Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Judith Swaddling, The Ancient Olympic Games (2nd ed., revised and updated). Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008. Pp. 120. ISBN 0-292-71893-4. $19.95.
Reviewed by Jonathan Perry, Department of History, University of South Florida

Released to capitalize on the excitement generated by the Beijing Summer Olympics, this book has been only very slightly 'revised and updated' since its second edition appeared in 1999. While the author does not claim that this is a 'third' edition, of a book originally published in 1980, it is particularly regrettable that it does not also capitalize upon the remarkable Wunderjahre of publications on the ancient Olympics that followed the Athens Games in 2004. The resulting book is thus even more flawed--and, in fact, virtually obsolete--today, given the plethora of superior books that are now available to the growing cadre of classicists willing to teach a course on Greek athletics. The only significant addition to the present book is a short new chapter on the modern Olympic movement, but this tacked-on element is incomplete and apparently driven by an odd political agenda (i.e., to denigrate a previous IOC President and burnish the image of the present one.)

The Foreword by the Princess Royal on p. 6, with Anne's signature appended, is a good example of the degree of revision throughout, as well as of the hurdles that remain to be cleared. Originally composed for the 1980 first edition and slightly changed for the 1999 edition, this letter now celebrates the achievements of a different, though safely British, athlete: Steve Redgrave (gold medalist rower in five consecutive Olympics, 1984-2000) has here taken the place of Daley Thompson (gold medalist decathlete in two Olympics, 1980-1984). 'Over twenty years' now stands where 'twenty years' formerly stood, and the spelling error 'familiar cord' has now been corrected to 'familiar chord'. However, the name of Theagenes of Thasos remains, incorrectly, 'Theogenes'.

Accordingly, while some 'updating' has been attempted, much 'revision' must still be done to this book, and even the interested non-academic reader should be warned that the criticisms leveled by many other specialists in this field remain intact. While a few of the specific concerns noted by Zinon Papakonstantinou in BMCR 2000-06-24 and by Donald Kyle1 have been addressed here (for example the misidentification of the Spartan Lichas as a Boeotian), the fundamental lack of engagement with the latest historical and, to a lesser extent, archaeological work on this topic continues to hobble the book. The most recent surveys by Crowther, Kyle, Scanlon, and Young--each erudite and thought-provoking--do not appear in Swaddling's bibliography.2 Moreover, even when a recent book does appear there, as is the case with Golden 1998, Miller 2004, and Sinn 2000--the author neglects pivotal contentions in the work, only cosmetically changing the text and then alerting the reader to these books' existence.3

Small but important errors continue to mar this already abbreviated text, and even the book's erstwhile strength, its incorporation of copious and compelling illustrations, has now been supplanted, especially by Stephen Miller's lavishly illustrated (and surprisingly affordable) textbook. Alexander the Great is still, in place of his father, credited with compensating an Athenian robbed on his way to Olympia by Macedonian troops (p. 11), the 'Mastigophoroi' remain misspelled as 'Mastigophorai' (p. 39), and Mithridates continues to be described as a 'Persian king' (p. 99). There are a very large number of typographical errors in the back matter of the book (particularly in the 'Further Reading' and 'Illustration Sources and Credits' sections) that suggest they were the result of a poor transfer (by camera?) of the text from an earlier iteration.4 While the artists' sketches of Phidias' cult statue of Olympian Zeus (p. 18) and the Altar of Zeus (p. 16) remain intriguing visual elements, the British Museum's model of ancient Olympia, photos of which are the highlights of Chapter 2, has been surpassed in recent publications.5 Examples of this would include a reconstruction of the statues in the Philippeion in Ian Worthington's new biography of Philip and a full-color rendering of the aphesis in the hippodrome in a 2003 Italian book entitled Le antiche Olimpiadi: Il grande sport nel mondo classico.6 Swaddling's hypothetical reconstructions of the discus throw (66), the javelin ankyle (67), and the proper use of halteres in the halma (69) have been overtaken by Miller's use of vase paintings to illustrate the mechanics of each event.7 (One must admit, however, that an entire sequence of movements cannot be compiled, merely from these images, and that many of these reconstructions remain controversial among specialists in the field.)

A few recent archaeological discoveries are mentioned in this revised text, e.g. an athlete found at Taranto who may be the historical Ikkos (93), as well as a tablet found at Olympia that seems to indicate that Games were held there after the traditional suppression date of 393 CE (100). Nevertheless, it is far more important, even in a text designed for a non-specialist audience, to address issues that have, in the past few decades, been investigated--and disputed--by the many superb scholars in this field. There has been a great deal of controversy in recent years, especially since David Young's pioneering work on the vaunted 'amateurism' of the ancient athlete, on the class status of the athlete, and on the question whether athletics devolved from a 'gentlemanly' pursuit in the Games' early centuries into a 'professional' endeavor in the Hellenistic and Roman eras.8 There is no effort here to address Mark Golden's path-breaking analysis of the myths associated with Olympia, particularly regarding Heracles and Pelops, in his unsurpassed Sport and Society in Ancient Greece (1998), and Hugh Lee's rigorous examination of the arrangement of the events in the Olympic program, published in 2001, seems to have made no dent on the reconstruction of the five days of events offered on p. 53.9 Miller's analysis of Diagoras of Rhodes in a particularly stimulating chapter of his 2004 book seems not to have altered the treatment of this figure on Swaddling's p. 81, and Nigel Crowther's many meticulous, creative, and invariably authoritative investigations, particularly of judging scandals and the local organizers of the festival, have not been incorporated into Chapter 8, on 'Politics, Scandals and Propaganda'.10

While there is very little here that will facilitate discussion among scholars of ancient athletics, the book is also error-prone, and singularly infelicitous, in its coverage of the modern Games. The sections of the book that address the modern Olympic movement, from the planning and staging of the 1896 Athens Games described in Chapter 9 and throughout the new Chapter 10, seem to have been composed for a 2004 revision--and not altered since. This is suggested by the statement that the 1896 Athens stadium is not used for official track races today, even though the 2004 Marathon culminated, in a particularly breathtaking moment, in that stadium. Moreover, the book claims that 'nowadays', some 10,000 athletes compete in 'over 200' disciplines, even though the statistics from Beijing, which the author could have extrapolated even if the final figures were not available at the time of publication, tallied over 11,000 athletes, in some 300 events.11

This book's newest chapter, entitled 'The Olympic Games since 1896', seems to have been written by Stewart Binns, judging from the 'Acknowledgements' of the main author on p. 116. If this is correct, Binns would seem to have been a good choice to compose a brief survey of, especially, the late-20th-century Games, having served (at least as of 2004) as the Director of the Olympic Television Archives Bureau (OTAB), under the umbrella of the International Olympic Committee.12 Binns has also done a singular service to Olympic historians by reconstructing films of the 1956 Melbourne Games, and this makes his omission of Melbourne in the list of 'Helsinki, Rome, Tokyo and Mexico City' (p. 111) all the more astonishing. The chapter is a lively one, albeit studded with odd word choices and neologisms like 'shambolic' (p. 107), but it does not do an effective job in hitting the highlights of modern Olympic history, even in a bracing seven-page sprint.

Clearly anticipating the London Games in 2012, the text focuses particular attention on London's previous brushes with Olympic history, in 1908 and 1948. Surprisingly, Binns does not mention the most important innovation of the 1908 Games, i.e., the final determination of the distance of the Marathon, from Windsor Castle to the royal box in the White City Stadium, at precisely 26 miles, 385 yards (26.20739 miles). Another very famous incident that punctuated these Games--at least to American observers--involved an Irish-American athlete, who refused to lower his nation's flag as he marched past King Edward VII. (The athlete, Michael Sheridan, is credited with having said, 'This flag dips to no earthly king.') The scanty (one-paragraph) coverage of the Nazi Olympics of 1936 constitutes another conspicuous failure in the text, which does not even mention that the torch relay, the most recognizable and du rigueur event in contemporary Opening Ceremonies, was first staged in Berlin.13

The most troubling aspect of this chapter, however, is its indulgence in a strange bit of backstairs (though recently exposed) IOC intrigue. These highly personalized statements come at the expense of the 'diminutive and wily Spaniard', Juan Antonio Samaranch, and to the benefit of Jacques Rogge, 'a highly respected Belgian surgeon' (and three-time Olympic competitor in yachting events, which Binns does not mention). The text seems to make Samaranch solely responsible for the commercialism and corruption that dominated news coverage of the Olympic movement in the 1990s and early 2000s, culminating in the humiliating scandal that swirled around the awarding of the 2002 Winter Games to Salt Lake City.

But would one be far off the mark in also criticizing the IOC's decision to award the 2008 Summer Games to China? That regime's repressive policies were revealed by the internet blackout imposed in August 2008, when China's leaders reneged on their promise of free and open communication made to the 'respected' Rogge. Binns makes the common mistake of suggesting that the modern Olympic truce--a noble, if misconstrued, attempt at instituting an across-the-world suspension of hostilities for the period of the Games--is proclaimed today, 'just as in ancient times' (114), and he sees today's games as 'a testament to human endeavour and idealism'. If this is so, can one imagine a more 'idealistic testament' than that made by protesters against Chinese violations of human rights, especially during the worldwide torch relay in early 2008? This book may be correct in suggesting that Olympism 'has come to represent a set of values' but one might more accurately argue that those 'values' are currently determined by the market.--which took a similar tumble in 2008.


1.   Donald G. Kyle, review of Swaddling 1999, Journal of Sport History 28 (2001): 129-130.
2.   Nigel B. Crowther, Sport in Ancient Times, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007; Donald G. Kyle, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007; Thomas F. Scanlon, Eros and Greek Athletics, Oxford, 2002; David C. Young, A Brief History of the Olympic Games, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.
3.   Mark Golden, Sport and Society in Ancient Greece, Cambridge, 1998; Stephen G. Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics, New Haven: Yale, 2004; Ulrich Sinn, Olympia: Cult, Sport, and Ancient Festival, translated by Thomas Thornton, Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2000.
4.   A small sample would include: 'Olympistn' for 'Olympism' (115), 'Fundacón' for 'Fundación' (115), 'DA1' for 'DAI' (116), 'Ausgrabuug' for 'Ausgrabung' (117), and 'Museo dells Terme' for 'delle Terme' (117).
5.   The book began life as a guide to a 1980 exhibition on the Olympics at the British Museum.
6.   Ian Worthington, Philip II of Macedonia, New Haven: Yale, 2008; Mario Pescante e Piero Mei, Le antiche Olimpiadi: Il grande sport nel mondo classico, Milano: Rizzoli, 2003. The discovery of the Hippodrome site at Olympia in mid-2008 by researchers at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz will generate renewed attention to and conclusions concerning ancient equestrian events. Further, see
7. On each issue, compare the superior treatment by Miller 2004, pp. 60-74.
8. Among many other works, see especially David C. Young, The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics, Chicago: Ares, 1984.
9. Hugh M. Lee, The program and schedule of the Ancient Olympic games, Nikephoros Beihefte; Bd. 6, Hildesheim: Weidmann, 2001.
10. Now conveniently gathered in Nigel B. Crowther, Athletika: studies on the Olympic games and Greek athletics, Nikephoros Beihefte; Bd. 11, Hildesheim: Weidmann, 2004.
11. Figures taken from the official Beijing site (available at present, apparently without censorship):
12. Information on Binns and the IOC may be found at: and
13. Moreover, the deliberate exclusion of German-Jewish athletes and the efforts, on multiple fronts, to boycott international participation in these Games, are not mentioned here, and the interested reader should be alerted to the riveting online exhibit on these topics that is now available at the website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. One of many superb online exhibits, this one is available at:

1 comment:

  1. A small note, but I think the Irish-American athlete in question was Martin Sheridan, while Ralph Rose was the flag-bearer.


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