The ancient statues depict young men, naked and muscled, in their physical prime. The two sculptures were supposed to celebrate the purity and kinetic beauty of ancient sport in a traveling exhibit, "The Olympics — Past and Present."
But when the Greek exhibit reached the conservative Muslim emirate of Qatar, the two statues were placed behind a screen of sheer black cloth.
"The outlines of the statues were visible, but not the details," says Maria Vlazaki, the Greek Culture Ministry's director-general of antiquities and cultural heritage. "They wanted to hide the nudity." Vlazaki was part of a Greek delegation that traveled to the Qatari capital Doha for the opening of the exhibit in March.
One statue is dated to 520 B.C. and is a long-haired kouros from the sanctuary of Apollon Ptoios in Boeotia, says Evridiki Leka, curator of the sculpture collection at the National Archaeological Museum, where both marble pieces are housed.
The other depicts a young athlete with short curls. It's a Roman-era copy of a famous bronze (now lost) by the ancient sculptor Polykleitos, who designed male nudes with mathematical scale and artistic purity.
Vlazaki says the Qatari organizers of the exhibit asked for the two statues, as well as several small bronze nudes that remain on display. But Vlazaki says there were "objections from above" after the statues arrived. The Qatari organizers refused to display them uncovered, as the Greeks requested.
"So they agreed to send them back," Vlazaki says. "It was all done with minimal drama."
Both countries are playing down the incident as a minor culture clash.
Greece, which is deep in recession and struggling through an epic debt crisis, needs Qatar. The energy-rich emirate said in January that it would invest up to $1.3 billion in a joint fund with Athens.
Meanwhile, the emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, bought six private islands in the Ionian Sea for his wives and children.
Others criticized Qatar, which aspires to be a global center of culture. The country has spent billions on museums and art collection, "a remarkably sophisticated exercise at nation-building through art," Hugh Eakin wrote in The New York Review of Books in 2011.
Peter Aspden of the Financial Times wrote that Qatar must "get over its inhibitions" if it ever wants to host the Olympics. (The country led unsuccessful bids for the 2016 and 2020 games).
"There is no understanding of ancient Greek culture and its invention of sporting competition without recognizing its worship of the human form," Aspden wrote. "You just cannot have a serious exhibition on the ancient Olympics without addressing the theme of nudity."
The Qatar Museums Authority said in a statement that the decision was "not due to censorship" but was rather "based on the flow of the exhibition, awareness of the outreach to all schools and families in Qatar, and desire to be sensitive to community needs and standards."
A Doha Debates poll last year showed that 60 percent of Arabs support censorship of art that could be "inappropriate" and offend "religious beliefs."
Vlazaki says she respects Qatar's decision on the statues and says she still views the exhibit as a success.
"Qatar is still opening itself to Europe and the West," she says. "It accepts a lot, but there are still things that it's not ready to accept."
The statues are now back in Greece's National Archaeological Museum.
"The Olympics — Past and Present" runs until June 30 at the Alriwaq Doha exhibition space near the Museum of Islamic Art.