Every fourth summer, the sanctuary of Olympia -- a quiet collection of temples and altars in southern Greece -- would be transformed by the Olympic Games, as some 70,000 spectators, athletes, merchants and hangers-on descended on the site. The five-day event was a logistical nightmare -- as chaotic as a badly-planned rock festival today.  Spectators slept in canvas tents or in the open air, without any regular water supply or sanitation; in the blistering summer heat, many died from dehydration, sunstroke and fever.

A wealthy spectator en route to the festival.  Ancient sports fans had to be relatively fit just to attend the Olympics; many walked the 210 miles from Athens to Olympia.  They arrived to find a venue that had almost no facilities: the sole inn was reserved for officials and VIPs, while the famous Olympic Stadium had no seats, so spectators were forced to stand cheek by jowl for twelve hours a day beneath the blazing sun.

Athletes in the undressing room of a Gymnasium, preparing to cover their bodies with olive oil.  The Greeks themselves had no record of when their tradition of exercising nude began.  Probably originating with initiation rites, it became a matter of pride for the gleefully superficial athletes -- and was often mocked by foreigners for promoting sexual degeneracy.  The all-male gyms were prime pick up spots, and a statue of Eros always had pride of place amongst the Gymnasium altars.

The long jump -- a key contest in the ancient pentathlon. The event was performed from a starting position, using leaden hand weights, and to the sound of flute music.

Boxing, the most lethal of Olympic sports. Greek athletes wrapped their fists in leather thongs and pummeled one another's heads until one contestant surrendered. (Body blows were against the rules).

Off the field, the ancient Olympics developed a riotous carnival atmosphere -- a round-the-clock decathlon of partying, drinking and cavorting with hetaeras, classical geisha girls. The victory parties of athletes were notoriously debauched, usually lasting all night, with revelers parading around the sanctuary in drunken conga lines.

The pankration -- a brutal, all-in brawl, where kicking and strangling were permitted -- was the most popular Olympic event.  In this vase illustration, a contestant is reprimanded for eye gouging, one of the only fouls that was discouraged by the judges.


A victorious athlete offers a sacrifice of thanks to the gods.  Greek athletics was inseparable from religion: At the Olympic festival, sacred processions and rituals, including the sacrifice of 100 oxen to Zeus, took up as much time as the sports.

A sample of the thirty line drawings in The Naked Olympics;
all illustrations copyright Lesley Thelander, contact lesleythelander@yahoo.com