Olympic Fever

Wrestling with Eros at the ancient Games.


in Archive


If the Olympic Village descends into orgiastic debauchery this summer — as it did during the 2004 Olympics, when 130,000 free condoms were given away along with 30,000 sachets of lubricant, or during the 2000 Sydney Games, when the Durex supply had to be supplemented with an emergency shipment of 20,000 extras — athletes in Beijing will be only be upholding the finest traditions of classical Greece. Back in Plato’s day, sex and sport were always intertwined: In classical gymnasiums, Greeks competed stark naked beneath a statue of Eros, and the workout rooms were prime pick-up spots. In the first Olympic Village — an enclave in the rural city of Elis where, every fourth year, the cream of ancient athletes gathered for 30 days before the Games — this lusty atmosphere reached a frenzied pitch, with groupies arriving early to admire the physiques of pumped-up champions as they trained in the buff, covered head to toe in olive oil.

Of course, the ancient Olympic athletes were exclusively male — and the ultimate romantic prize for most Greeks was to conquer a downy-cheeked boy (they don’t call it “Greek love” for nothing). In fact, the entire sporting culture of the period was openly misogynistic: the only Greek city where females were even allowed to enter the gym was Sparta. This became extremely popular with straight Greek men. Lecherous voyeurs would travel here from all over the Mediterranean to admire the robust (and famously alluring) Spartan girls oil one another down and wrestle naked; at this incipient mud-wrestling, there are reports of over-excited male spectators jumping into the ring to participate. (These Amazons were not allowed to compete in the Olympics, however; they had to be content with a second-rate festival for virgins at the site, where the only event was a foot race; the girls all ran in short tunics, with the right breast exposed).

Despite the male-only rule at the Olympic Games, heterosexual lust was not hard to satisfy once the festival was underway — especially for the victors, who were regarded by Greeks as little less than demi-gods. Ravishing heterai (high-class hookers, as accomplished as Japanese geishas) would attend the champions’ victory parties and offer their legendary favors; there are reports of celebrations getting out of hand, and of the wine-addled guests having group sex with the host’s consort once he had passed out in a drunken stupor. Exotic flute girls provided further entertainment — many traveled in troupes from one sporting event to the next, led by pimps called “prostitute shepherds.” And Olympic competitors who didn’t snag an olive wreath could join the spectators visiting the budget prostitutes, who attended to their needs at tents called, in classical Greek, kineteria, or “fuck-factories.” It’s known that these “pornoi” would charge different rates depending on the sexual position: the cheapest was “kubda,” bent over; the most expensive “the race horse,” with the woman on top. (Another position has been found called “the lion on the cheese grater,” but its details have sadly been lost).

Alas, the carnal opportunities at the Olympic Games were also a genuine source of stress for competitors, since the Greeks believed that sexual release radically hindered athletic performance. Trainers constantly railed against the lascivious habits of contenders. One great pioneer of sports medicine, the Greek doctor Galen, even advised randy athletes to sleep with flattened lead plates over their loins. The good doctor, sadly, never did explain how this was supposed to help — whether desire is suppressed by the weight of the plate, the chill of the metal, or even the debilitating effects of lead. • 31 July 2008


Tony Perrottet's book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.