Olympic Games in Ancient Greece

by Alfred Tamarin

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

The subject matter of Olympic Games in Ancient Greece presents a formidable challenge to the writer of nonfiction for young readers. The history of the games spans a thousand years and enfolds the politics, art, and religion of a large empire. Although many of the sports of ancient Greece have modern-day analogues, the cultural context surrounding those sports is vastly different from the experiences of a modern reader. In order to participate imaginatively in an ancient Olympiad, the reader must be made to understand the significance of the Olympic Games in ancient Greek culture. Glubok and Tamarin have addressed this challenge in part through the device of structure: The book is divided into five main parts, each describing one day of an ideal Greek Olympiad. The focus of each section is on the sports played on that day. This way of organizing the text provides a concrete and easy-to-understand overview of the information. It also allows the authors to create a sense of immediacy, as they note the bright colors of the chariots, the bitter smell of burning sacrifices, and the glistening sun reflected on hundreds of eager faces. Readers feel that they are witnessing the events of the festival as they happen.

The authors convey the historical and cultural context of the ancient world with ingenuity. Information about religious beliefs and historical events that affected the development and execution of the games is imparted through lively anecdotes and vivid details interwoven throughout the narrative that dramatizes each day’s sports. For example, the authors show the influence of political rivalry on the Olympic Games by recounting a dramatic encounter between King Iphitus of Elis and a victorious runner from Pisa. Other anecdotes emphasize more brutal elements of the ancient world, such as the story of Callipatria, who was nearly thrown off a mountain as punishment for having broken the ban on women attending the games.

The authors also include the stories of several legendary Olympic athletes, such as Polydamas, winner of the pankration, who was so strong that he held up the falling ceiling of a cave long enough for his friends to escape. Through these stories, interspersed frequently throughout the text, the reader becomes aware of the importance of storytelling in ancient Greece. In addition, the reader gains a sense of the heightened drama that these legendary personalities added to the ambience of the ancient Olympiads.

Visual presentation is critical in nonfiction works for young readers. With the exception of a map and a few photographs of Olympia’s present-day ruins, the authors have focused illustrative material exclusively on ancient pottery and carvings. The large black-and-white photographs of athletes jumping, twisting, fighting, running, and dancing on the smooth, curved sides of vases and plates add a consistent and strong visual dimension to the book. Images are well-integrated with the contiguous text. In spite of these strengths, the visual design and content are clearly dated. The decades since the publication of Olympic Games in Ancient Greece have seen dramatic advances in the sophistication of visual media, and nonfiction books have reflected these developments in the amount, variety, and finesse of their visual elements. Consequently, Glubok and Tamarin’s book is likely to strike young readers as visually unexciting, with its predictable approach to page layout, media, and color.

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Critical Context