pedestals on which the names of Olympic cheaters and their families would be engraved as a warning against wrongdoing. Statues of Zeus wouls be placed on the pedestals. All those taking part in the Games would have to walk past these statues with their inscriptions. Credit: Jean HousenCC BY 3.0

Cheaters shamed with names inscribed on statues at ancient Olympia

Cheats were banished for life from competing in the games. Inscribed on each pedestal was the offending athlete’s name, his transgression, and the names of his family members.

According to Patrick Hunt, a professor of archaeology at Stanford University, these monuments to fakery were funded either by fines placed on athletes or on the city-states to which they belonged by the Olympic Council.

The competition was brutal in those days, sometimes even going as far as trying to gouge out the eyes of an opponent, which was highly illegal according to Olympic rules. As was memorialized on a cup from approximately 490 B.C. athletes were not above trying to bite or take each other’s eyes out in that eternal quest for glory.

Unlike today, however, we didn’t have to wait for a decision from a foreign laboratory months after the event for justice. It was swift and sure, since a referee was right there to deliver a sharp blow to the miscreant.

Lure of glory, fame an ancient Olympic tradition

As we can easily see from history, the leniency shown by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in allowing Russian athletes take part in the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro and the Winter Games in Beijing would likely not have been the case with the Greek Olympic Council, which ran the ancient games.

David Gilman Romano, a professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona, states “We only know of a small number of examples of cheating but it was probably fairly common,” in the first Games.

“Law, oaths, rules, vigilant officials, tradition, the fear of flogging, the religious setting of the games, a personal sense of honor – all these contributed to keep Greek athletic contests clean,” stated Clarence A. Forbes, a professor of Classics at Ohio State University, back in 1952. “And most of the thousands of contests over the centuries were clean.”

Olympic victors list
A list of Olympic victors on papyrus includes victors of the 75th to the 78th, and from the 81st to the 83rd Olympiads. Then as now, Olympic victors were lauded and the glamor of their achievements lived on even after they were gone. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Ancient Olympics founded upon subterfuge

Of course, the ancient Greeks were a creative bunch, and they were known to try to jinx other athletes to stop them from winning. As Romano explains, “curse tablets could be found in athletic contexts. For instance, strips of lead were inscribed with the curse, then folded up and placed in the floor at a critical part of the athletic facility.”

According to the writings of the second-century A.D. traveler and geographer Pausanias, most of the cheating that went on in the ancient Olympics was in the realm of bribery or other foul play.

But as he points out, the very origin of the ancient games was founded on subterfuge.

Pelops, the figure who is credited with founding the Olympic Games, did so as a celebration of his marriage and victory in chariot racing over King Oinomaos; but he won these only after bribing the king’s charioteer to sabotage the sovereign’s chariot. Not exactly the sportsmanship that we at least pay lip service to today.

The first Games were held in ancient Olympia in 776 B.C., although some archeologists believe they may have begun even centuries earlier.

According to Pausanias’ account, which is analyzed and translated in Clarence Forbes’ 1952 article, there were three main types of dishonesty engaged in at the ancient Olympics:

City-states would try to bribe athletes to lie and claim that city-state as their own (as we still see today, with several athletes renouncing their citizenship to compete for other countries). One famous such event occurred with of Croton

Bribes, renouncing place of birth nothing new

When one athlete, the renowned Milo of Croton, who many believe to be the strongest man who ever lived, ran for Syracuse instead of his own city-state, Croton tore down his statue and made his house into a public jail.

Of course, money always rears its head, as it continues to do today, with the gigantic sums spent for television rights and sponsorships to the Games.

During the 98th Olympics, in 388 BC, a boxer named Eupolus of Thessaly bribed three of his opponents in hopes that they would let him win. But the Olympic Council did its job, and soon, appropriate fines against the men were levied and the statues to Zeus with all the incriminating names inscribed under them went up in Olympia for all to see.

In his 1952 paper, Forbes also refers to what he calls “fouls and forbidden tricks,” some of which were even alluded to in ancient works, including a satirical play portraying a group of performers who say they are athletes “skilled in wrestling, horse-racing, running, boxing, biting, and testicle-twisting.”

Related: What would Baron Pierre de Coubertin think of modern Olympics?

Some brazen athletes were known to have starting early in a footrace, and attempting to jury rig the system that determined the match-ups and byes, according to a report in Smithsonian Magazine.

Even officials were known to have given into temptation. Forbes notes an instance in which two such men voted to crown a member of their own city-state, which was an obvious conflict of interest. The judges were fined.

Flogging is out, but human nature still makes us try for edge against opponents

And we don’t have far to look back to see that human nature hasn’t changed to any great degree. In the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, a French judge gave Russian pairs skaters high marks that were allegedly in exchange for the same favor from a Russian judge when he judged the performance of French ice dancers.

Of course, nowadays, entire cities don’t get their names put on statues of shame — despite allegations of wholesale bribery of the IOC by cities in order to be awarded the Games, such as happened with Salt Lake City in its winning of the Winter Olympics.

Pausanias records that in 420 B.C., Sparta was banned from the Olympics for its violation of a peace treaty; however, one of its athletes entered the chariot race after pretending to be from Thebes. After he won, he mistakenly revealed where he was from.

He was accordingly flogged as the justice of the day called for. Even worse, the victory was ultimately recorded for Thebes, with no mention of the charioteer’s name, which was undoubtedly an additional punishment, since Olympic champions were renowned in their day the same as they are today, as we can see even from a piece of parchment that notes their names for posterity.

Ultimately, human nature does not change, and the glamor that goes with winning an Olympic contest is a powerful drug for some. Patrick Hunt explains it this way: “We want an edge. Russian athletes may be banned …because of cheating, but people have always been looking for performance enhancing tricks.”

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