Every Olympic year produces a spate of books on the Games but, for the most part, such volumes are mainly concerned with the modern era. An exception this year is Olympia, Gods, Artists, and Athletes by Ludwig Drees (Frederick A. Praeger, $13.95, $17.50 after December 31), which goes back to the very beginning of Olympic competition.
Professor Drees, who teaches history at Aachen Teachers' Academy in Germany, has something refreshingly new to offer on a very old subject. His book is based on excavations conducted in Greece at the original Olympic site, diggings that have been going on sporadically but diligently ever since 1829. In that time the diggers have gathered enough evidence to give us a graphic, if not wholly complete, picture of the fields, gymnasiums, stadiums and temples of the city where the games were first played. Happily, Drees has chosen to tell his story, whenever possible, in the eyewitness accounts of poets and scholars who attended those early games. They describe vividly the throngs of spectators, the selection of judges, the training regimen of the athletes. Even as they do today, people traveled great distances to attend the games, and housing problems were common. "In order to find suitable accommodations or camping sites it was advisable to arrive in Olympia in the first few days of the festival month. At that time the whole of the surrounding countryside was literally strewn with shelters. But even so, if the influx of visitors was particularly heavy, many were obliged to make shift for themselves."
Despite a general opinion to the contrary, women (virgins, that is) were an important feature in the first games. An early account of foot races for girls by the Greek Pausanius sounds like a preview of our own miniskirted maidens: "They all run with their hair down their back, a short tunic reaching just below their knees and their right shoulder bare to the breasts." Foot races for girls were held to pay tribute to Hera, the goddess of fertility.
The boxing, wrestling and pankration (a combination of the two) matches must have been hard for the squeamish to watch, for they were savage combats that sometimes ended in the death of one contestant. For whatever consolation it was worth, however, a man who lost his life in a match was generally named the victor.
The Olympic Games inspired not only essayists but the best artists of their time, and this handsome book is replete with color plates and black-and-white reproductions of the statuary that has been unearthed at the site of the Games.