magine if the modern Olympics, Mardi Gras, Carnival, and the Republican National Convention were all happening at once — with the Pope and the Dalai Lama keeping score. That’s Tony Perrottet’s formula for the earliest Olympics, a five-day festival that whipped the ancient world into a frenzy of athletics, religious fervor, and sexual debauchery. In his book The Naked Olympics, Perrottet vividly recreates the original Greek experience, complete with nude ass-kicking and portable “fuck factories.” Nerve sat down with the Australian author just as Athens 2004 was kicking off — and discovered we missed the real party by about 2,000 years. — Gwynne Watkins
We’ve all heard these wild stories about the modern Olympic village: how in Sydney they distributed 70,000 condoms to athletes and ran out after the third day…
People ask me about this with The Naked Olympics: if it’s a book about the Olympics, how is there so little about sports and so much about sex? Partly it’s my own obsession, I suppose, but, in fact, athletics and sex have always been intertwined. You describe ancient Olympic activities like wrestlers being thrashed for eye-gouging, young athletes being fondled by randy old men, partygoers indulging in carnal ménages. How do you know all this happened?
You’re first going to the literary sources, because not only did the Greeks love indulging in sex, they loved writing about sex. Of course you have to handle those sources with caution: you can’t, so to speak, read Playboy and treat it as a documentary on the sexual practices of people in Utah. But when they’re talking about sex, you can see what’s taken for granted and what’s sort of beyond the pale. There are all sorts of spellbooks for erotic magic, ancient romance novels written by the Greeks. Fragments of them exist entirely intact. And then you’ve got the visual sources, the vase paintings. You’ve got these amazing beautiful wine cups: as you drink the wine, this sexual image is revealed. There’s a famous cup that describes the Greek victory over the Persians, and one translation of it is, “We fucked them in the ass.” That’s prompted volumes of discussion: does this mean that anal sex meant domination? Did it mean humiliation? Or was it some casual sort of reference? Was it all great fun, did the Persians like it? It’s endless. Was everyone in ancient Greece gay?
As far as I can tell, the Greeks had no word for homosexuality. They didn’t even really understand the concept of homosexuality. Sex between grown men was considered completely beyond the pale and shocking. What they did admire was an adult male’s affection for a teenage, prepubescent boy, before the hair grows on his body. This was considered the highest form of erotic desire. Sex with women couldn’t really compete in this sort of logic because it was muddied by the brute need for procreation, and emotions and women-things. What were the relationships actually like between these old men and young boys?
As far as we understand it the older guy was a mentor to the teenager. So he brings him into society, introduces him to the other men at the gymnasium, teaches him the manner and the ways of the world, and boffs him. But they wouldn’t necessarily have sex where anyone could see. It was done very privately. It reminds me a little bit of growing up as a Catholic in the 70s — all the mothers and fathers know that their daughters are having sex, but they would never mention it. So you’d have these victory banquets at the Olympic games where a young man and his older boyfriend would go with the boy’s father, and they’re all sitting there very happily, drinking away, and it’s all very chummy. If I were the old guy trying to hit on a young Olympic athlete, what lines would I try?
Well, we do have the example of Socrates, one of the great minds of Western Civilization. Plato has him hitting on some kids, and the pick-up lines are not the most inspiring. Presumably the sheer honor of being hit upon by Socrates carried the day. There are two boys there, and he asks, “Which of you is the oldest?” and of course, they don’t really exactly know; they argue about it, because they didn’t have birth certificates. And then he says, “And who do you regard as the most beautiful?” I suppose he’s playing on the competitive spirit of all Greeks, with this comparison thing. But it’s just a way to start the banter. It doesn’t seem that there were too many problems picking up guys. You’d think Socrates would come up with something more clever than that.
The Socratic Method, of course, was to answer every question with another question. Which is a good way of flirting.
Yes, indeed! Time-tested. Were all athletes in ancient Olympia naked?
Naked exercise was as much a part of Greek culture as reading Homer or worshipping Apollo. It defined Greekness. Only barbarians were afraid to show their bodies. It did mystify other cultures, who thought it promoted sexual degeneracy. The Greeks themselves knew that everyone else was kind of laughing at them, and they couldn’t remember how it started. They’d come up with all these various stories: in one of them, this runner declared that he’d go faster if he ran naked, and he went in the race and he won. There’s another story that these guys were running along and the champion’s loincloth slipped and he tripped and he lost the race, so the judges declared that everyone must go naked from that point on. Scholars agree that it pretty much goes back to initiation rites, the young men going into manhood in this sort of costume of nudity, as it were. How do the physical ideals of the Greeks compare to ours now?
They are similar. The ideal male physique seems not to have changed too much, but for women they probably favored larger butts in antiquity than we do. There’s one famous statue – the Aphrodite of Knidus, from the fourth century BC. And this was the first female nude; they’ve been sculpting for centuries, and finally someone decides, “Oh, a female nude. We might as well. We’ve run out of ideas.” So they did it, and it’s meant to be very shocking and provocative. In the book, you have the readers role-play as a Greek youth named Hippothales. Let’s do a little role-playing now. So, I’m Hippothales – do my friends call me Hippo?
No, Hippo means “horse.” Okay, so I’m Hippothales and I’m going to the gym. What’s the first thing I’m going to do when I walk in?
Well, you’re going past all the wonderful statues into the undressing room. Of course there’s always activity going on in all these places, there’s friends left, right and center. So you strip down, chat with whoever – it’s not a bad place to pick up men, apparently. Now you go into the oiling room – and if you’ve got a bit of money, you can pay a “boy rubber” to give you the once-over. There was actually a boy whose job was to rub naked men with oil?
Yeah, sure. Or you could get your mates to rub you down, ladling from these really beautiful bronze vats of olive oil. And if you’re going to do some wrestling, there’s another room which has the various powders you can put on, in different colors, from yellow to ochre to brown, depending on what mood you’re in. They’d give the skin a nice sort of sheen. Then you’d go outside for warm-ups – and those are done to flute music, so it’s sort of an incipient version of aerobics. I was surprised how much music there was in Greek sports.
Yes, they had plenty of slaves, so they could get them to play pipe music all day. One Olympic event that hasn’t survived the centuries is the pankration, which was the top spectator sport in Ancient Greece and sounds a lot like professional wrestling.
Yeah, it was basically a no-holds-barred brawl. Nothing was banned except eye-gouging. So they go in with the kickboxing, and of course they’re doing this in the nude – right now I’m crossing my legs – and they try to knock one another out with a groin-blow early on. If the kicking fails, then they go into the grappling, and then bone-breaking is very common. In the pankration, there’s no technical way to win – you have to get your opponent to submit. There’s a great story of one guy who’s being strangled, and his trainer yells out, “Oh, what a glorious thing to never submit at Olympia!” The man dies, and the judges give the olive wreath to the corpse. And then he gets double honors for not only winning in Olympia, but also dying in the process. You say that every sacred festival in ancient Greece was paired with a “panegyreis,” or profane festival.
You’ve got the official side of things, the athletics and the rituals, but then there’s the social side of things. And this is part of the festival. They’re not really separable as they are today. So the profane festival is really just this debauchery, everyone’s drinking too much wine, not washing for five days. You describe the festival conditions as “reminiscent of a badly planned rock concert.”
Yes, very much so – the Woodstock of antiquity! And I’ve actually been to badly planned rock concerts, five-day events in Australia, when it’s incredibly hot – by the third day, it’s pretty grim stuff. You wake up with a hangover again, and it’s seven in the morning and it’s already 95 degrees (as it often is in Greece), and you’re just lurching around. My feeling is that those people hardly slept, because there were no spectator facilities – there’s one hotel, but it was reserved for VIPs. So they’re putting up tents, sleeping out in the open field. You’ve got guys bringing in wine on the back of wagons and selling it – the first sports bars, basically. You’ve got the brothels being set up in these tents. You’ve got writers, you’ve got actors yelling out their lines. You’ve got authors getting up and reading their stuff – apparently there were all sorts of hacks coming from everywhere, reading whatever they had. And people are trying to sell you everything: souvenirs, little statues of Zeus… The souvenirs you describe sound exactly like the kind of stuff that you’d buy outside, say, the Statue of Liberty today.
There’s a limited range of crap that people can come up with. And it seems to have tapped out sometime around the sixth century B.C. Let’s talk about the prostitutes. What was the Greek attitude towards prostitution?
They were very, very open with it. It was a part of the culture. No shame or illegality about it. If you went to a hotel, for example, in Greece, you were within your rights to have sex with the maid. The kineteria, as they were called – the translation by one historian is “fuck factories” – would go to the Olympic Games and set up these canvas tents and you’d just go in. There are all these papyrus records that provide evidence that the cheap-o prostitutes, the pornoi, actually charged by sexual position. It seems to me that the most energetic ones were more expensive. The cheapest one was kubda, which means "bent over," and the expensive one was keles, “the racehorse,” which presumably was woman on top. Another one is translated as “the lion on the cheese grater.” I’d love to know what that is. Care to take an educated guess?
I’ll leave that to your readers’ imaginations. But these are the budget prostitutes. And then you’ve got the courtesans, the hetaera, who are the high-class hookers. These are extraordinary women, and it’s actually a way for intelligent women to escape the straitjacket of society. They didn’t have to just have sex with everybody; they actually could choose their sugar daddies. They were like the Japanese geisha girls. They would go to the Olympic victory parties and exchange repartee with philosophers and politicians. They existed in a sort of shadowy netherworld, between prostitutes and respectable women. So it’s kind of a good place to be, really, from a feminist point of view. Better than being stuck at home and never getting out of the house and having to have six kids until you finally die in some gruesome miscarriage or something. Some of them gained enormous fame. So they were kind of like celebrities?
One of them became the model for the famous Aphrodite of Knidus. And there’s one famous story of a courtesan at the Olympic games, who puts on this very skimpy outfit and then goes into a river and comes out with this see-through outfit, and this crowd of men is astonished, and her fame spreads even beyond Greece. It’s sort of like an Oscar appearance these days. I noticed there’s a little bit of a flap about the American Olympic athletes, these women posing in Playboy – and yet it’s so obvious, really. These are perfectly honed bodies; they want to show them off, and people want to see them. n°
The Naked Olympics,