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Ancient and modern

How Olympia beat the cheats

Everyone had to train in the same place, under the eye of the official judges – and then compete naked

6 August 2016

9:00 AM

6 August 2016

9:00 AM

What to do about today’s Olympic drug cheats? Since ancient Greeks did not do chemistry, drugs were not a problem. They could, however, be banned from competing on many other grounds. The system worked as follows.

The one-week games, always staged at Olympia, were overseen by a panel of judges from the nearby town of Elis (36 miles away), and it was these judges who determined the eligibility or otherwise of any competitor. Their key requirement was that every contestant turn up at Elis a month before the games began. Here the athletes completed their final training in the facilities provided for the events (various categories of running, jumping, throwing, fighting and riding), under the eye of Elean trainers and judges. During this month, the judges checked that the athletes were worthy to compete in these most prestigious games in honour of Zeus, god of Olympus.


First, they had to prove their physical fitness. Eddie the Eagles were not welcome, and if shame at losing did not deter them, judges would try to persuade them to scratch. They also had to prove they were Greek, difficult in the absence of birth certificates: a Macedonian king who finished joint first in a sprint was subsequently deemed a barbaros and did not feature in the victory lists. They had to be free-born and male (they competed naked to prove it); no woman could compete, no citizen woman even attend. Since there were competitions for boys (aged 12 to 18) as well as men, judges had to arbitrate on age disputes. We hear of one athlete who entered for the boy’s boxing, was rejected for his physique, and won the men’s. Finally, athletes had to be morally upright. Insults to Zeus — fraud, cheating and dishonourable intent or behaviour at any stage — would risk a flogging and expulsion.

So a compulsory routine of month-long training prior to the games, at locations under strict IOC control, might have something to recommend it, even if only to leach drugs out of the athletes’ systems.


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