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A Brief History of the Great Gay Olympics

Russian legislators have said they will enforce new anti-gay laws during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, but the ancient athletic games started out as little more than a gigantic festival of homoerotic excess.
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Greek Olympic statues. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Greek Olympic statues. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed into law a draconian anti-homosexuality policy allowing police to arrest and detain for up to 14 days any tourists and foreign nationals they suspect of being gay or “pro-gay.” To the concern of many athletes and gay rights advocates, this came just months before Sochi, a city on the Black Sea on the western side of the country, plans to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

Boris Dittrich of Human Rights Watch condemned the move, writing in a public letter to Christophe De Kepper, the director general of the International Olympic Committee, that, “there cannot be a successful Olympics where there is discrimination or human rights abuses. ... Foreigners—possibly including athletes ... run the risk of being fined ... and deported from Russia.”

Many have publicly sided with Dittrich, characterizing the move as basically a step backward for progress and humanity. The New York Timesran an editorial saying that “there is no defense for such actions, which occur against a backdrop of growing violence against gays.... Russia is in danger of moving from pursuing the rule of law to the rule of hate.”

It’s also pretty ironic.

Put aside the political arguments surrounding this new policy and one can still imagine Pierre de Coubertin, the French nobleman responsible for reviving the ancient Greek tradition of the Olympics for the modern world in 1896, looking down from the gold bar of heaven and shaking his head. The ancient Olympics Games were very, verygay—or at least they were decidedly homoerotic. Historically, the Olympics were a celebration of male beauty and male athletic prowess organized by other men. It wasn’t a glorification of man-on-man action, but whatever it was, it certainly wouldn't meet the approval of Russian legislators.

Russia's Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed earlier this month that it would enforce the country's new anti-gay law during the Sochi Games, for both foreign and national athletes and spectators. St. Petersburg City Assemblyman Vitaly Milanov, who wrote St. Petersburg’s own city-wide anti-LGBT propaganda law, explained that the anti-homosexuality laws were appropriate. As David Fergusonput it at Raw Story:

Milanov went on to say that while the government may say it’s fine for LGBT athletes to compete, “It will not be so fine.” Only if the athlete is “normal,” he said, should they be allowed to participate in the Olympic games. LGBT athletes, he said, are not strong because their orientation excuses their weakness. “I am running bad,” he claimed the athletes will say, “because I am not a man and not a woman.”

Russia, which has some claim to be the successor of the ancient world in which the Games originated, would do well to consider the history.

Taking place every four years between the 8th century BCE and the 4th century CE in the city of Olympia, the early Games honored Zeus. Only free men who spoke Greek could compete. For the first 13 Olympiads the athletic events consisted of only one event: a footrace. Later, the Greeks added other events, including boxing, chariot racing, discus throwing, and wrestling.


Unmarried women had separate games that occurred as part of a festival honoring the goddess Hera. But they performed in a different place. Men with men. Women with women. The only female event was a race, on a track 1/6th the length of the men’s track, built on the theory that a “woman’s stride was 1/6th shorter than that of a man." Much like the gender split we see in professional basketball today, the men’s events were more popular, lucrative, and highly publicized.

Tony Perrottet, the author ofThe Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games, wrote in a 2005 piece for Smithsonian magazine that the experience of watching the ancient Olympics, while decidedly unpleasant in many ways (the town of Olympia was remote and inconvenient and so crowded it was difficult for spectators to see anything of the Games) was thrilling for spectators:

Sports were only part of it. The Games were the ultimate pagan entertainment package, where every human diversion could be found, on and off the field. Each Olympiad was an expression of Hellenic unity, an all-consuming pageant for pagans as spiritually profound as a pilgrimage to Varanasi for Hindus or Mecca for Muslims. The site had grand procession routes, dozens of altars, public banquet halls, booths for sideshow artists.

Every human diversion, indeed. While Milanov worries about what gays might do to the 2014 Olympics, let us consider how the ancient Games looked:

(Note that the athletes in the video embedded above are wearing loincloths due to modern modesty traditions with regard to television and movies. The History Channel made this video for, presumably, a family-friendly program. The real athletes performed naked.)

Anthropologist Greg Laden writes that “it was a sporting event, but it was also a softly pornographic group voyeuristic tournament.” And a softly pornographic event mostly featuring young men, watched by other men. Not only were their peers competing in a separate tournament altogether, but married women were legally prohibited from watching the Games.

The Greek writer Plutarch wrote of one athlete who was initially disqualified for appearing “too mature.” It was only after the intercession of his older (male) lover, who testified to the king of Sparta concerning the athlete’s youth, that he was allowed to continue in the contest, very much a celebration of male beauty. Perrottet explains that:

We know how fundamental nudity was to Greek culture. It really appealed to the exhibitionism and the vanity of the Greeks. Only barbarians were afraid to show their bodies. The nude athletes would parade like peacocks up and down the stadium. Poets would write in a shaky hand these wonderful odes to the bodies of the young men, their skin the color of fired clay.

The spectators weren’t just admiring these peacocks from afar. “Pederasty was inherent to the Greek gymnasium culture,” Perrottet explains. “And you had all these men mentoring prepubescent boys.” The ancient world had a rather different attitude toward (and understanding of) sexual orientation than we do today. Homosexuality of one sort or another was fairly common. Cecil Adams writes in The Straight Dope:

A common practice in ancient times, at least among those men rich enough to have the time for such things, was to chase boys until you were 30 or so, then settle down with a woman and have kids. Dover cites an Athenian jury trial involving an allegation of male prostitution on the part of one Timarchus in which the prosecutor in effect argues: Look, we've all had the hots for young studs; I've gone after a few myself. But selling yourself to another man--now that's low. Granted, the prosecutor doesn't say he's actually had sex with another man, but we've plenty of evidence from other sources seeming to indicate that many prominent Athenians (e.g., the lawgiver Solon) did just that.

Or, as Diogenes Laeurtius wrote of the 5th century BCE Athenian general and politician Alcibiades, "in his adolescence he drew away the husbands from their wives, and as a young man the wives from their husbands."

Paul Halsall, who teaches history at the University of Manchester, wrote in 1986:

The simplified view is that there was increased leisure in the 7th and 6th centuries and that this gave men time to build up an erotic culture; that what happened in Athens is a good indication of what happened elsewhere; that the romance always took the form of a man pursuing a boy and that the man alone took pleasure from the sexual activity which was not an important part of the relationship in any case.... In all this it is assumed that any sex that did occur took place according to the conventions on vase paintings where only the older man has an erection and coitus consists of intercrural (between legs) frottage without any arousal on the younger's part.

It was considered completely normal for aristocratic young men to have sexual relationships with each other until they reached adulthood and married, at which point they began to sleep with women. It’s not necessarily that the Olympics were some sort of gay extravaganza. They simply reflected the prevailing attitude toward homosexual actions and appreciation of the male body common among wealthy men during this period. Then, as now, athletes were dissuaded from sex (of any kind) during the Games for fear that it would be distracting and adversely affect performance.

But certain athletes were absolutely used for (gay) sexual purposes once the Games were over. Many viewed the Olympics as a way for athletes to show off their physiques, which they would sometimes later cash in on by hiring themselves out as lovers for the very rich. (Though it was slightly more indirect than this.) It was just the way personal value was extracted from the event; similar, in many ways, to how today's athletes leverage Olympic medals and success on the field for lucrative endorsement deals with sporting goods companies.

The British actor and cultural critic Stephen Fry is one of many prominent voices who have called on the world to boycott the Sochi Olympic Games. In his words:

Let us realise that in fact, sport is cultural. It does not exist in a bubble outside society or politics. The idea that sport and politics don’t connect is worse than disingenuous, worse than stupid. It is wickedly, willfully wrong. Everyone knows politics interconnects with everything for “politics” is simply the Greek for “to do with the people.”

Putin’s declaration, Fry says, violates the traditions of inclusion and tolerance that have historically prevailed during the Games.

The ancient Olympics eventually ended in 393 CE when the Christian Emperor Theodosius I banned them, along with all other pagan festivals, because they seemed inconsistent with the new religion he was trying to institute. Three years earlier he had made homosexual acts illegal. Those found guilty were to be burned alive in a public place.