The Commercialism

Are Today’s Olympians Too Commercial? Depends…

These days you don’t have to look far to see the connection between salesmanship and sports—some would even say that the line between sales pitching and fast pitches has become completely blurred.

At Olympic competitions, athletes’ uniforms and equipment bear the discreet but readily identifiable trademarks of their manufacturers.

After the Games, we are presented with images of Olympians endorsing products and appearing on cereal boxes. Later, some Olympic celebrities become commodities themselves, as TV shows and record labels cash in on their fame.

Commemorative Victory Coins… the first Olympic medals?

Winged Nike crowns a victorious chariot on this silver tetradrachm from Syracuse, 5th century BC. University of Pennsylvania Museum Object ID 29-126-58.

Winged Nike flies above to crown the victorious chariot team, while below are shield, greaves, cuirass, and helmet. Silver dekadrachm of Syracuse, by the artist Euainetos, early 4th century BC. University of Pennsylvania Museum Object ID 29-126-41.

Sculptures of Athletes… Commercial Appearances?

Sculptors were commissioned to create statues of victorious athletes to be set up in the Sanctuary or in the home town of the athlete. According to Pliny, most of the statues set up in the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia were idealistic images of athletes. We are told that only if an athlete had won three Olympic victories could a realistic likeness of the athlete appear in the Sanctuary.

Pausanias, a 2nd century AD Greek traveler, describes a great number of the statues that he saw in the altis, the sacred precinct of the Sancuary of Zeus. From the inscriptions on the stone statue bases and from local guides, Pausanias gives us detailed information—almost too detailed:

“Dikon, the son of Kallibrotos, won five foot races at Delphi, three at Isthmia, four at Nemea and one at Olympia in the race for boys besides two in the men’s race. Statues of him have been set up in Olympia equal in number to the races he won. When he was a boy he was proclaimed a native of Caulonia, as in fact he was. But afterwards he was bribed to proclaim himself a Syracusan.”

Model of the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, Treasure Terrace. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Cheating and Bribery? At the Oympics? Unbelievable!

But true. There were statues set up in the altis to commemorate athletes who had been caught cheating or bribing at the Olympic Games. These monuments were set up on the roadway leading from the heart of the altis to the vault that leads to the stadion, not coincidentally the very path that athletes walked to enter the place of athletic competition. In the model above you can see this roadway passing in front of the row of treasury buildings.