University of California, Riverside

UCR Newsroom

Classics Professor in Demand for Summer Games

UC Riverside Professor Looks Back -- and Forward -- to Athens Games

Classics Scholar Featured in PBS Documentary on Ancient, Modern Olympics

(August 2, 2004)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( -- The approach of the Olympic Games in Athens puts a modern spin on what has been UC Riverside professor Thomas Scanlon’s ancient expertise.

“These Olympics give Athens a chance to come into the 21st century,” said Scanlon, whose usual historical focus is the original Olympics, held from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D. in Olympia, Greece.

He is optimistic about Athens’ ability to put on the games with success, despite reports of construction and budget problems.

“There won’t be as many frills as you usually see, and it will be down to the wire, but they’ll do all right,” he said. “It’s very expensive, and Greece is the poorest country to put on the Olympics since Finland in 1952.”

Scanlon will be watching from home from the Opening Ceremonies August 13th to the Closing Ceremonies August 29. “I’ll be glued to the TV,” he said. “Maybe more than most people.”

He will also be visible on the screen, on various PBS stations at different times, in a two-part documentary about parallels between ancient and modern Olympics. “The Real Olympics: Death or Glory” was broadcast on PBS on Tuesday, August 3 with a second part, “The Real Olympics: Playing to Win,” aired Wednesday August 4.

Some of the traditions of the ancient games set patterns that are still followed in the modern Olympics, the first of which was in 1896 in Athens.
The ancient Olympics were part of a religious festival honoring Zeus, the chief Greek god. Like today’s, the games included opening rituals, questions about eligibility and allegations of bribery. Athletes trained and ate specialized diets.

Like the gold, silver and bronze medals that are its modern-day counterpart, the original Olympics’ laurel-wreath prize was more symbolic than valuable, but winners gained prestige that could set them up for life.

The competitors were free men and boys who spoke Greek, and the contests were track and field events plus boxing, wrestling and equestrian contests. Preliminary heats determined which athletes would compete.

Most spectators were men; it was a capital offense for a married woman to attend. Fathers could take their daughters to the games, Scanlon said, presumably to get them in the mood to marry the scantily clad athletes. Girls did not compete at the Olympics, but at games in honor of the goddess Hera. Single men were allowed to attend the Heraiad, also perhaps as a marriage incentive.

The Olympic torch, the notion of the amateur athlete, and the concept of gold, silver and bronze medals are all inventions of the modern games, Scanlon said.

Scanlon’s latest book: “Eros and Greek Athletics,” is published by Oxford University Press. He said it is a study of the social context of sports, including gender, sexuality, body culture, religion and education.

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

A broadcast studio with fiber cable to the AT&T Hollywood hub is available for live or taped interviews. UCR also has ISDN for radio interviews. To learn more, call (951) UCR-NEWS.

More Information 

General Campus Information

University of California, Riverside
900 University Ave.
Riverside, CA 92521
Tel: (951) 827-1012

Department Information

Media Relations
900 University Avenue
1156 Hinderaker Hall
Riverside, CA 92521

Tel: (951) 827-6397 (951) UCR-NEWS
Fax: (951) 827-5008

Related Links