ARE TODAY'S OLYMPIANS TOO COMMERCIAL? DEPENDS...


These days you don't have to look far to see the connection between salesmanship and sports--some would even say that the line between sales pitching and fast pitches has become completely blurred.

At Olympic competitions, athletes' uniforms and equipment bear the discreet but readily identifiable trademarks of their manufacturers.

After the Games, we are presented with images of Olympians endorsing products and appearing on cereal boxes. Later, some Olympic celebrities become commodities themselves, as TV shows and record labels cash in on their fame.


Commemorative Victory Coins ... the first Olympic medals?

Winged Nike crowns a victorious chariot on this silver tetradrachm from Syracuse, 5th century BC.
Museum Object Number: 29-126-58.
Winged Nike flies above to crown the victorious chariot team, while below are shield, greaves, cuirass, and helmet. Silver dekadrachm of Syracuse, by the artist Euainetos, early 4th century BC. Museum Object Number: 29-126-41.


Sculptures of Athletes...Commercial Appearances?

Sculptors were commissioned to create statues of victorious athletes to be set up in the Sanctuary or in the home town of the athlete. According to Pliny, most of the statues set up in the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia were idealistic images of athletes. We are told that only if an athlete had won three Olympic victories could a realistic likeness of the athlete appear in the Sanctuary.

Pausanias, a 2nd century AD Greek traveler, describes a great number of the statues that he saw in the altis, the sacred precinct of the Sancuary of Zeus. From the inscriptions on the stone statue bases and from local guides, Pausanias gives us detailed information--almost too detailed:

"Dikon, the son of Kallibrotos, won five foot races at Delphi, three at Isthmia, four at Nemea and one at Olympia in the race for boys besides two in the men's race. Statues of him have been set up in Olympia equal in number to the races he won. When he was a boy he was proclaimed a native of Caulonia, as in fact he was. But afterwards he was bribed to proclaim himself a Syracusan."



Model of the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, Treasure Terrace. Courtesy of the British Museum.


Cheating and Bribery? At the Oympics? Unbelievable!

But true. There were statues set up in the altis to commemorate athletes who had been caught cheating or bribing at the Olympic Games. These monuments were set up on the roadway leading from the heart of the altis to the vault that leads to the stadion, not coincidentally the very path that athletes walked to enter the place of athletic competition. In the model above you can see this roadway passing in front of the row of treasury buildings.

Did you know...

Even without Wheaties, ancient Greeks honored and even "marketed" their athletic heroes. As early as the 5th and 4th centuries BC the victories won by the athletes were widely celebrated. Poets were often commissioned to celebrate these victories with odes, and sculptors were employed to render an image of the victorious athlete. In addition coins were struck to commemorate equestrian victories.



Above: Panel from Attic Black Figure Hydria,
ca. 530-520 BC, depicting a boxing contest (pugme) in which two boxers fight to either side of a stack of bronze cauldrons which are likely the prizes for victory. Museum Object Number: 51-32-1.


Poems for Athletics
early jingles?
Pindar, the famous 5th century BC Greek poet, wrote an ode to celebrate the victory of Hiero in the horse race at Olympia in 476 BC. It begins:

Water is preeminent and gold, like a fire burning in the night, outshines all possessions that magnify men's pride. But if, my soul, you yearn to celebrate great games, look no further for another star shining through the deserted ether brighter than the sun, or for a contest, mightier than Olympia where the song has taken its coronal design of glory, plaited in the minds of poets as they come, calling on Zeus' name to the rich radiant hall of Hiero.

Olympian 1 (translated by Frank J. Nisetich)


Odes such as this one were commonly commissioned by an athlete, an athlete's family or a rich political leader to commemorate an athletic or equestrian victory. In the case of Hiero, the athlete and the rich political leader were same person!



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