Author Article by Neil Faulkner: Food, profit and the Olympics

Neil Faulkner is the author of A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics, to be published soon by Yale University Press. In this regular blog, he comments on the London 2012 Olympics in the light of the wisdom (or lack of it) of the ancients.

Article by Neil Faulkner

The ancient Greeks were afflicted with a variety of food fads – especially when it came to their twin obsessions with the body-beautiful and competitive sport.

The ancient capital of food-faddism was the Greek city of Kroton in southern Italy. It is probably the only example in history of a sportocracy – a state governed by a ruling elite of athletic hearties.

The elite were all members of a mystic cult that believed in reincarnation. The virtuousness of the soul was thought to depend on what sort of body it ended up in. Crucial to this was avoidance of all kinds of pollution. Sad to say, ‘pollution’ seemed to be caused by pretty well anything pleasurable, from sex to pastries.

One especially neurotic antipathy of the food-faddists of Kroton was beans. Maybe there was something in it. For a century, Kroton, one city among a thousand, dominated the ancient games, winning 28% of all Olympic crowns.

Kroton was not alone in its preoccupation with food, beauty, and athletics. Most early athletes lived frugally on bread and cheese. Then a top trainer started promoting a meat-rich diet for wrestlers, and in no time everyone was switching from cheese tarts to rump steaks. The famous doctor Hippokrates even denounced cheese as ‘wicked food’.

But for all this, there was no food fascism: no-one forced you to eat junk – unlike at the London 2012 Olympics.

I now have some inside dope on this: I know people who have been to the London Prepares Gymnastics at the O2 Arena. At the entrance, there are big signs saying you cannot take in your own food and drink, there are bag searches, and there are big black bins – presumably for the disposal of confiscated contraband.

No worries. You can buy food and drink inside. Over-large portions of over-priced junk food of the kind you get at modern cinemas. Burgers and hotdogs. Chips. Onion-rings. Popcorn (£3.70 for a two-person carton). Fizzy drinks (£14.50 for a family of four – medium-size, not large, nothing smaller available).

The only concession to healthy eating my undercover reporters detected were smoothies – at £2.50 a pop.

Suddenly, all that stuff about the swelling size of the London 2012 security apparatus takes on a new significance. What is the figure now? Is it 24,000 security personnel altogether?

Whatever. We now learn that they are there in part to police the privatisation of public space. It looks like we will have G4S enforcing compulsory mass consumption of corporate junk-food at rip-off prices.

The ancient Greeks may have had food fads. But they did not have security goons at the entrance to the Olympic stadium confiscating bags of savoury chickpeas because the organising committee had signed a sponsorship deal with pastry-cooks touting high-fat junk in the stands.

A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics

A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics

Dr Neil Faulkner is research fellow at the University of Bristol, fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and codirector of several field projects. A freelance archaeologist and historian, his previous books include Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt against Rome and Rome: Empire of the Eagles. He lives in Hertfordshire, UK.

A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics is published in April 2012.

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