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53.3.Golden

Why do we throw the discus in the modern Olympics? Because the Greeks did. Not just the ancient Greeks: the modern ones too. It wasn't originally scheduled for Coubertin's first IOC Olympics of 1896. But it had two features which recommended it to the local organizers: it provided a connection to their prestigious past and (as it was virtually unknown elsewhere) it looked likely to produce a modern Greek victory.

Dis(cis) aliter visum. An American won by throwing the discus in a very modern manner. When the games returned to Athens in 1896, the Greeks took another tack, presenting two separate discus events. One used the modern throw; the other, the “Greek discus,” a stiff motion modeled (allegedly at least) on authentic ancient Greek practices. This strategy also failed. In fact, no modern Greek has ever won the modern Olympic discus. One has come very close, taking second place in both 2000 and 2004 — but this was Anastasia Kelesidou, in the women's competition. These successes, such as they were, offered no link to the ancient Olympics (in which only male competitors were present) and were not what the modern Greeks of 1896 had in mind at all.

This discourse of the discus is emblematic of the relationship between the ancient and modern games. The past is invoked—often inaccurately—chiefly for the purposes of the present, and even those ends may be missed. I will illustrate this theme with reference to one current attempt to use the past for present-day aims, the Olympic Truce campaign. However laudable its goals, this has both misrepresented the ancient Olympics and failed to make (much) good of the modern ones. But I will conclude by suggesting that there are ways -- more effective ways -- in which the modern Olympics could be enlisted in the cause of peace.

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