One of the best known aspects of ancient Greek culture
is the Olympic games. The Greek games lasted for only twelve centuries,
but they started a legacy that is continued today. Our modern sports
are modeled after those of the original Greek Olympics, have modified many
rules, and eliminated some sports altogether. The ancient games had
many similarities and differences from the modern games, but the overall
philosophy of peace and fair competition has remained the same.
Every four years, the world comes together in a celebration of competition. In the spirit of the Ancient Olympics games, the Modern Olympics have tried to bring people of different colors, creeds, and countries into an atmosphere of peace. Unfortunately, the harmony of that atmosphere was not always achieved. In 1976, terrorists killed the entire Israeli team of athletes. Also, in 1980 the United States chose to boycott the games in protest of East Germany’s choice to disallow certain people. However, the Olympic games of antiquity experienced their own problems, which were similar to those of its modern counterpart.
The modern tradition to have the Olympic games every four years originated from the Greek games. The first recorded Olympics were held in 776 BC and continued for the next twelve centuries, with the last record games in 393 AD. They were held in Olympia, but athletes from every city-state in the Greek world came to compete. This often included areas as far away as modern day Spain and Turkey (Fine 93).
Originally, the games were held as part of a religious festival honoring the Greek god Zeus. All those who came to Olympia shared the same religious beliefs and spoke the same language; in addition they were all male. However, the most important quality shared by the competitors was the desire to win. As today, the athletes represented their home, and knew that with winning would come pride. Sometimes this came at any cost.
The events included in the ancient Olympics were similar to those of today. The first event ever held was the Stadion. Runners sprinted one length of the stadium, which stretched 192 meters. This became known as a “stade.” In later games, races of two to twenty four stades were held. One unique race the Greeks held was one we do not have today. This was a four-stade run in full hoplite armor, which weighed 50-60 pounds. Little is known about the participation of women in the Olympics. However, it is believe that along side the games were contests for unmarried women. These included only foot races (Kieran 12).
Other popular events included boxing, wrestling and the Pankration. The latter of these three was a combination of boxing and wrestling. The only rules were to ban biting and eye gouging. In boxing, the opponents wrapped their hands with leather thongs and fought until one man fell. In wrestling, competitors attempted to throw their opponents to their back. Three throws were required to win a match. Common to all of these sports, the only divisions were men and boys.
This stone was used by the weight lifter Bybon. The instription reads "Bybon son of Phola, has lifted me over [his] head with one hand." It weighs 316 lbs, and is made of sandstone.
In addition to the individual sports was a Pentathlon. This was comprised of a discus throw, javelin throw, jumping, running, and wrestling. This discus and the javelin were not very different from those of today, however jumping was. Jumpers would carry stone weights, which would be thrown behind them in the descent of their jump, which gave them added propulsion.
Two events that came later on in the history of the Olympics were the Equestrian. These events included chariot races (two and four horse races of 9 miles), and riding (4.5 miles). The victory prize was given to the owner of the horse, because it was he who paid for feed and training. In 416 BC, Alcibiades, an Athenian general, entered seven horses in one race. He managed to take first, second, third and fourth places (Martin 46).
The prizes won in the events were strictly symbolic. For example, an olive wreath was give to the winner of the equestrian events. However, each athlete’s home city-state gave him a reward for victory. This included free meals for the rest of the athlete’s life, and cash bonuses. For this reason, athletes began to specialize in certain events. An athlete named Astylos was the first known “free-agent” in the Olympic games. He won races in 488 and 484 BC for Kroton, and then again in 480 for Syracuse. By the sixth century, theories had evolved regarding training and diet. One wrestler from Italy was known to have eaten 40 pounds of meat and eight quarts of wine in one sitting (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Olympics/).
The games often became fiercely political because of the competition between city-states. However, for every Olympiad, an Olympic Truce was called. This granted athletes, officials, and spectators safety when traveling to and from the games. The games also became very commercial. Because an athlete who won more than three events was allowed to have his statue placed in the Temple of Zeus, sculptors were hired to create these stone carvings. Poets were also hired by the athletes’ families to write epics of the Olympics (Kieran 16).
Despite the integrity of the ancient Olympic games, cheating still found a place. The most famous story of cheating in the games comes from 67 AD when Nero held a ten-horse chariot race in his honor. Despite falling from his chariot and not finishing the race, Nero was still declared the winner. In another case, a boxer in 388 BC bribed his opponents to lose.
Cheating came with a price however. Starting in the sixth century, judges began making rules against cheating in wrestling, and all athletes were required to take an oath assuring that the rules were followed. In addition, whipping punished a false start in a foot race. Enough fines were collected from lying, cheating and bribery that in the fourth century gold statues of Zeus were built to line the route to the stadium (Kieran 16).
The ancient Olympic games offered much more than just sport to the world. The games brought advances in architecture, art, and poetry. Sculptors began to include motion and athleticism in their work, for example Myron's famous statue of the Discus Thrower. The temple of Zeus, one of the largest temples built in Greece, was designed so that the spacing between columns was proportional to their height. Euclid mentions this ideal ratio in his great book Elements (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Olympics/).
In 1896, the first modern Olympics were held. Today we celebrate the games in much the same fashion as the Greeks celebrated theirs. The Olympics give us a chance to come together as one world in friendly and healthy competition. As one Persian military officer observed “It is not for money they contend but for glory of achievement!” (Herodotus 8.26).
Fine, John V. A. “The Ancient Greeks: A Critical History.” Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1983.
Herodotus. “The Histories.” Blanco, Walter; Roberts, Jennifer T. Norton and Company Inc. New York and London, 1992.
Kieran, John; Daley, Arthur Daley. “The Story of the Olympic Games: 776 BC to 1972.” J.B. Lippincott Co. Philadelphia and New York, 1973.
Martin, Thomas R. “Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times.” Yale University Press. New Haven and London, 1996.
Poliakoff Michael. “Competition, Violence, and Culture. Combat Sports in the Ancient World.” Yale University Press. New Haven and London, 1987.
“1000 Years of the Olympic Games: Treasures of Ancient Greece.” Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Athens. http://www.phm.gov.au/ancient_greek_olympics/ - Offers multimedia view of the ancient games. Features include an interactive timeline, and a virtual tour of ancient greece.
Indiana University. “The Ancient City of Athens.” http://www.indiana.edu/~kglowack/athens/ - This site contains information on Greek topography and monuments.
“Olympics Through Time.” Division of Information Infrastructure. Knoxville, Tennessee. http://sunsite.utk.edu/special/olympics/classical/ - Includes information on ancient sports as well as the olympics.
Tufts University. Perseus Project Classics Department. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Olympics/ - Contains information of Olympics sports, spirit, and stories of ancient athletes.
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “The Real Story of the Ancient Olympic Games.” http://www.upenn.edu/museum/Olympics/olympicorigins.html - Answers common questions about the games, including the women's role and the amature/professional debate.