Dear President Putin,
You've set the stage for a new event at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics -- a fight over LGBT rights. The world will tune in to see how it plays out. Will it be a win for your cynical scapegoating of minority sexualities? Or will human rights make a comeback, busting open your Olympic-sized closet?
I hate to break it to you, Vlad. You've made a poor choice of venue for this one, because the Olympics are really, really gay.
I'm not talking figure skating, or the two-man luge. I'm talking about the great Olympics of the ancient Greeks, that flashpoint of the civilized world that burned for a thousand years. It was gayer than you could possibly imagine.
Take a seat in the stands, Vlad. You'll note first off that the Great Olympic tradition would look to your modern eyes... how should I put this?... like a '70s porno. The spectators -- all male. The athletes -- all male, oiled up and totally in the buff. (Fun fact: We get our word "gym" from gymnos, which means naked.)
Nothing queer about that, you say? Yes, former comrade, we know you're not ashamed to show us your bared torso on horseback. (And btw, not bad for a middle-aged straight guy.) But the Olympics were not a coy flash of alpha-male pectorals. The Greeks found athletics sexy.
How do we know? Take a look at the vases. Portraits of athletes range from stately art to strictly NSFW. There's one in particular -- young athlete, older coach. There's a sponge and oil scraper in the background, placing them squarely in the locker room. And coach is... well, his toga is open, and he's pulling for the win. A whole genre of Greek crockery -- hundreds of surviving pieces -- is devoted to portraits of young athletes, possibly commissioned by their male lovers, with a single word: kalos (beautiful).
Poetry about Olympic athletes got decidedly queer. In the Olympic victory poem for Hagesidamos -- boxing champ of the 476 BCE games -- the author compares his beauty to Ganymede, Zeus' male lover. (Olympian 10.99-105) Theognis of Megara had this to say what happened after the game: "Happy is the lover who, after spending time in the gymnasium, goes home to sleep all day long with a beautiful, young man." (Theog. Elegiae 2.1335-36)
Many gyms proudly boasted a statue of the god Eros -- Eros being the god of classical sexytime. That god would stand right beside a statue of Heracles, the patron of athletes. News flash: Hercules was no slouch in the same-sex love department himself. Plutarch in his Erotikos says, "It is difficult to list the other [male] loves of Hercules because of their great number." One of those lovers, Iolaus, even had athletic games of his own in Thebes declared in his honor.
But artworks aren't proof, you thunder in that adorably authoritarian way. Forgeries and propaganda of the effete intelligentsia! Well, believe it or not, a few words did come down directly from the athletes themselves. Not great works of prose -- muscle boys weren't known for their quick wits. (Plus ça change?) But they did indulge in the time-honored art of locker room graffiti.
The walls of the Olympia were destroyed by time, but its sister stadium in Nemea has about 12 fragments that remain. Most of them are names, but the few phrases include "Akrotatos is beautiful" and "Look up Moschos in Philippi -- he's cute." Outside a gym by the temple of Apollo in Thera, the athletes get a little less coy: "Here Crimon penetrated Amotion."
I could go on. Wrestling was a big highlight. You can guess how those sessions went. One training manual describes a technique where the wrestler was encouraged to "put your arm around his back, grab him by the balls." Another famous anecdote tells of two athletes who took their bout to its... errm... unsurprising conclusion? One of their fathers walks in. They course correct into a classic wrestling hold, and dad gives them a pass.
You should be glad, Vlad, that the Olympics didn't include the events played at the Dioclean games. That was a contest in Megara, held in honor of a war hero who died shielding his male lover on the battlefield. There were athletic events, but final round was decided who gave the "sweetest kiss." All of the contestants were male. The judges too. Do you see what I'm getting at? The prize was a fabulous garland of flowers.
Now, Vlad, it must be conceded that ancient Greek dude love wasn't exactly what we today would call "gay." The pairings were exclusively older/younger. Sexual roles were rigidly defined. There was a strong teaching and social bond in the relationship between "lovers," and not all male couples were sexual (though make no mistake -- hanky panky was widely enjoyed.) Both partners usually found women to marry, eventually. Their passionate same-sex affairs, with a few exceptions, did not last a lifetime.
But they lasted long enough. They left priceless gifts that echo through the ages.
For one, same-sex love gave a poetry to the Greek love the male body. Why is that important? In the body, they saw an artifact of the power, dignity and potential of the human being. That ideal -- not the gods, not the sun, but the miracle of one man -- became their great gift to the Western mind. Around that spark of the sheer gorgeousness of man, they kindled democracy and philosophy and drama, and the confidence to face down natural forces with geometry and the natural sciences.
The Olympic Games -- so important to the Greeks that they based their calendars on them -- became an opportunity to worship at that shrine. Athletic events, which crowded the sacred calendar, became the ultimate place to bask in our extreme beauty and potential. Erotics -- men lusting after men -- were an inseparable part of that gift.
Vlad, I don't expect you'll shift course. You're a tough, macho bastard, and gays in Russia probably make an easy target. But know this: Same-sex behavior did not destroy the Greeks. It did not make them less noble, or their legacy of the games and the rest of their many contributions less extraordinary. If anything, same-sex affection inspired in them what love usually inspires -- actions both beautiful and brave. It leaves behind artifacts that enrich humankind.
So don't try to rain on the Olympics, Mr. President. It's our party. In the name of a thousand years of athletes and the men who worshipped them, let the games begin.