Cheating in the ancient Olympic Games

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China's Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang (R) play against South Korea's Jung Kyung-eun and Kim Ha-na during their women's doubles badminton match in the London 2012 Games on July 31, 2012 (file photo)

First aired on Day 6 (04/08/12)


For as long as the Olympic Games have existed — and they date back to 776 BC — cheating in the Olympic Games has existed. The badminton scandal of the London 2012 games is nothing new. David Potter is a professor of classics at the University of Michigan and the author of The Victor's Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium, and he stopped by Day 6 to shed light on what might be the oldest sport in the Games.

"One of the very first documents we have from Olympia [where the ancient Games were held] is trying to regulate cheating," Potter told Day 6 guest host Piya Chattopadhyay. The ancient Games, like the modern Games, were concerned with two kinds of cheating: physical, such as taking performance enhancers or breaking your opponent's arm; and financial, such as bribing an athlete to throw a match or an official to call a game in a certain athlete's favour.

While the International Olympic Committee is equally concerned about both these kinds of cheating in the modern Games, the officials of the ancient Games were a-okay with performance enhancers. "The feeling was that if you could get an edge through better training or a better diet, that was fine," Potter said. But performance depression was a big no-no. Performance depression is "making people perform less than their best," which is what happened in the London 2012 Games with the four badminton teams who deliberately tried to lose.

Despite being frowned upon, performance depression was very common at the ancient Games. "There were efforts to bribe athletes to throw matches, there were efforts to bribe the judges to call something the wrong way. Then there were sort of more indirect means like asking the gods to scare somebody away," Potter said. "The first really major bribery scandal at the Olympics took place in the early fourth century, when a boxer bribed three of his opponents to throw matches."

While in the modern Games, cheaters are often disqualified and barred from competition, the ancient Games punished their cheating athletes in a very different way: they were publicly shamed. Not only were they ejected from the competition, they were forced to pay a fine, which went towards erecting a statue of Zeus outside the Olympic stadium. The statues were there to celebrate the Olympic spirit and the names of the cheaters were inscribed on them, so they would "remember their shame of all time" and other competitors "would be discouraged from cheating."

The average Games watcher probably can't even name the eight badminton players who threw their matches. That rarely happened in ancient Greece. Cheaters were branded and remembered forever. Potter thinks that while the Games have progressed by leaps and bounds in promoting, celebrating and regulating competition, this might be an area where the Games have taken a step back. If athletes knew their names would be engraved on a statue, a permanent reminder to every Olympic athlete who participates in every future Games of the consequences of cheating, potential cheaters just might think twice.

"It's more effective than wiping people's names out of the record books."

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