“Early in the morning we crossed a shallow brook, and commenced our survey of the spot before us with a degree of expectation from which our disappointment on finding it almost naked received a considerable addition.” So the demoralized Oxford don Richard Chandler, led by a Turkish scout, wrote of “rediscovering” ancient Olympia in 1766. He found ruins of what was presumed to have been a large temple. Nearby was “a deep hollow, with stagnant water and brick-work, where, it is imagined, was the Stadium. Round about [were] scattered remnants of brick-buildings, and the vestiges of stone walls.”

All pretty anticlimactic.

Long before at the site in the Peloponnese, around 500 A.D., earthquakes had toppled what looters hadn’t. There was flooding from the Kladeos and the Alpheios Rivers. When the marble had been taken or shattered, as Frankish Crusaders, Byzantine delegates, Venetian adventurers, and Ottoman Turks ruled by turns, peasants took the iron or lead that had served as dowels inside the columns. They left little but rubble and swarms of gnats, amid which Chandler sought some semblance of the ancient glory.

But as the University of Cambridge classicist Nigel Spivey explains in his toned, elegant The Ancient Olympics: A History, trying to recapture long-ago splendor was itself true to the Olympic ethos. In entertaining fashion, making wide use of a great many studies, Spivey makes the case that even the ancients were searching for ancient glory. Some thousand years before Christ, Olympia was a place of rustic worship of Hera, Demeter, Eileithyia, Gaia, and Themis, goddesses of crops, fertility, and productivity. Some 500 years after that, the Olympic Games, with their ritualistic homage to Zeus, had been institutionalized. And in between? “The origins of this extraordinary development were obscure even then,” Spivey tells us. “And so it was all mythologized.”

Still, scholars can’t go transcribing and digging for millennia without coming up with a few theories as to how the mythologizing occurred and what the games—probably begun in 776 B.C.E.—entailed. Medieval medical experts, looking back at the writings of Galen, detailed the handed-down Greek routines of exercise and diet. A 16th-century French scholar, Pierre du Faur, wrote a dissertation based on the odes of Pindar and other ancient sources. Then, in 19th-century excavations, French and German archaeologists found masses of votive figurines and masterful sculptures, such as the Nike of Paionios, the Hermes of Praxiteles, and pedimental pieces from the Temple of Zeus.

Piecing such evidence together, Spivey says, experts now speculate that the games may have sprung, in part, from the story of Pelops and Oinomaos. Pelops, human but of partly godly origins, courted Hippodameia, “subduer of horses,” daughter of King Oinomaos of Arcadia. “There were rumours that [Oinomaos’] wife Sterope was also his mother; rumours, also, that he loved his daughter Hippodameia too amorously.” Any man who sought to wed Hippodameia had to first face the king in a chariot race from Pisa to the Isthmus of Corinth. On the plus side, the suitor was given a head start and got to ride with Hippodameia to inspire him; the downside was that if the king caught up, “it was his right to dispatch the boy by a spear-stab to the back.”

After that it gets complicated. Suffice here to say there’s a little axle sabotage, the king buys it, and Pelops gets his girl. But their family, cursed, doesn’t live happily ever after. When not destroying and occasionally cooking each other up for dinner, the descendants are challenged by godly wrath to undertake heroic deeds. Somewhere in the subsequent centuries, the ancient Olympic contests may have developed next to the Pelopion tomb along the lines of funerary games, in imitation of the associated myths’ larger-than-life travails, particularly those of Herakles.

If the origins were godly, the realities of the games were decidedly earthy. Spivey, as an undergraduate a three-time victor at the Oxford-Cambridge athletics match, imbues his reconstructed athletic scenes with an experienced athlete’s knowingness and immediacy. And he’s not bad at bringing the nonathletic trappings to life, either. “The return of the modern Olympics to Greece in 2004 may be glossed with some sentiment of spiritual homecoming, but it is hardly an accurate simulation of antiquity—a mercy for which we may be truly thankful,” he writes.

“Oxen,” he explains, “were brought in by the hundred to be sacrificed to the god [Zeus]: their bellowings resounded down the valley as they were axed before a crowd, and the precincts steeped black with their blood. Ash, bones, and bovine offal piled up over centuries into a huge pyramid: it must have reeked to high heaven.” The games were noisy from the trumpet heralds, “hideously congested, and for hundreds of years deprived of adequate accommodation, water supply, and sanitation; not to mention marred by the standard plagues of heat, flies, and hucksters,” among whom was the famed mathematician Pythagorus, who “added to his own enigmatic cult status by revealing to spectators…that one of his thighs was made of gold.”

The ancient games were essentially modified military training, emphasizing equestrian, fighting, and running events: chariot and other horse races, the pentathlon (running, jumping, discus, javelin, and wrestling), foot races, and the “heavy contest,” which included wrestling, boxing, pankration, and the race in armor. (The marathon, by the way, was not included: “‘Day-running’ was a regular or servile job devolved to full-time messengers and couriers.”) The competitors’ nudity, Spiney writes, “may have begun at the Olympiad of 720 bc, when a sprinter called Orsippos lost his loin-cloth mid-race.” Perceived as a speed advantage, the bareness was imitated by a Spartan named Akanthos, “and so, it seems, a custom was born.”

Until the ancient games’ demise, around 400 A.D. by edict of the pagan-wary Roman power center, Constantinople, Olympic contestants were generally of the leisure class and trained at a public gymnasium or a private palaistra. They strived for an ideal of kalokagathia, which Spivey translates as “the joint nobility of appearance and conduct,” or “beautiful goodness.” Statuary of the time reflected high physical standards, but Spivey suggests that, more often, it set them, the way fitness magazines tantalize gym addicts today. The Greeks may not have had Muscle & Fitness obsessing about perfect abs or bulbous glutes, but they had sculptor Polykleitos of Argos creating iconic forms such as his Spear-Carrier. “For young men, the pressure to aspire towards a more or less predictable ‘Polykleitan’ norm—broad shoulders, contoured thorax, firm waist, powerful thighs—was onerous, and literally cast as a norm by one Classical sculptor after another.” Finds such as a depiction of the mythical female athlete Atalanta and “a mosaic in Sicily showing several bikini-clad girls holding weights in their hands” suggest that training was not absolutely limited to boys, but, minor Hellenic girls’ sport festivals aside, it was mostly so.

Modern athletes have drug testing; in the ancient primitive Olympic villages (“shanty towns of tents, dens, and improvised wooden shacks,” with policemen bearing whips), athletes underwent a period of surveillance designed to match up opponents, as well as, perhaps, “deter the use of any performance-enhancing tricks or drugs.” Nonetheless, there were no doubt contenders who were impossible to match. “Pausanias mentions an athlete from Alexandria who at Olympiad 201 (of ad 25), took one look at his opponents and ran away,” realizing a perhaps underappreciated ancillary value of sprint conditioning.

Today we contend with the occasional Olympic administrative graft; that, too, was not unheard of in the glory days. Despite his inexperience in the 10-horse chariot race, for instance, the Roman emperor Nero entered the event; he fell off. He won nonetheless, thanks, we are told, to generous bribes.

The ancient games were no more consistently successful as a celebration of universal peace than the modern ones. They were marred not by terrorism or political boycotts, but by full-scale battles that spilled into the stadium, as when, in 364 B.C.E., the Eleans launched an assault against a coalition of thousands of Arcadian, Argive, and Athenian troops.

Dispelling another romanticized notion, Spivey explains that the ancient Olympian victors were rewarded not just with olive wreaths and odes, but with jars of oil worth as much, in today’s sums, as $75,000, meals for life at public expense, tax exemptions, front-row theater seats, and other recompense. “We should remain cautious about foisting upon antiquity the modern ideal of amateurism,” he warns.

In short, Spivey does a timely service in puffing away the games’ clouds of romance. If the ancients romanticized the gods, the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern games, romanticized the ancients, although he modeled the new Olympics more after British public-school athletics than on the contests at Olympia. Spivey reminds us that historical ideals are too easily manipulated, noting, for instance, that some of the most fruitful 20th-century excavations of Olympia were sponsored by that acclaimed universalist Adolf Hitler, who intended for “Pan-Aryan” Olympiads, ultimately, to be held in Germany forever. Next time you see one of those wholesome cornfed titans carrying the Olympic torch across the amber fields, note that that photogenic practice originated not with the ancients, but with the archaeologist Carl Diem, who devised the ritual for the 1936 games in Berlin.

More existentially, Spivey suggests that immortality is a most mortal preoccupation—and usually a delusion. “Perusing the victory-lists of the ancient Olympics can be a poignant experience,” he writes. “So many names once tagged to the splendid status of ‘deathless renown’—now nothing more than names.”CP