Every four years, the Olympics are viewed in part by several billion people. Almost every country sends participants to try to bring home the gold and be placed on the map. This Olympic tradition was revived in the late 1800’s, and originates with the Greeks almost three thousand years ago, probably around 776 B.C. Several centuries after the birth of Christ, the Romans put an end to the games. The Olympic tradition lasted at least a thousand years, and was most popular during the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. The games were carried out for a period plenty long enough to allow for plenty of written accounts to be recorded, from which we can study the Ancient Olympics today.
The Events
On the first day of each Olympic festival, no competitions were held, for the day was devoted to sacrifices. Then on day two, footraces were held in the stadion, an oblong area enclosed by sloping hills of earth. Historians are not sure about the order of events after that, but several other competitions were traditionally held.
Boxing was a popular Olympic sport, which was much cruder than boxing today. Few rules governed boxing, which allowed for striking a downed opponent. There were no weight classes, for matches were determined at random. Himantes, pieces of leather wrapped around the hand, were used instead of gloves.
Very much a sport of the wealthy, chariot racing was also popular. Different levels of competition existed, including racing with two and four horses, and even with two mules. Typically participants rode twelve laps around a track, which equaled about nine miles.
Horse riding usually followed chariot racing. The main difference between riding as we know it today and as it was in ancient Greece is that no stirrups were used. Participants rode for six laps, which was about four and a half miles. Because training was very expensive, the owner of the horse received the olive wreath, which was the ancient equivalent of a gold metal.
Traditionally a pentathlon was held, which consisted of five separate events. The first was discus throwing. In this sport, rhythm and precision were equally as important as strength. The discus was made from stone, iron, bronze, or even lead. It was saucer-shaped, and the sizes varied. Usually young boys used a smaller discus than the men used.
Another pentathlon event was the javelin. The pole was made from wood and was about as long as a man was tall. Usually one end was pointed, and sometimes metal-tipped. Leather was wrapped around the center for precision and distance, do to the spin that was made possible by the leather grip.
An event that we know little about historically is jumping. Participants competed for distance, not height. Often halteres were added, which were lead or stone jump weights.
The oldest Olympic event is running, for it was the only event of the first thirteen Olympiads. There were generally four types of running events, the oldest of which was the single-stade sprint. A stade was the distance of one stadion, about 192 meters. This was followed by a two-stade race, and then a distance race of 7-24 stades. The last running event was the two or four-stade race in armor. Standard hoplite armor was used, which typically weighed about 50-60 pounds, consisting of a helmet, shield, and greaves, or leg armor.
The final pentathlon event was wrestling. The object was to throw the opponent on the ground, so that he lands on his hip, shoulder, or back. It took three such throws to be declared the victor. Basically everything was legal, with the exception of biting and genital holds. Even such acts as breaking fingers were permitted.
One more event was the pankration, which was a very brutal combination of boxing and wrestling. No hand protection at all was used. There was no biting or gouging with finger nails, but all else went. There were men’s and boys’ divisions.
The traditional site of the Olympic games was Olympia, which is where the name comes from. Olympia was green and lush, unlike much of the rest of Greece. While only Greek men could participate in the actual events, people from all over of all classes gathered to take part in the festival, in war and peace.
Several buildings were important to the festival. The Sanctuary of Zeus, the Altis, was the center of religious worship. The Stadium had few stone seats, for spectators sat on the ground. Only officials sat in seats. There were several training facilities. The palaestra was used during the fourth century B.C. by boxers and wrestlers. A gymnasium was built for other general training. The Leonidaion was a hotel for the athletes.
Unlike today, Olympic athletes competed on an individual basis, not as part of their nation’s team. This stemmed from the Greek concept of arête, or the ideal of excellence. Athletes competed for the glory of prevailing, and did not want to suffer the public shame of not being victorious. The Olympics were extremely competitive, just as they are today. Cheating was considered to be much worse than failing. If an athlete was caught cheating, he was fined a large sum. This money was then used to erect a bronze statue of Zeus that was placed on the road to the stadium. On the statue was inscribed the offense, and a warning to anyone else who might consider cheating.
One important aspect of the Olympic festival was the truce, called ekecheiria, or holding of hands. This guaranteed safe travel for all visitors. Wars were suspended during the games. Armies were prohibited from entering Elis or threatening the games. Legal disputes were forbidden while the Olympics took place. Carrying out a death penalty in Greece was also forbidden during the games.
The Olympics were more than just the games. Spectators traveled to Olympus from great distances, rich and poor. Everyone slept outside, for not nearly enough lodging existed to house all of the travelers. Those wealthy enough erected tents and pavilions. There was even a competition among the wealthy to outdo each other. Some of the temporary encampments of the rich were quite extravagant. Also, merchants, craftsmen and food vendors arrived to sell their wares. Speeches by philosophers were attended and religious ceremonies were held. In addition, there was a strong interest in reading poetry, parades, banquets, and victory celebrations.
As the largest event in the world, the Olympics were natural grounds for controversy. There was much political rivalry, boasts, public announcements and humiliations. The Olympics were a religious festival, in honor of the god Zeus. To signify this, 100 oxen were traditionally sacrificed on the middle day of the events. Athletes prayed and gave gifts of produce, small cakes, and animals to the gods. Individuals donated statues, altars, and even entire buildings. An artist named Pheidias even sculpted a statue of Zeus from gold and ivory, and it was placed in the temple. This statue, at 42 feet tall, was one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.
Perhaps the most important part of the Olympic tradition was that it provided a mean of sharing culture and architecture. With people from far and wide gathering to celebrate and discuss the issues together, this naturally led to a communal appreciation for one another that was brought back home. Even the fact that the Greeks could set aside their differences and conflicts to join together in celebration for a time proves that the Greeks were a strong people, perhaps stronger than most people of today.