The Money Games

05/10/2012 07:12 pm ET | Updated Jul 10, 2012
  • David Potter Professor of Greek and Roman History, University of Michigan

This past weekend Olympic superstar swimmer Janet Evans showed up in New York in the company of Olympic sponsor BMW. The London Olympics are unthinkable without their corporate sponsors, both for the site itself and for the teams that are going to compete. But what would a person connected with the ancient version of the Games think?

Most likely the response would have been a shrug -- people expected famous athletes to be linked with famous institutions, people, and places. The myth of ancient amateurism, created when the Olympics were reinvented in 1896, has further confused understanding of how sport worked and works today. If people are going to have the leisure time to achieve the physique of a champion athlete, then there must be someone willing to spend money to support them. Moreover, people wish to be associated with success, especially with someone in a high profile activity like the Olympics. Mutual branding is mutually beneficial.

Around 600 BC, winning Olympic athletes started thinking they could parlay their athletic success into political clout. (Although the first person to do this jumped the gun a bit before 600 since his effort to make himself ruler of Athens ended in total failure.) In addition, other places started thinking that they needed to have their own games. Four major new festivals came into being during half century after 600 BC and athletes started celebrating themselves in new ways or gaining new rewards. There were those who had statues erected for them and others who had poems written about themselves, often involving performances in their home cities by choruses of singers and dancers.

At a place like Athens, winners at the Olympics could count on free lunch at state expense for the rest of their lives. The lunch spot was the town hall, where visiting dignitaries would be brought as well; some of whom might have been successful athletes themselves and others who would simply have been thrilled to have lunch with the fifth-century Athenian version of Michael Phelps. As time passed this sort of state support for major athletes became widespread and some places might also contribute to the training/travel expenses of young men who proved that they could win on the international stage.

One of the earliest texts mentioning an athlete getting travel money dates to 300 BC, and the person in question, a boxer named Athenodorus, grew up in an immigrant family residing in the city of Ephesus (modern Efes on the west coast of Turkey, now one of the world's great archaeological sites as it was once one of the ancient world's great cities). He was also made an Ephesian citizen.

He followed in a long tradition whereby people who might have won on behalf of their native community either quarreled with their peers and moved, or were bought away by people who could be more appreciative of their reputations. The rulers of ancient Syracuse in Sicily (men noted for both their wealth and autocratic tendencies) seem to have attracted a number of such people. It was worth their while to be seen in the company of famous athletes even as they sought reputations for themselves by running horses on the track at Olympia. In later years the Greek kings of Egypt -- the Ptolemies, ancestors of the famous queen Cleopatra -- entered numerous equestrian events. It caused something of a stir when the mistress of one of the kings ran her own horses and won.

The Ptolemies, some of the richest people on earth, weren't at Olympia because they needed the cash. They were there to remind the people of mainland Greece that they were reasonable people. They also tended to be at war with the king of Macedon, otherwise the dominant figure in Greek politics, and it served the Ptolemies' purposes to tweak him by showing off at a neutral site. This sort of proto-surrogate competition dominated the modern Olympics from the 1950s to the 1980s.

In the early years of the Roman monarchy -- the last decades of the first century BC and first few of the first century AD -- members of the Roman imperial house would send their own horses to Olympia, possibly to show that they too were reasonable people in a part of the world that had supported rivals during the years of civil war. In these years, a diplomatic game would develop. Places seeking favor from the emperors would create games in their honor and emperors who found something agreeable about the request might grant them official recognition. Since earlier Greek kings had done the same thing, this sort of sponsorship was important for ensuring that people felt the new rulers shared their values. It might also encourage rich people to build something nice for a city the emperor seemed to like, or move there to spend money. (London is hardly the only city where tycoons who want to be seen as part of the local scene have knocked property values over the moon.)

In a world where there were no major corporations, but where a great deal of commerce was controlled either by the state or by a few very wealthy individuals, finding lures for the super rich could be very useful. Even if a place did not have major games of its own, it could reward important athletes who allowed themselves to be declared their citizens after a victory. That declaration would require the city to celebrate the athlete when he deigned to come to town with a major procession and give him a pension -- an investment as worthwhile to ancient cities as having Tom Brady as a spokesman for a modern corporation. The very best athletes would collect citizenship from dozens of places, as did a man named Asclepiades, a pancratiast (essentially an ancient form of cage fighter), who claimed that jealousy compelled him to retire in his early twenties. He was rich enough that retirement does not seem to have been a hardship and he ended up with a cushy position in athletics organization.

As Londoners struggle for tickets this August and watch as representatives of corporate sponsors take the best seats at venues their taxes have paid for, they might be able to take some comfort in the fact that they are participating in a tradition as old as the Olympics itself. Perhaps we don't want to think that heroes are all that much like us, that they have something special beyond what it takes to win, and that they should live in a somewhat different world -- or there is a reason that history keeps repeating itself.

This piece was originally published at the OUP Blog.