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Tokyo 2020

Naked Games: Remembering the Olympics that starred nude athletes

Who knew stripping nude was the norm for athletes in the Ancient Olympics? Discover the full starkness here!

Naked Olympics Athletes
Olympic athletes would compete naked in the Ancient Olympics of Greece

Sohinee Basu

Updated: 19 July 2021 1:21 PM GMT

Long before our God, who art in Heaven guilt-tripped us about our original birthday suit, the Greeks really embraced their skin – all holds, er, clothes barred. Sharing an intimate relationship with their naked-ness, the Greeks have been known to strut around with their stuff - in full naked glory and would also compete in the nude at the Ancient Olympics.

It's time for some confessions, before we move on - remember spending a minute too much on the sculpted body of Michelangelo's naked David or Myron's Discobolus, admiring every inch of it? If your mind did a mini flashback - then my point is successful. The Greeks really just loved being in their natural armour and couldn't get enough of it.

No wonder, we keep using phrases like 'Greek God' or 'Hellenic beauty' to laud people, even today. In fact, the word 'gymnastics' owes its etymology to the Greek word 'gymnos' which….yes, you guessed it, means 'naked'.

Traditionally athletes would practise gymnastics in the nude (Source: National Geographic Creative)

While there are certain confusions regarding the origin of the Olympic Games, it is believed that it was begun to honour Zeus, the God of Thunder and the King who reigned from Mount Olympus. All free male citizens of Greece were allowed to participate in the Ancient Olympic Games.

However, women were not allowed to take part in this event and instead had an Olympics all to themselves which was dedicated to Hera, the consort of Zeus. Even with women, nudity was very much on the scene as there have been instances of Spartan female athletes training bare-bodied to wrestling or running 'free' wearing short tunics with one breast exposed in symbolic honour to the Amazonian warrior women (cue: Wonder Woman, much?)

Going bare: Why did the stripping happen?

It was a men-only affair at the Ancient Olympics (Source: Buzzfeed Motion Pictures)

In Homer's Iliad, there are mentions of male athletes competing in the Homeric Olympics wearing a loincloth, while dating back to 720 BCE, the Ancient Olympics actually featured players who were ready to go bare. A runner by the name Orsippus (Orhippus) during the 15th Ancient Olympiad took the no-clothes way out on the track, where he was competing in the stade-one race.

Originally, athletes would wear only a loincloth and run at the Ancient Olympics - but an incident mentions that once a runner tripped and lost his loincloth, inspiring other athletes to run in the buff. I mean, why not - Greek athleticism was one of the greatest marks of heroism and there was no shame whatsoever in displaying their goods so publicly.

A thing of wonder, more than anything else, Greek Olympic athletes would coat their chiselled bodies with oil to accentuate the features and become a symbol of 'Greekness' and in this way, apparently, pay tribute to Zeus for having created this 'perfection' and enjoy demigod status.

Also supposed to encourage the ideas of power, confidence and dominance - male athletes really had a gala time being in the buff. In fact, there were other political associations too - by going naked, Greek athletes wanted to differentiate themselves from barbaric opponents, mainly, the Persians, who were shy to show their body.

In an attempt to capture the true marvel of the Greek athletic body, historian Donald Kyle, notes in his book Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, "The human body-male or female, fit or flabby, clothed or naked-is the ultimate symbol...In Archaic Greece, disrobing fully to become naked for sport became an assertive communication of maleness, ethnicity, status, freedom, privilege, and physical virtue."

The classic crossover: Nudity x Art

The Farnese Hercules (left), Spear-bearer and The Boxer at Rest

Toned and ripped muscles and sculpted abs acted as the main fodder of artistic imagination during the Classical Period and went on to inspire creativity. The body of the Greek athlete was considered to be 'ideal' and therefore, it was the ready muse for sculptors and painters and even writers who heaved and sighed and steeped adulations to conjure this 'perfect' form in their art.

The Classical Period was inclined towards learning more about the human body and its form and therefore, most existing artworks and sculptures from that era show them as naked. What was started in Greece also spread to Rome as the Romans also began to learn the airs and emulated the form of the Greeks after adding their own touch, leading the way to Greco-Roman art.

Given the fascination artists had with the human body, especially that of athletes, there have been many stunning creations, most famous of which are Doryphoros, the spear-bearer by Polykleitos, Myron's Discus Thrower, the awe-inspiring Farnese Hercules and the Boxer at Rest, which uses the Hellenistic style of art.

Although it is a wild thought to even imagine a 'naked' Olympics these days, given the stigmatisation that has taken place, where people react loudly to scantily dressed athletes, let alone those in the nude, it's quite interesting to see the transition. While centuries later, these Greek God-like bodies still exist and athletes are also worshipped like demigods, the Tokyo Olympics will definitely not be seeing such an exhibition. But that's alright because the Greeks and Romans have done their bit in carving out athletic 'perfection' and immortalising them through their art for us to go back to, always.

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