THE OPENING CEREMONY of the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, was a carefully choreographed act of diplomacy. They marked a watershed moment in relations between North and South Korea, with the two nations marching into the opening ceremony under a single flag, and fielding a unified women’s ice hockey team. More striking still was the attendance of Kim Yo-jong, the first member of the Kim dynasty to visit the South since the Korean War.
While the American press has been curiously fawning over the tyrant’s sister, many South Koreans have been strongly critical of the apparent pro-North tone of the opening ceremony. But this is merely the latest in a long line of Olympian political acts. Ever since the games began some 2,800 years ago, the Olympics have been inextricably tied up with politics, used both to foster peace and advance diplomacy, and as a show of strength over rivals.
Above all, the ancient Olympic Games were an affirmation of a shared Greek cultural identity. City states were invited by the Eleans – who traditionally organised the event – to take part in a series of religious festivities, dominated by a great sacrifice to Zeus (watched over by Olympia’s own great statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World), to which the sporting events were almost peripheral. By attending, the states were implicitly confirming their participation in the Greek cultural and religious community. To be refused participation was a humiliating outcome, although later games, particularly those held during Roman rule, become more inclusive.
The games also became an avenue for peaceful competition between rival city states, almost as a method of letting off steam amid an often fractious diplomatic atmosphere. Winning a major event would be a visible demonstration of a city state’s wealth and political power. States would occasionally fight for the services of the most successful athletes, as in the case of Sotades, who, according to Pausanius, won the long-distance race (dolichos) for Crete at the 99th Olympics, but was bribed to race for Ephesus four years later. For this transgression, Sotades was banished by the Cretans.
The games became an avenue for peaceful competition between rival city states amid an often fractious diplomatic atmosphere.
The Olympics continued to be an arena for political point-scoring well into the Roman period. The Emperor Nero made a great performance of his involvement in AD 67, bribing organisers to postpone the event a year to facilitate his participation, and to introduce artistic competitions so he could sing, act, and play the lyre. Naturally, he was crowned victor in every event, even in a chariot race that he failed to finish.
This fierce – but peaceful – competition was facilitated by the Olympic truce (ekecheiria), which forbade warfare across Greece and barred any army from entering, with the aim of securing peaceful passage for athletes and spectators. It was held to be sacred, but never universally observed: the Athenian historian Thucydides recounts that, in 420 BC, the Spartans – or Lacedaemonians – were barred from competing after they attacked a fortress in Lepreum during the truce. The Eleans fined them two thousand minae as punishment. To the Spartans, this was so shameful and humiliating that they seriously considered using force in order to participate in the sacrifice.
The Olympic Games of 420 BC took place beneath the backdrop of the Peloponnesian War, the on-again-off-again ideological conflict fought between Athens and Sparta for hegemony over Greece. Elis, which had a long-running border dispute with Sparta, was keen to join the Athenian alliance. Sparta’s exclusion from the Olympics was therefore an explicitly political act, and gave Athens the opportunity to formalise its anti-Sparta alliance at the festival, and gain some much-needed political capital. Ironically, in fear of Spartan reprisals, it was Athens and its allies that sent a detachment of soldiers to the festival; with this new alliance engraved on a bronze pillar, the competition became a tangible display of Athenian authority, with the acquiescence of the Gods themselves. It was utterly humiliating for Sparta.
Just as Russians continue to compete as independent athletes in 2018 in spite of their blanket ban for doping, Sparta too found a way to muscle in on the Olympic Games of 420 BC using their allies as proxies. Lichas, a leading Spartan, financed the victorious team in the chariot race (tethrippon) – the most prestigious Olympic event, traditionally dominated by Sparta, in which wealthy Greeks would fund teams as a means of displaying their wealth and power – ostensibly in the name of Sparta’s Boeotian allies. Lichas himself collected the prize: the Elean judges had him flogged for this brazen attempt to flout the ban.
Athens answered at the next Olympics four years later. Alcibiades, an unpopular but powerful Athenian statesman, ‘entered seven teams in the chariot race, more than any private citizen had ever put forward, and three of them came in first, second, and fourth.’ For most Greeks, this was a prohibitively expensive enterprise. Even the wealthy Alcibiades had to rely on personal connections and sponsorship – Athens’ allies in Chios, for example, provided provisions for the horses – to put up all seven teams. But it was this cost, and the associated status that came with organising and running a chariot team, that made Alcibiades’ victory so potent. By winning the race, and beating Sparta in the process, he demonstrated Athenian – and his own – wealth, gained support within Athens for a proposed military expedition to Sicily, and, in a symbolic gesture, ended Spartan dominance of the chariot race. This helped to restore some measure of Athenian pride after their defeat to the Spartans in the Battle of Mantinea two years earlier.
Following his victory, Alcibiades told the Athenians ‘the Greeks regarded our city as greater, perhaps even in excess of its power, as a result of the magnificence of what I achieved at the Olympics, where they had previously thought that it had been worn down by the war.’
Alcibiades appointed himself a commander, telling Athenians that ‘my victory gives me a greater right than others to hold office’.
Athens began planning its military expedition against Sicily the following year. Alcibiades appointed himself one of the commanders, telling his fellow citizens that ‘my victory gives me a greater right than others to hold office’. It was this arrogance, his uncontrollable spending, and a growing impression that his stature had eclipsed Athens itself as a result of the games caused many to become suspicious of his political manoeuvres; Thucydides remarked that people began to fear he was aiming to make himself tyrant. It won him many enemies among the democratic Athenians. Embroiled in scandals at home, he defected to Sparta rather than face justice, resulting in a catastrophic defeat in Sicily for Athens.
Alcibiades and Lichas both saw the Olympics as something worth gambling on. In the middle of a conflict that spanned the whole of Greece, victory in the prestigious chariot race would win much-needed favour for their respective city states, while undermining the other. By competing, each city state was affirming to the rest of Greece that they were a powerful, wealthy, and influential international actor, supported in some measure by Zeus himself. It was ultimately a kind of diplomatic performance, barely different from North Korea sending Kim Yo-jong to Pyeongchang to affirm North Korea’s power and place in the international community – fawning opinion pieces from CNN were merely an unexpected bonus.
Ultimately, Sparta could recover from Olympic humiliation in a way that North Korea cannot. The frozen Korean conflict is not the Peloponnesian War. Once the Olympic truce had passed, Sparta could leverage its mighty martial culture to exact revenge on Athens: in 405, 15 years after they were barred from competing in the Olympics, Sparta shattered the Athenian fleet at the Battle of Aegospotami and ended the conflict. In the end, chariot racing could make Athens look good, but it couldn’t win them a war.