Judith Swaddling, The Ancient Olympic Games. London: British Museum Press, 1999. Pp. 112, incl. 50 colour and 54 black and white illustrations, maps and plans. ISBN 0-7141-2161- 4. UKú8.99.
Betine van Zyl Smit
University of the Western Cape
The second edition of this book, first published in 1980, is in good time for the Olympic Games due to take place in Sydney, Australia later this year. The media coverage the event will attract makes this an opportune time to whet the interest of the general public in the history of the Olympic Games. This book goes a long way towards answering questions about the nature of the ancient games, sport in the ancient world and the differences and similarities between the Olympic Games in the ancient and modern world.
Judith Swaddling's style is lively and attractive. She covers the mythological and religious origins of the ancient festival in honour of Zeus at Olympia. The sacred rituals which formed an integral part of the festival are detailed. Swaddling's description of the ancient site of the Games is based on modern research and excavation. Photographs of the British Museum's model, constructed according to the archaeological and literary evidence, and clear maps and plans combine with the text to provide an excellent impression of the physical surroundings.
The author explains in detail the rules and regulations governing the competitions, the preparation and training of the athletes and the various events that made up the festival programme. Photographs of athletic competitions depicted on ancient artefacts accompany the text. There are new chapters on the diet and medical treatment of competitors, sponsorships, patronage and propaganda. Throughout parallels are drawn between the ancient and the modern, thus emphasizing the importance of the event as a link between the classical world and our own.
The last chapter, 'Death and Rebirth' (pp. 98f.), relates the decline and ultimate cessation, after more than a millennium, of the celebration of the Ancient Olympic Games. Then it focuses on attempts since the seventeenth century to revive them and Coubertin's success in 1896. A further reading list directs those interested in exploring a particular aspect of the subject to appropriate scholarly articles and books.
There is very little to criticize in this glossy and informative little book which should prove of interest to classicists and non- classicists alike, to sports lovers and to those more interested in cultural history. I noticed only one small error, the spelling of Jesse Owens's name: on p. 6 as well as p. 106 he features as Jessie Owens!