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An ancient Olympic tradition that Fifa would love

Bribery and corruption were valued parts of the ancient games

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

Those nice people at Fifa seem to be having a terrible time from the British press, which never stops accusing them of bribery and corruption. What on earth is our problem? Of course games are corrupt. In the ancient world, we now know they could be legally corrupt. Perfect!

The Greek comic poet Cratinus invented three goddesses of political bribery: Doro, St Give, Dexo, St Receive and Emblo, St Backhander. Courts described such ‘corruption’ in terms taken from the despised world of trade — ‘buying’, ‘selling’, ‘profit’ and so on. In the real world, however, it was more usually described as ‘giving’, ‘receiving’ and ‘persuading’. One Greek orator argued that personal advantage from bribery was fine as long as it brought tangible public benefits.


That culture transferred smoothly to games. At Olympia there were rows of bronze statues of Zeus (Zanes), paid for by, and featuring the names of, those found guilty of taking bribes to fix a contest or e.g. to ensure that if they were over age, they were still entered for junior competitions. Coaches were notorious for their involvement in this racket, setting deals up, negotiating terms and so on.

In one famous case, a boy won a wrestling match by promising the loser £50,000, but then refused to pay up because his opponent had actually tried to win — the unprincipled cheat. The dispute was not settled privately, so it was agreed to decide the matter on oath. The loser, ‘without blushing’, happily swore in public that the price had been agreed.

Even better, there has recently come to light the first ever papyrus to document a legal contract beween the reps of two boys for the outcome of a wrestling match, complete with bribe (the price of a donkey)!

Pure Fifa. All above board, guv. Woss yer problem, eh?

Peter Jones’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Ancient Greeks but Were Afraid to Ask (Atlantic Books) has just been published.


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