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TV UK, 13 August

Getting into the anti-Olympic spirit.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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The impending Athens Olympics have inspired a flurry of programmes about ancient Greece, with Channel 4 characteristically setting out to dispel the myths surrounding the ancient Olympics.

In The Real Olympics, we were told that all the most lamented aspects of the modern Olympics, commercialisation, cheating and politicking, were rife in the ancient games. That might be true up to a point, but the ‘myth’ of the Olympics is closer to myth in its proper sense than to the simple misconceptions about the past typically attacked in TV history programmes. Proper myths aren’t supposed to be true; they’re just supposed to reflect the values of the societies that foster them.

There was in fact some consideration in the programme of how the Olympic ideal arose in the late nineteenth century, and some of the aristocratic assumptions behind it, and there was an implicit critique of the whole notion of amateurism. This is an issue worth exploring, as is whether the use of drugs in sport is really such a bad thing (the subject of another Channel 4 programme tonight). But simply pointing out that the modern Olympic ideal isn’t based on historical fact is not enough to make these arguments.

In place of the nineteenth-century Olympic ideal, The Real Olympics offered an old-fashioned essentialist account of human behaviour, continually asserting that ancient athletes would have felt and acted exactly the same as their modern counterparts, and resting its critique of modern idealism on that. I can’t help thinking that, romantic ideals aside, the reality of the ancient world may have been very different.

The best insight into the fundamental weirdness of ancient culture comes from ancient, as opposed to nineteenth century, myths. In Greek Gods and Goddesses (BBC1, Sundays at 8pm), former Olympic triple-jumper Jonathan Edwards looks at what the ancient Greek myths can tell us about ancient society. If the premise is anthropological, however, the approach is more pedestrian, with Edwards wandering around amid dramatic reconstructions, and drawing homespun wisdom from the stories of Jason and Odysseus.

The resulting insights into ancient Greek society seem remarkably like banal expositions of contemporary values. Astonishingly, in the first episode Edwards proposed Medea as an example of the positive portrayal of women. After Jason’s negative experiences with the Amazons and the Sirens, the triple-jumper explained, Medea helped him to steal the golden fleece (albeit after being magicked into falling in love with him by the gods), showing that you can’t do without the love of a good woman.

It seems odd to have left out that Medea subsequently slaughtered her own children (fathered by Jason) as revenge for his betrayal. A scan of the web reveals that some scholars believe the playwright Euripides added that bit to the ‘original’ myth, but the programme’s failure even to mention the unfortunate incident indicates a certain lack of confidence, as if the writers hoped nobody would notice. This is amateurism without the idealism.

And when contemporary special effects turn out to be less impressive that those in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, perhaps television could do with an injection of idealism from the non-existent golden age.

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