Bribery, cheating and overall corruption have often tarnished the image of the Olympic Games in the past few decades. However, the famous “Olympic Spirit” in ancient Greece, where the games started, was not as noble and pure as idealists tend to believe.
On the contrary, the competitions themselves in ancient Olympia were also subject to cheating, bribery and primitive doping. Competitors struggled to win fame, glory and wealth, and the city-states that they represented also saw the contest as a way to look superior to their rivals.
According to the book The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldlblatt, many of the athletes were professionals who competed for prizes and status that would often lead to public office. Therefore, the idealized Olympics of ancient Greece was an attractive myth, that lasted 2,500 years.
Behind the myth, ambitious athletes sometimes tried to bribe their opponents, or sabotage them. According to Former Director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies, Nigel Crowther, during the ancient Olympics, athletes, their fathers and trainers made oaths not to “sin against the games.” But some of them indeed did.
For example, Pausanias wrote that about 388 BC, the boxer Eupolus bribed his three opponents at Olympia. The officials punished all four contestants. In about 322 BC, a pentathlete named Callippus offered his competitors money to lose the contest. And, according to philosopher Philostratus, trainers often lent money to athletes at high rates of interest for the sole purpose of bribery.
Also, some Olympic athletes were bribed to compete for city-states other than their own. After his Olympic victory, the runner Sotades of Crete was bribed to compete for the rival city of Ephesus. After that, his home city expelled him.
In the fifth century BC, wealthy residents of Syracuse persuaded Astylus of Croton to compete for their city and, a century later, the runner Dicon of Caulonia. In the former case, the citizens of Croton turned Astylus’ house into a prison and destroyed his statue.
When a case of corruption was discovered, the guilty athletes had to pay fines, those who had offered the bribe and those who had accepted the money. But the result of the contest remained unchanged. The athlete who won was proclaimed victor, even if he was corrupt.
In Olympia, there was a special row of statues, the Zanes. They were statues of Zeus erected with the fines of corrupt athletes. They stood along the entrance of the stadion and functioned as a warning for the athletes. They were also peace-offerings to Zeus, because the athletes had broken the Olympic oath to him.
Pausanias tells the story of each statue. For example, in 532 BC an Athenian had bribed his opponent in the pentathlon. Therefore the Eleans fined him, but the Athenians sent a famous orator to Olympia who pleaded to drop the punishment. The Eleans refused and for that reason the Athenians wanted to boycott the Olympics. But when the Delphic priests refused to give any oracles to the Athenians because of this boycott, they paid the fine after all. With this money six statues of Zeus were erected.