Looking at the images of this year’s Olympics it is hard to believe that this great celebration of sport was once just a part of a local religious event. Even though the Olympic games were first recorded in 776 BC, they are believed to date back to 13th century when people of Olympia– a valley near the city of Elis – gathered to worship the most powerful of Greek gods, Zeus, and organised sports competitions in his honour. Little did they know that ages later their tradition would turn into an outstanding festival, which attracts hundreds of athletes and millions of viewers worldwide.
Among numerous Greek myths there’s one explaining the origin of this spectacular event. The myth tells a story of Hercules, one of the most distinctive characters of Greek mythology, who happened to win a race in Elis. To commemorate his victory he demanded that such a race was re-enacted every four years from that day on. In this way running races became the first sports discipline of the Olympics. It was yet Iphitus, the king of Elis, who turned this local religious event into a broader one in 884 BC. To achieve it he decided to consult rulers of nearby Greek cities and established a temporary truce. This meant suspension of wars and banning armies from Elis, where the Olympics were held, so that both athletes and spectators could travel to Olympia safely. Along with those restrictions came prohibiting legal disputes and carrying out death penalties in Elis. Hardly anyone dared to violate the Olympic truce, and if they did, punishment was severe: heavy fines and banning citizens of whole cities from the Olympics.
As a religious feast the Olympic games hadn’t been that much of a sports event until the 7th century BC, when many new sports disciplines were being introduced: pancracium (a mix of boxing and wrestling) in 748, pentathlon in 708, boxing in 688 and chariot racing in 680. Finally, as a result of further development, there were 23 different sports disciplines at the Olympic games. However, just a few of them were chosen every four years, so that the spectators wouldn’t get bored with the same scheme. As presented on ancient Greek pottery, contestants were naked when competing with one another. Yet it was only in 720 BC when athletes’ nudity, as a mark of equality, became obligatory.
Greek Olympics lost much of their splendour under the Romans, when they became cruel gladiatorial contests with slaves fighting each other. Eventually, in 394 AD they were officially announced illegal by Theodosius the Great and remained forgotten until the end of 19th century.
As a part of a five-day religious festival, the games themselves were organised in honour of Zeus, whose 13-metre-high statue covered in gold and ivory standing once in Olympia was considered to have been one of the wonders of the world. Accompanied by fair, various religious ceremonies such as thanksgiving, philosophers’ speeches, poetry recitals, parades and banquets, they attracted visitors from the whole Mediterranean region. Many of them were merchants, craftsmen and food vendors, who made fortunes providing the crowds with whatever was needed. Yet shortage of water was always a serious problem and so was poor accommodation – only the wealthy and athletes could afford to stay in pavilions or tents.
As Olympia was considered to be dedicated to Zeus, it was a sacred area for men. Thus women were banned from the Olympics. Nevertheless they had their own sports event called Heraia – in honour of Hera, Zeus’s wife and patron goddess of the home. Yet the only sports discipline practised there was running.
For ancient Greeks training was a basic part of education, though many respectable philosophers, such as Aristotle, put more emphasis on intellectual development. They claimed that it should be separated from training, as it is impossible for a boy to focus on both. It was believed that the 3-year period after puberty should be devoted to other activities and that over - training was detrimental to one’s health and thus should be avoided.
Some athletes, most often affluent ones, had professional coaches, adhered to training programmes and followed dietary instructions – just as today’s sportsmen. Yet they competed as individuals, not representatives of particular cities, and for the glory of achievement and not money. Cheating – such as bribery – was infrequent and if discovered brought infamy and was severely punished. Bribers were obviously made to pay a fine and the money was used to make bronze statues of Zeus with detailed description of offences. Athletes used to show up in Elis a month before the event so that they could undergo religious rituals as well as spiritual, moral and, most importantly, physical training. All of them were freeborn Greeks and participated in the Olympics under oath that they hadn’t committed any sacrilege against gods.
Successful contestants were commonly treated like heroes ever after the Olympics. They didn’t only get free meals, cash and tax breaks once they had returned to their home cities, but they were also considered leaders of local communities, memorialised in statues and victory odes. Along with most respectable citizens they could expect to be given special places in the theatre and invitations to different banquets.
Ancient Greece developed 23 sports altogether. Most of them will sound familiar to present-day sports fans: boxing, jumping, wrestling, running. But such as chariot racing, discus, pentathlon, pencracium and running in armour require further explanation.
Chariot racing was probably the most spectacular sports discipline of ancient Greece and attracted thousands of spectators. Introduced around 680 BC, it involved 2 or 4 horses and its length was about 9 miles. As maintenance of horses was very expensive, the crown of victory automatically belonged to their owner, not the contestant.
Discus, portrayed as a sports discipline on numerous pieces of ancient Greek pottery, impressed with rhythm and precision it involved, not necessarily with strength. Yet as discus itself was made of stone or iron, only athletes of outstanding stamina could practise this kind of sport.
Pentathlon, along with running in armour (consisting of a helmet, a shield and greaves), was inarguably one of the most gruelling sports of the Olympics. It involved discus, javelin, jumping, running and wrestling and was admired by Aristotle who devoted a part of his "Rhetoric" to this discipline.
Pencracium, for a change, would certainly be considered cruel these days. It was actually a mix of boxing and wrestling and only biting and gauging the opponent’s eyes were outlawed. Surprisingly, breaking his fingers was commonly admired and meant victory.
Still, the Olympic games were more than a religious or sports event. As rulers, politicians and philosophers came flocking to participate, Elis was the place where political alliances were announced and negotiating took place. Once the Olympic truce had been established, the city of Elis became Greek common basis for peace and, consequently, there was no better place to discuss political issues.