After reading about all of the pollution, doping and dangers of the Zika virus at the Rio Olympics, plus hearing about the endemic corruption rife in the International Olympic Committee (IOC), I can’t help but feel nostalgic about the simplicity of the ancient Greek Olympics.
Origins of the Olympics
While the Greeks attributed the origins of the Olympics to myths about Herakles, Pelops and Zeus, no one really knows how or why the ancient Olympics began. As the Greeks used athletic competitions in conjunction with many of their festivals, it seems safe to assume that its origins were probably religious.
In Homer’s Iliad, after the death of Patroclus and Hector, both the Greeks and the Trojans included athletic competitions among the funeral celebrations. In the case of Hector, the two warring sides even agreed to a truce while the games took place. It seems the games were meant to honor the dead and were no doubt a long-standing tradition even in the time of the Trojan War (c. 1184 B.C.).
The games were held every 4 years outside the Greek city of Elis in a valley called Olympia. Evidence of the game’s religious importance, is that Olympia was named after the highest mountain in Greece, Mt. Olympus, which was thought to be the home of the gods.
The games were dedicated to the king of the gods, Zeus. Within the Temple of Zeus at Olympia stood a 43 foot tall statue of Zeus made out of gold and ivory. The statue was sculpted by Phidias in 445 B.C. and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Phidias also sculpted the statue of Athena that was inside another ancient wonder, the Parthenon at Athens.
In the 6th century B.C., the Greeks also instituted pan-Hellenic games at Delphi, Corinth and the Nemea River, but the Olympics continued to preserve its prominence as the pre-eminent celebration. One of the interesting features of the Pythian Games in Delphi, were that they also included competitions for poetry, music and theater.
Date of the First & Last Olympics
The traditional date of the first Olympics is 776 B.C. The games were so important to the Greeks they used 776 B.C. as their ‘year 1’ and measured time from that date. For example, a person might mark their date of birth by saying, “I was born in the second year of the 23rd Olympiad.”
When the Roman Emperor Theodosius imposed Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in 393 A.D., he put an end to the Olympic Games as they were viewed as honoring a pagan religion.
The Olympic Truce
Though we think of Greece as a country, in ancient times it consisted of hundreds of city-states who were constantly at war with one another.
One of the important aspects of the ancient games was that a universal truce existed across the Greek world during the games to allow athletes and spectators to travel safely to Olympia. This ceasefire extended across Greece and its colonies located in Asia Minor, on the Black Sea, Africa, Italy, Sicily and Spain.
History records only one instance of this truce ever being violated, and even that case was contested.
Some interesting facts about the Olympics:
- Average attendance was in the range of 20,000 to 40,000.
- The use of the death penalty was suspended throughout Greece during the games.
- Only free men who spoke Greek could compete in the games.
- Women were not allowed to compete or attend.
- There were no team sports, only individual events.
The Olympic Festival and Events
Athletes had to arrive at Olympia one month before the games for training. Before the games began, they swore an oath that they would abide by the rules and that they had been in training for at least ten months. While this is nothing compared to the training undergone by modern athletes, it meant that only the well-to-do could afford to compete.
The original Olympics lasted only one day, and consisted of only one event, the stadion or stade (from which we get the word ‘stadium’), a sprint the length of the track, roughly 700 feet.
The diaulos, or two-stade race was introduced in 724 B.C. It consisted of a single lap of the track, approximately 1,300 feet.
The original Olympic Games consisted entirely of track and field events. A third foot race, the dolichos, was introduced in 720 B.C. The length of the race was 18-24 laps or about 3 miles. The runners began and finished in the stadium, but the course wound its way through the Olympic grounds.
As more events were added the Olympics were expanded to five days. Two of the five days were spent conducting religious rituals. The first day was devoted to swearing oaths and conducting sacrifices, and the last day to crowning the victors with an olive wreath and holding a great feast at which 100 bulls were sacrificed.
The last running event added to the Olympics (520 B.C.) was the hoplitodromos or hoplite race. Runners ran either a stade or diaulos in full or partial armor, carrying a shield, helmet and greaves weighing roughly 50 pounds. In a vase painting depicting the event, runners are shown leaping over fallen shields that runners dropped.
The 26 mile marathon was NOT an ancient Greek Olympic event. The event was added when the modern Olympics were introduced in Athens in 1896.
Over the years, boxing, wrestling and pankration were added. Initially soft leather was wrapped around boxers fingers, but over time this was changed to hard leather and sometimes metal was used. Boxers fought on open ground. These fights had no rounds or rest periods. There were no rules against hitting a man when he was down.
Pankration was a brutal combination of boxing and wrestling with very few rules. It was not uncommon to break an opponent’s fingers or twist their ankles from their sockets. The bout ended when one pankrationist surrendered or died. If a contestant died, he was declared the winner, post mortem.
The pentathlon consisted of wrestling the stadion, long jump, javelin thrown and discus throw.
At the conclusion of each event, a herald announced the name of the winner. A judge placed a palm leaf in his hands while spectators applauded and threw flowers. A ribbon of red wool was tied around his head and hands as a sign of victory.
Later events such as horse-racing and chariot-racing were added. As very few people in Greece could afford a horse, it was confined to the wealthy.
Jockeys did not have stirrups on their saddle. Individual riders did 6 laps (4.5 miles) of the race track. There were separate races for full-grown horses and foals.
There were 2-horse and 4-horse chariot races, and a 12 lap race (9 mile) between carts drawn by a team of 2 mules.
The first woman ever to win an Olympic event, in 396 B.C. and again 392 B.C., was a Spartan named Cynisca, who won the 4-horse chariot race. Although Cynisca did not drive the chariot and was probably not even present to watch, she owned the chariot, and the winner of the event was the owner, not the driver.
The official ceremony for all of the victors took place on the last day of the games in the Temple of Zeus. A herald announced the name of each winner, his father and his city. Then a judge placed a crown made of an olive branch on the winner’s head. The olive branch was considered significant, because it was believed the olive trees at Olympia had been planted by the hero Herakles.
Victors were welcomed back to their home cities as heroes. They could expect banquets in their honor, exemption from paying taxes, statutes erected in their honor and poems written about their exploits. The real prize for athletes was eternal fame.
Penalties for Rule Breakers
Rules were rarely broken. When they were, penalties included fines, flogging and exclusion from future games. Fines were paid to the Temple of Zeus. If the offender could not afford the fine, the city he represented was excluded from the next games.
Rule breakers had their names inscribed on the bases of statues of Zeus that led to the stadium called ‘Zanes.’ They were a reminder to future visitors about the identity of rule-breakers and a warning to all.
While Ryan Lochte did not cheat or break any rules at the last Olympics, I can’t help but think that his bad behavior goes against the spirit of the ancient Olympics. Rather being flogged or having his name inscribed on a statue, he’ll lose his advertising endorsements, which I suppose is the modern equivalent of being fined.
While I still enjoy watching the Olympics, I can’t help but think that something has been lost over the ages. Yes, there is still the athletic competition. Just not the same spirit.