What was it like going to the Olympics 2,400 years ago? Instead of London 2012, how about Olympia 388 B.C.?
If you came from abroad, you would have hired space on the deck of a cramped cargo vessel. Coming by land, you almost certainly would have walked, sleeping out in the warm August nights along the way.
It was safe enough. The games were a religious festival, spectators traveling to and fro were pilgrims, and that meant protection from harm under the Panhellenic "sacred truce"—not a ban on warfare but usually an effective guarantee of safe passage through war zones for passing sports fans.
New arrivals at the remote, rural spot in the northwestern Peloponnese where the games were held every four years—always at the same place—would probably have been exhausted by the journey and keen to rest up. Fat chance! Directed to the "Olympic village," they would find a vast, partly tented, partly open-to-the-skies encampment, with inadequate water supplies, heaps of stinking refuse and huge improvised latrines. The air was alive with millions of flies, mosquitoes and wasps. The dumps were overrun with rats. By the end of the five-day festival, no one had washed properly for a week, and you could smell the games a mile away.
In the Olympic stadium, you sat on a grassy bank under the searing heat of the midsummer sun. It was the same in the nearby Hippodrome, where the equestrian events were held. Naked athletes participated in foot races, the pentathlon, horse and chariot races and in three combat sports—wrestling, boxing and the almost-no-holds-barred pankration. That was the crowd's favorite, because there were virtually no rules and it was all blood and pain.
Half the Olympic program, on the other hand, was given over to religious ritual: processions, hymn-singing, incense-burning, gory animal sacrifice and strange incantations by exotically attired priests. The Olympic site wasn't just a sports stadium; it was part-sanctuary, part-art gallery, part-heritage trail. Behind a dazzling colonnaded facade sat a gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus, divine master of ceremonies—a stone god so huge that, had he stood up, his head would have gone through the temple roof. Outside was a mountainous heap of ash—an altar formed of a thousand sacrifices. All around stood more shrines, altars and statues.
The athletic events honored Zeus. The Greeks told stories about the mythic heroes Heracles and Pelops to explain why there was a great festival at the site—both heroes were claimed as founding fathers who gave thanks for divine assistance. But the sanctuary also honored an earth-mothers' union of fertility deities—Granny Gaia, Mommy Rhea and Daughters Hera and Demeter. The only woman allowed into the stadium to watch the contests was, in fact, the high priestess of Demeter of the Earth-bed—a relic of an age when the goddesses dominated Olympia.
Otherwise, the menfolk left their respectable women at home and headed off for the festival with fathers, brothers, sons, friends, neighbors and (male) lovers. Fringe events might include philosophy lectures, poetry readings and sundry charlatans and cranks offering to predict the future, but the real added attraction of the games wasn't the cultural Olympiad but the sexual one. At the Olympics, parties went on through the wee hours, and hundreds of prostitutes, both women and boys, touted their services until dawn.
A few things might seem familiar to us. Greek sport, for example, was as professionalized and politicized as our own. Dewy-eyed fables about backcountry ploughboys making it to Olympic stardom were exactly that. The truth was that most athletes were aristocrats who invested heavily in their training and expected to earn big prize money at the hundreds of local athletics festivals around Greece. As for politics, the Olympics was nothing if not a pageant of parochial hatreds and city-state rivalries, often laced with class antagonism, where oligarchic states like Sparta clashed on the running track with democracies like Athens.
Many things, though, would have seemed radically different. The classical Olympics were always run by a board of nine from the local town (Elis), so there were no international spats, no corruption scandals, no hijacking of the games to whitewash dictators.
There were no tickets, no VIP seats, no privileges for the great and the good. It was first-come, first-served, and if you got up late, bleary-eyed from the previous night's carousing, that was just tough.
In their heyday, the ancient Olympics—before Macedonian warlords and Roman politicians sullied them—had more in common with one of today's free open-air music festivals than with the corporate carnival planned for London this year. Besides the sport, sacrifice and sex, a profound spirit of democracy and egalitarianism suffused the games. Provided, of course, you were a freeborn Greek man—not a woman, a foreigner or a slave.—Dr. Faulkner is the author of "A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics," published by Yale University Press.
A version of this article appeared May 19, 2012, on page C2 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Olympics, 388 B.C.: Mud, Sex, Hymns…Sports Too.