This week: Olympia

Archaeological site of Olympia. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons.

As fans of the world’s most celebrated sporting contest know, the modern Olympic Games are no stranger to accusations of cheating.

From the infamous 1904 marathon (won by the American runner Fred Lorz after he hitched an 11-mile ride in his manager’s car) to the storm of controversy at this year’s Beijing Winter Games (when the 15-year-old Russian figure-skater Kamila Valieva tested positive for the banned substance Trimetazidine), there is no shortage of scandals to choose from.

Things were no better, however, at the Ancient Olympics, the four-yearly panhellenic Games, which were first recorded in 776 BC and held at Olympia in the northwestern Peloponnese.

Perhaps most famously, in AD 67, the Roman emperor Nero is said to have entered a team of 10 horses in the four-horse chariot race, and to have won the top prize even though he fell out of his chariot and was unable to complete the course.

As we learn this week on The Past, legend has it that the Ancient Olympics were even founded as the result of foul play – following a chariot race in which the mythical King Pelops (who gave his name to the Peloponnese) bribed a technician to substitute the metal lynch pins keeping his opponent’s wheels in place with wax replicas, which melted as the race progressed, causing the chariot to disintegrate and Pelops’ rival to be killed.

Mosaic floor, on display in the Museum of Olympia, depicting various athletes wearing wreaths. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons.

In the latest issue of Minerva magazine, David Stuttard introduces an important new book, Judith Barringer’s Olympia: a cultural history, which draws on recent archaeology as well as detailed first-hand knowledge of local topography to explore the many transformations of this extraordinary site, bringing it to life as never before.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have also been delving into the archives in search of more about Olympia: we presented our own guide to the Ancient Olympics in order to understand what the Games were really like; and we traced the link between the site and the mysterious 2,000-year-old scientific instrument known as the Antikythera Mechanism.

And finally: if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is also focused on the Ancient Olympics. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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