Cheating the gods
The Greek mechanism for punishment ? Cheaters were required to commission a bronze statue of Zeus paid for with their own money. The base of these statues were inscribed with the cheater’s name and offense. Today only the bases are left.
But for a thousand years these statues lined a walkway approaching the stadium for incoming athletes and spectators–a permanent headline for future generations of those who disgraced the games. If you cheated, your neighbors and compatriots as well as your descendants got to see testimony of your dishonesty every Olympiad – there were statues, but no statue of limitations.
Added to each statue was an admonition in verse. One declared Olympic victory is to be won not by money but by fleetness of foot and strength of body. Another said this statue is a “terror to those who transgress.” A third was “a warning to all Greeks not to give money for the purposes of gaining an Olympic victory.”
The first recorded Olympic cheat was Eupolus, a boxer who bribed three opponents on his way to victory in 388 BCE. They all paid a hefty fine and statues were erected in their “honor.”
The most famous Olympic cheat was the Roman Emperor Nero who came to the Games in 67 CE, raced in the chariot race, fell off his chariot, and had himself declared winner. Apparently no one had the nerve to fine the mad Emperor.
There were other instances of recorded cheating, but surprisingly few. Most athletes and judges were thought to be honest. After all, the gods were watching.
What about today’s cheaters – those that are doping, fixing games, and generally behaving badly. Imagine if each time we walked into a stadium, any stadium, or turned on a game, we were reminded yet again of who cheated the gods, the games, and us – our own contemporary scoundrels and their crimes permanently recorded by the very best graphic artists, composers, video people and the like, all paid for by the crooks and cheaters themselves.
I won’t even bother to list all the ignoble characters who would qualify. It would be a long walk into the stadium. At home, parents would point to the pre-game show to teach kids a moral lesson. More jaded teens and adults would have their finger on the mute button for a long time while the parade of past cheats strolled past.
I’d like to think eventually the numbers would drop off, and cheating would be a rare and embarrassing thing. Most athletes, Olympic and otherwise, are honest, and the fence sitters who follow the crowd just might be shamed and frightened into doing the right thing.
But I wonder if in our attention seeking world the notoriety would become its own kind of fame and honor. Like seeing a twisted version of some bad Hollywood gossip, we would watch in a more or less neutral state to see how bad it really was and after a while become numb to it all.
But when it’s all said and done, I am not a cynic. It’s too easy and contributes nothing. I have always loved watching athletes at the top of their game. In the 2004 games in Athens, a Greek woman won a silver medal in a foot race. She was asked what it was like. Instead of thanking people – good – or bragging – not so good, she said she felt like she was running twenty five centuries ago in the Pan Athenaic games in Athens to honor Athena. She could feel it surging inside her. That’s the spirit. Enjoy the games.