While researching a book on ancient Roman tourists, Pagan Holiday, I discovered that the classical Olympic Games were history's longest-running festival, held without fail, every four years for nearly twelve centuries. It's an astonishing record given that the modern Olympics have been canceled three times due to wars since they were restarted in Athens in 1896, and the 2021 Tokyo Games were delayed a year due to the Covid pandemic. I also realized that the ancient Greek Olympics were chaotic and sprawling events -- the Woodstock of Antiquity -- where 40,000 sports fans crowded in wretched conditions, punished by searing summer heat, plagues of flies, endless dust, and dehydration. But they were also unforgettable spectacles, combining sports with religious rituals, cultural tourism, political grandstanding, and a level of debauchery that impressed Emperor Nero when he competed in the chariot race.
In The Naked Olympics, I set out to recreate what it might really have been like to visit the festival as a competitor, a sports fan, or an official, using firsthand reports and obscure sources, including an actual Handbook for a Sports Coach used by the ancient Greeks. My aim was to peel away the layers of myth that cloud our vision of the classical world to understand the experience itself, including the round-the-clock bacchanal inside the tents of the Olympic Village, the all-male nude workouts under the statue of Eros (all athletes went naked in the Greek world), and history's first corruption scandals involving competitors.