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Carrying a Torch for the Ancient Olympics: Lamenting the Loss of the Games' Gay Soul

In 393 C.E. the Christian Emperor Theodosius I put an end to the ancient Olympic Games. The nudity, the joy in physical beauty, the sheer exhilarating mix of the Games were at odds with his appropriation of a new religion and much too redolent of the old.
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The London Olympics are a few weeks away. The anticipation is palpable here in London. These are genuinely exciting times. But forget about that for a moment and imagine slipping back 24 centuries to the ancient stadium of Olympia in Greece. Amongst all the paraphernalia that surrounds their modern equivalent nowadays, it's easy to forget just how homoerotic the Olympic Games were. With men brought together from across the Greek world in a vast exercise of man-on-man bonding, on one level the scene would be familiar to anyone who's seen a soccer match or baseball game, but on another level it would appear starkly different. Our word "gym" derives from the Greek word for "naked," and here male athletes parade and compete unclothed to the delight of an almost exclusively male crowd (women have their own athletic contests). Hair and bodies glisten with olive oil, to no practical purpose other than to accentuate their bronzed beauty -- and what better scent can a man's body have, asked Socrates, how much more alluring than perfume?

The opening ceremonies are nearly over and the first contest a hair's breadth away. Nothing in the lives of the spectators, 40,000 strong, compares to this. Each of them knows that the winners will be showered in glory, the losers nothing. Hearts beat, sweat sluices over skin. They are watching the most perfect specimens mankind will ever produce. A whole industry of praise of these youthful demigods has grown up around athletic contests: They will be honoured with statues by Greece's greatest sculptors, revealing to posterity their beauty; an ode penned by the foremost panegyrists, Pindar or Simonides, paid for by their sponsors; and a dinner hosted by their lovers; and their feats will be recorded through the musings of a Plato or Xenophon.

The judges, in luminous indigo-coloured robes, were on the lookout for beauty of movement as much as swiftness or brute strength. There's evidence that discus throwing, the long jump, even wrestling clinches had something of the ballet about them: one young boxer won every match by exhausting his opponents through an early rendition of "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." The result? No one ever landed a blow on his beautiful face.

It's said that the first athletic games were taught to a youth called Hyacinth by the god Apollo, a pattern of relationships repeated across Classical literature: Heracles and Hylas, Achilles and Patroclus, even Hadrian and Antinous -- all very worthy and noble, and there always was an intensely religious context to the Games, but gymnasia were used both to show off physical prowess and to pick up potential boyfriends. It's a commonplace scene in comedies of the time. Even the serious lines of pedagogy drawn by Plato (the gymnasia of Athens became associated with famous schools of philosophy, like Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum) could be smudged by an appreciation of an athlete's physique in addition to their intellectual dexterity. In Plato's Charmides the physical charms (pun intended) of the young eponymous protagonist are appreciated by Socrates and his friends during a visit to the gymnasium: "[A]t that moment everyone crowded about us," Socrates relates, "and, my God! I caught a glimpse of what's beneath young Charmides' cloak. I burned. I just couldn't contain myself."

Saucy! Physical proximity, particularly in contact sports like boxing, wrestling, and pancration (a rule-free mixture of both) promoted intimacy. Alcibiades in Plato's Symposium describes his attempts to engage Socrates' erotic interest through bouts of wrestling. An anonymous poet of the second century B.C.E. hoped that an Olympic victor wouldn't be snatched up to heaven by an infatuated Zeus before he had a chance. Even the often violent and dangerous nature of some of these contests could be erotically charged. Competitors in pancration writhed and tumbled with each other's slippery bodies for hours: rules, with the exception of eye gouging, permitted just about anything; wherever a fist or knee found itself was fair game. One overzealous admirer leapt into the boxing ring to smear his lips on the bloodied face of the victor.

With the contests finished for the day, spectators and athletes would mingle in the tented city that sprang up around the stadium. Drinking parties fêted the victors. Xenophon's Symposium describes one such thrown for a pancration winner. The host is so lovestruck by the young man's beauty that he seems to have undergone a personality change for the better. The decoration on many of the drinking cups used on these occasions famously illustrates what would happen next. Specially composed drinking songs smoothed the way, like this fragment by Pindar: "Any man who catches the glance / of bright-eyed Theoxenos / and is not tempest-tossed on a sea of desire / has a heart made cold by money or the slavish love of women." Of course, you might have preferred a quiet stroll around the moonlit temples that lined the site, stopping to admire the 40-foot statue of Olympian Zeus, on the finger of which the sculptor Phidias had celebrated his love for another athlete by carving "Pantarces is beautiful."

While these tales may entertain, even titillate, a 21st-century audience, they do not distract from the fact that the ancient Olympic Games were a celebration of physical (and intellectual) perfection undisturbed by artificial constructs of sexual orientation. Yet in 393 C.E. the Christian Emperor Theodosius I put an end to them. The nudity, the joy in physical beauty, the sheer exhilarating mix of the Games were at odds with his appropriation of a new religion and much too redolent of the old. At about the same time he criminalised homosexuality, as if to reinforce the link between the two. There was, of course, nothing in the teachings of Christ to justify either. Theodosius' evangelical zeal in pursuit of total power and the narrow-minded bigotry of the Church Fathers overthrew more than a thousand years of broad inclusiveness and celebration of human sexuality. It is a great irony that this adherence to a dubious and dogmatic "truth" contributed more to the demise of the Roman Empire than any other factor. If the Empire had any justification, it was that all peoples and all creeds could inhabit it in peace (within reason); by imposing his singular interpretation of Christianity, Theodosius broke that unspoken covenant. Recent apologists still point to what they euphemistically refer to as pagan excesses in the ancient Games, when the reality is a thinly disguised homophobia that clings to the sponsors and organisers of the modern Games, too. The pursuit of physical perfection as an opportunity for everyone is the loser.


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