The Olympic hurdle

William Covington | 8/8/2012, 5 p.m.

For the next few days of the Olympic Games there will still be buzz about Serena William's celebratory "Crip walk" dance, or the disparaging comments about gymnast Gabrielle Douglas' hair--not made by Whites--and a faux pas commercial that showed a monkey on the Olympic rings immediately after Douglas won the Women's Individual All-Round gold medal.

Stuff happens.

But a harsher buzz has extended down through history in connection with the Olympics--from the first Black allowed to participate in the Games, until today.

Since the dawn of the ancient Olympics 700 years before the birth of Christ, African athletes have been studied by spectators in the same way, and race has always played a part in the Olympic Games.

When the first African charioteer secured his chest plate while lining up his rig with those of the Romans and Greeks, he was considered an anomaly. Spectators contemplated how he had arrived at such an auspicious position, and wondered who had mentored him?

Historical records from Pausanias, a second-century Greek traveler and geographer, described the early Olympics Games firsthand, recording what he observed. Those observations are considered very precise accounts and a crucial link between classical literature and modern archeology.

Pausanias' entries were so reliable that they were instrumental in the discovery of Olympia, the place where the Games were born, according to Professor Christian Habicht of the University of Berlin, who states in his book, "Pausanias and the Evidence of Inscriptions," that the recordings allowed English antiquarian Richard Chandler to find the actual site of those first games in 1776.
Roughly a hundred years later--between 1875-1881--the site was fully excavated during a Prussian expedition under the direction of Ernst Curtis using Pausanias' log entries.

Curtis' excavations indicate the ancient Olympics began around 776 B.C. in Olympia, Greece. The Games were usually held every four years, which is considered an Olympiad. The ancient Games continued to be celebrated after Greece came under Roman rule following the Battle of Corinth.

Pausanias described the site of the original Games as a walled sacred area that included sporting venues that contained a running track and a horse track. When Greece became a part of the Roman Empire, the Romans allowed slaves to participate in the Games. By then, Olympia had expanded. There were hotels for the visitors and baths for the athletes. Like the modern-day Olympic village, the site of Olympia was never permanently occupied.

Professor Habicht describes the Greeks as believing sport to be a very honorable occupation. His book portrays good athletes as being respected, and noted that many had an important position in the community.

"Sport was in Greece above all a domain of the free, and slaves could barely participate," according to the abstract "Ancient Olympics" by Sofie Remijsen.

When African slaves competed, their pay for participation was not the large amounts given citizens of Greece and Rome. An inscription on the "Statuette of an auriga (charioteer)" from Misthia in present-day Turkey states that slave victors had to give one-fourth of their prize money to the other participants. In this way, the notion that masters would train their slaves as athletes to profit from the prize money could be averted.