A Gift of Peace From the Past, the Ancient Olympics
Since 1896, the year the Olympics were resurrected from
ancient history, the Olympics have been a symbol of the
camaraderie and harmony possible on a global scale. The
gathering of athletic representatives, the pride of the
pack, from participating governments, even throughout the
recent Cold War period, is proof that world unity is
possible; just as it was in Ancient Greece with the polis
Olympic Games were held throughout Ancient Greece, but the
most famous are the games that were held in Olympia in
honor of Zeus every four years from August 6th to September
19th. The first record of these games is of one Coroebus of
Elis, a cook, winning a sprint race in 776 BC. Most
historians believe the games to have been going on for
approximately 500 years before this. In the year Coroebus
was made a part of history, there was apparently only one
simple event, a race called the stade. The track was said
to be one stade long or roughly 210 yards.
In subsequent games, additional events were to be added,
most likely to increase the challenge to these amazing
athletes. In 724 BC, the diaulos, a two stade race, was
added, followed by a long distance race, about 2 1/4 miles
and called the dolichos, at the next games four years
later. Wrestling and the famous Pentathlon were introduced
in 708 BC.
The Pentathlon consisted of five events; the long jump,
javelin throw, discus throw, foot race, and wrestling. The
Pentathlons, especially the successful ones, were often
treated and even worshipped like gods. Because of their
exquisite physiques, they were used as the models for
statues of the Greek Gods. The superior athletic ability of
these athletes affects the games even today. The twisting
and throwing method of the discus throw, which originated
in Ancient Greece, is still used today. The original events
were even more challenging than those of today. The modern
discus weighs in at just 5 pounds, one-third of the
original weight, and the long jumps were done with the
contestant carrying a five pound weight in each hand. The
pit to be traversed in this jump allowed for a 50 foot
jump, compared to just over 29 feet in our modern Olympics.
Apparently, the carried weights, used correctly, could
create momentum to carry the athlete further. Legend has it
that one Olympian cleared the entire pit by approximately 5
feet, breaking both legs as he landed.
One significant difference between the modern and ancient
games; the original Olympians competed in the nude. Because
of this, the 45,000 spectators consisted of men and unwed
virgin women only. The only exception to this would be the
priestess of Demeter who was also the only spectator
honored with a seat. The young unwed women were allowed to
watch to introduce them to men in all their splendor and
brutality whereas it was felt that married women should not
see what they could not have. In addition, the virgins had
their own event which occurred on the men's religious day
of rest. Called the Haria, in honor of Hara the wife of
Zeus, the young women would race dressed in a short tunic
which exposed the right breast. Traditionally, Spartan
women dominated this event, being trained from birth for
just this purpose.
The religious undertones of the events became extremely
apparent on the third day of the games when a herd of 100
cows were killed as a sacrifice to Zeus. In actuality, only
the most useless parts were burned in honor of Zeus; most
of the meat would be cooked and eaten that day. The
sacrifices were conducted on a huge cone-shaped alter built
up from the ashes of previously sacrificed animals. The
mound was so large, the Greeks would cut steps into the
cone after discovering it could be hardened by adding water
Another ingenious invention was a system to prevent early
starts in the foot races. It consisted of a bar in front of
the runners to ensure they all start at the same time. This
most likely was viewed as a blessing by the competitors, as
previous to this, they would be beaten by the judges with
rods for an early jump. This system led to the extravagant
mechanisms used for starting the chariot races in 680 BC.
Other introductions to the games were boxing in 688 BC, the
pancratium, a no-holds barred form of wrestling, in 648 BC,
and eventually some events for boys between 632 and 616 BC.
The Olympics of old were entirely a man on man competition.
No records were kept to be broken but a few amazing legends
of the games have survived the test of time. Aegeus, for
instance, was said to have completed his competition and
then to run home to Argos, over 60 miles away, in one day.
Milo, one of the most feared Olympians of Ancient Greece,
was said to have carried a full grown bull to the arena,
butchered it, and ate the entire animal in one day. Not
surprisingly, he was said to have one many a wrestling
match by the forfeiture of his opponent. He also walked
away with six consecutive Olympic crowns.
These legends, for all their blood, sweat, and tears, were
awarded an olive branch from the tree behind the alter of
Zeus when they won. Fortunately, the regions they
represented were usually somewhat more grateful for
bringing honor home. It was not uncommon for the victors to
receive free food for life, money, or other valuable
offers. They were often worshipped as gods and sometimes
their sweat was preserved and sold as a magical potion.
In the later years of the games, an additional event was
added which signaled the end of the games and the return to
the war ridden life of ancient history. Soldiers, adorned
with a full body of armor weighing upwards of 50 pounds,
would compete in a foot race. Unfortunately, even the
apparent athletic ability of these soldiers could not
prevent the fall of Greece to Rome in the middle of the
second century BC. Under Roman rule, the Olympics began to
lose its fervor until it was abolished in 393 AD by the
Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I who most likely
objected to the pagan rites associated with the Olympics.
Some historians believe that even after the official
abolishment of the Olympics, it may have survived for an
additional 120 years. Its subsequent revival in 1896 was
brought about by the discovery of the ancient stadium.
Since that time, it has been held every four years, in
accordance with tradition, being interrupted only for the
two world wars. The competition of the nations in these
events represents the age old competitive spirit of man.
The need for people to take pride in something larger than
themselves and feel as if they are part of a greater good.
The Olympics, today as well as 3,000 years ago, offers a
non-combative environment to do so.