Olympic Games, Ancient. Encyclopedia of World Sport

The ancient Olympic Games, known to us from ancient
literature and art and from modern archaeology, were
the oldest and most prestigious athletic competition of
antiquity. The greatest writer of victory odes for athletes, Pindar (518–438 B.C.E.) wrote that Olympia is to
other games as the sun is to the stars; there is no more
glorious “place of festival” than Olympia. However they
have inspired the modern Olympics, the ancient games
must be seen in their own ancient Greek cultural context. Despite common misperceptions, the ancient
Olympics differed from their modern counterpart in
organization, events, and ideology. The ancient
Olympics are important in their own right, not merely
as an anachronistic model or moral touchstone for the
modern Games.
With sacred rituals and wreaths of olive leaves as
prizes, the ancient Olympic Games were part of a great
religious festival (a regular gathering for worship and
celebration) in honor of Zeus, the Greeks’ chief god,
held every four years in late summer at the same site,
the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia. The festival was crucial in providing a regular, hallowed context for games,
helping the games last for well over a thousand years as
the most enduring of Greek institutions. Until unified
by Macedon in 338 B.C.E., ancient Greece was not a single nation politically but rather a host of small, fiercely
independent city-states, but the Greeks recognized
their language, their mythology, and their Panhellenic
(all-Greek) Olympics as vital to their ethnicity, their
Greekness. At the games of Zeus Greeks assembled to
venerate their gods, to enjoy elite competition, and to
appreciate their common culture. The Olympics even
provided the classical Greeks with a shared chronology,
for happenings were dated by reference to years of the
games. Each set of games was named after the winner
in the men’s sprint race, and an “Olympiad” was one set
of games or the interval between the close of one
games and the start of the next.
Earlier cultures had sports (physical rituals, recreations, competitions), but the Greeks remain distinctive for their institutionalization of athletics (public,
intensely competitive physical contests) with regular
festivals and prizes. The earliest Greeks, the militaristic
Mycenaeans of the Bronze Age, seem to have held athletic contests, possibly with valuable prizes, as part of
funeral practices in the second millennium B.C.E.
Homer offers the earliest and greatest account of Greek
athletics in the funeral games of Patroklos in Book 23
of the Iliad. Probably composed or compiled in the 8th
century B.C.E., Homer’s poems contain no clear reference to Olympic Games. This and a host of conflicting
and suspect ancient traditions make the origins of the
Olympics uncertain. The later grandeur of the Games
understandably inflated notions of their antiquity and
emergence. Literary and speculative sources say that
Herakles founded the games to honor Zeus or that they
were established by the legendary King Pelops from
Asia Minor, who won a chariot race against the local
king, Oinomaos of Pisa. Traditions also speak of a refounding or reorganization of the Games during the
Greek Dark Age (around the 9th century B.C.E.).
Archaeology suggests that major games were not an
original part of early festivals at Olympia. By various
interpretations the earliest contests at Olympia were
held as sacred rituals, funeral games, offerings to gods, initiations, or reenactments of myths or heroic labors.
Olympia was the site of a local and rustic Zeus cult by
the 10th century B.C.E., and games may simply have
emerged gradually and naturally. Historically, the traditional date of 776 refers not to the first Games but to
the first attested Olympic victor, Koroibos of Elis, victor
in the stadion, a sprint of around 200 meters (218
yards), the only event in the earliest Games. Although
the reliability of the earliest entries in the Olympic Victor List compiled by later ancient authors has been
challenged, the date of 776 is probably still acceptable
if referring to a rather limited and localized contest.
The growing number and expense of dedications (gifts
to the gods) of metal objects (statuettes and vessels)
suggest increased activity in the 8th century, especially
around 725–700. Recent archaeology of the site and of
wells dug near the stadium area suggests that major
games developed around 700 and were expanded in
680 with the addition of equestrian events. In the Archaic Age (roughly 750–500 B.C.E.) patronage by city
states and tyrants (autocratic leaders), such as Pheidon
of Argos, enhanced the games. When colonization
spread Greeks all over the Mediterranean basin, the
colonies cherished the games as ties to the motherland.
The 6th century saw a great expansion and spread of
Greek athletic festivals, and by the early 5th century
Olympia emerged as the pinnacle of a circuit (the Periodos) of four great Panhellenic crown games. Modeled on
Olympia, Pindar’s “mother of contests,” with wreath
prizes and competitions open to all Greeks, the other
games, at Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea, were held in a set
sequence, with at least one festival each year leading up
to the Olympics as the finale. In the Classical Era
(roughly 500–323 B.C.E.) the Greeks reveled in their athleticism and Olympia’s facilities were expanded (see below). In the 4th century and the Hellenistic Era (323–31
B.C.E.) the Macedonian kings, beginning with Philip II
and Alexander the Great, patronized but also politicized
Olympia. The financial needs of the early Games had
been modest,and,for religious reasons,the Games never
had admission fees; but the later, more elaborate facilities and Games depended on benefactions and contributions. After the Roman general Sulla pillaged the site
in 85 B.C.E., the Greeks honored Herod of Judea as president of the Games in 12 B.C.E. for his financial help. The
Games adjusted to the wider imperial circumstances of
the Roman Empire as some emperors were supportive,
but Nero in 67 B.C.E. made a travesty of one inappropriately delayed set of Games by collecting fraudulent victories in irregular musical contests and a 10-horse chariot race held for his benefit. The Games were disrupted
by the invasion of the Germanic Herulians in 267 B.C.E.
but continued into the Late Roman Empire. The Games
endured and perished as part of a pagan festival: in 393
C.E. the Christian emperor Theodosius I ordered the
closing of pagan cults and centers, and in 462 Theodosius II ordered the destruction of all pagan temples, but
the Games continued until around 500 C.E.
Site and Facilities
The permanent home of the ancient Olympics was an
isolated religious sanctuary on the Alpheios River in
the territory of the state of Elis in southwestern Greece.
Not a city, it lay about 58 kilometers (36 miles) from the
city of Elis. Damaged by earthquakes, floods, and humans in antiquity and then abandoned and silted over
for centuries, the site was discovered in the 18th century and later systematically excavated by German
teams from 1875 on. Archaeology has revealed the history of the site, and the author Pausanias, who visited
Olympia around 160–170 C.E., left a detailed and accurate account of what he saw. The area of the earliest
constructions and the enduring center of the site was
the Altis or sacred precinct of Zeus, marked by a low
wall. Early simple cultic arrangements included openair altars, notably the great altar of Zeus, shrines, and
places for dedications among the sacred grove of trees.
At Olympia the gods came first, then the athletes, and,
last but not least, the spectators.
From the 7th century B.C.E. on, the sanctuary became embellished with architectural and artistic marvels.After the construction of the archaic Doric Temple
of Hera, wife of Zeus, around 625, treasuries (small
temples and storehouses) were built around 600 by
city-states, especially colonies. The famous Doric Temple of Zeus (ca. 470–456) came to house a colossal
statue of Zeus (ca. 430) by Phidias, hailed as one of the
seven wonders of the ancient world. There were also facilities for priests and officials (Prytaneion, Bouleuterion), other shrines and temples (Metröon, Shrine of
Pelops), and various stoas (covered colonnades). The
Philippeion was added in the later 4th century B.C.E. as
a shrine for heroized Macedonian kings. The arrangements of the Altis were largely set by the late 4th century, but the site acquired further benefactions, renovations, and political monuments. Over time the site
became cluttered with dedications (even of weapons
and war trophies) and statues—Pausanias mentions
some 200.
Athletic facilities grew slowly around the periphery
of the Altis. Except for equestrian events, contests took
place in the stadium, but even in its later phases this most venerated venue of Greek sport was surprisingly
modest to modern minds. One theory places one end of
the early racecourse at an altar within the Altis, but the
exact location of the earliest stadium remains uncertain. Nearby wells dug about 700 and a retaining wall
(of around 550) for an low embankment on the south
indicate an archaic stadium extending from the eastern
edge of the Altis. A stadium built around 500, perhaps
slightly further east, had a higher south embankment.
Reflecting adjustments to the growth of the Games
rather than a dramatic secularization of athletics, the
next stadium was shifted 12 meters to the north and 75
meters further east around 475–450. This stadium had
embankments on the south, north, and west, a capacity
of around 40,000, and a track about 212 by 28.5 meters
with start lines (in narrow slabs of stone) 192.28 meters apart. In the mid-4th century B.C.E. the stadium
was further closed off from the sanctuary by the Stoa of
Echo. The vaulted ceremonial entrance, the Krypte, formerly seen as a later addition of the 2nd century, may
be from the later 4th century. The Olympic stadium was
in use, with Hellenistic and Roman renovations, for
several centuries but it had no assigned and no stone
seating, except for a small area for officials, and water
was provided only by small channels at the edge of the
track. Similarly, there were no formal accommodations
for spectators at Olympia; southwest of the Altis the
Leonidaion of the 4th century B.C.E. was a guest house
for dignitaries only.
Lying to the south of the stadium, the Hippodrome,
the racecourse for horses and chariots, is unexcavated,
but Pausanias says the track was 2 stades or 400 meters
long with two turning posts and elaborate starting
gates added in the mid-5th century. The earliest training areas at Olympia were so simple as to have left no
remains except some bathing facilities of the 5th century to the northwest of the Altis. In this area the
Palaestra, a small square colonnaded area specifically
for practicing combat events, was built in the 3rd century B.C.E. Nearby was the Gymnasium, whose literal
meaning is “a place where people are nude,” but which
functionally was a site for practicing track and field
events. Added in the 2nd century B.C.E., this was a large
rectangular facility with an open central court, running
tracks, stoas on each side, and a monumental entrance.
Operation and Administration
Lacking our penchant for records and statistics, the administration of the ancient Games was, by our standards, very limited and authoritarian. The classical
Games were supervised by highly revered officials (10
by the mid-4th century) called the “judges of the
Greeks,” the Hellanodikai, nobles chosen from the state
of Elis who took an oath to be fair. Assisted by priests,
whip-bearers, and crowd monitors, as referees and censors they controlled the preparations and decorum of
athletes, decisions of victory, and prize giving. Their orders and judgments were absolute and irrevocable.
Conspicuous for their purple robes and the forked
sticks they carried, the judges could expel, fine, or
scourge athletes for cheating or lying. Inscriptions
show that even as early as the 6th century they had to
enforce rules against foul play in wrestling. Bribery and
fraud among athletes was forbidden, but it took place,
for Greek athletes were as human as modern ones. Beginning in 388 B.C.E., several bronze statues of Zeus, the
Zanes, paid for by fines imposed on athletes, flanked
the route to the stadium and bore inscriptions warning
against corruption.
Before each Games, heralds from Elis spread
throughout Greece announcing the upcoming Games,
inviting athletes, spectators, and missions of gift-bearing envoys from Greek states, and proclaiming a sacred
truce. Initially of one and later three months’ duration,
the truce forbade the entry of armies into Elean territory and ordered safe passage through any state for all
travelers to and from the Games, in effect as religious
pilgrims. The orator Lysias said the Games were
founded to promote Panhellenic friendship, but the
truce has been romanticized. It did not stop wars:
Sparta was fined for attacking Elean territory in 420,
and Arcadians even invaded the sanctuary in 364.
Program of Events
For 50 years after 776 the earliest games had only the
stadion but thereafter the program expanded before
settling down to a fairly stable list of events by the late
6th century. Events were introduced as follows: 724, diaulos (double race of 400 meters down and back); 720,
dolichos (long race of 20–24 lengths); 708, pentathlon
and wrestling; 688, boxing; 680, tethrippon (four-horse
chariot race of 12 laps); 648, pankration (all-in
wrestling) and keles (horseback race of 6 laps); 632,
boys’ stadion and wrestling; 628, boys’ pentathlon (discontinued thereafter); 616, boys’ boxing; 520, hoplitodromos (race in armor, down and back); 500, apene
(mule cart race); 496, kalpe or anabates (race for mares
and dismounting riders; the kalpe and apene were
dropped in 444); 408, synoris (two-horse chariot race of
8 laps); 396, contests for heralds and trumpeters; 384,
four-colt chariot race; 268, two-colt chariot race; 256,
races for colts; 200, boys’ pankration.
The exact sequence of activities remains uncertain,
but clearly by the 5th century athletic contests and religious rituals were intermingled over a five-day festival.
Probably the first day saw the oath ceremony, boys’
events, prayers and sacrifices; day two saw a procession
of competitors and contests in the equestrian events,
then the pentathlon; day three (that of the full moon)
was central with a procession of judges, ambassadors,
athletes, the main sacrifice (of 100 oxen) to Zeus,
footraces, and a public feast; day four was wholly athletic with combat events and the race in armor (the hoplitodromos); day five saw the procession and crowning
of victors, feasting, and celebrations. With related activities, including recitations, merchandising (for example, the selling of food and of artisanal wares such
as votive figures) and personal and diplomatic partying and posturing, the festival took on the air of a medieval fair or a modern sporting spectacle, but it was
never completely secularized.
Dramatically described by Homer and lavishly depicted in vase paintings, Greek athletic events demanded speed, strength, and stamina. The oldest and
simplest contests, the footraces began with an auditory
start as athletes stood upright with their toes in
grooves in the stone starting sill. Judges assigned lanes
by lot and flogged any false starters. On a straight track,
longer races required that athletes run down and back,
turning around wooden posts. Of events with military
overtones, the hoplite race run with helmets and
shields is the most obvious. The pentathlon consisted
of five contests: a jump, the discus, the javelin, a run,
and wrestling. The method of scoring remains debated
but there was no complicated system of points.
Combat sports were called “heavy” contests because, without weight classes, rounds, or time limits,
heavier athletes dominated. In these events in uneven
fields an athlete might be allotted a bye and sit out as
an ephedros (the term for those waiting for a turn to
compete), gaining an advantage in the next round.
Fouls or indications of lethargy were met with blows of
the judge’s stick. Wrestlers used an array of sophisticated holds and throws, and matches were decided by
three of five falls (touching an opponent’s back or
shoulders to the ground, tying him up in a confining
hold, or stretching him prone) or by submission. Boxers bound their hands with leather thongs, and victories were achieved when an opponent was knocked out
or submitted. The pankration or “all powerful” combat
was a brutal free-for-all combining boxing and
wrestling. Sometimes wearing light boxing thongs,
pankratiasts could punch, kick, and choke; only biting
and gouging were forbidden. Bouts continued until one
athlete gave up or was incapacitated. A thrice-victorious mid-4th-century pankratiast, Sostratos of Sikyon,
was famous for breaking the fingers of opponents.
There are stories of deaths and even a posthumous victory: before expiring in a stranglehold, Arrhachion of
Phigaleia is said to have dislocated his opponent’s ankle, forcing him to submit to a dead but victorious man
in 564 B.C.E. Athletes who unintentionally killed opponents had legal immunity.
The equestrian events were the most spectacular,
for keeping horses in poor and rocky Greece was a
proverbial sign of wealth. The owners, not the drivers,
were declared the victors in these contests.Young jockeys rode horses bareback, and chariot races were even
more hazardous as large fields of 40 or more entries of
light, two-wheeled, wooden chariots raced over 12 laps
and made sharp hairpin turns. Owners did not have to
drive their own teams and usually hired drivers, a circumstance allowing Alkibiades of Athens to enter 7
teams in 416. Owners did not even need to be present,
thus allowing even female victors. Kyniska, daughter of
a Spartan king, won the tethrippon in 396 and 392 B.C.E.
At their best, ancient Olympians showed dedication to
their gods, families, and countries, performing magnificently while upholding ideals of endurance, humility,
and moderation. Admittedly, Greek athletes were obsessed with individual first-place victory. Homer
claimed there was “no greater glory” than that won by
hands and feet, and Pindar said athletic victory was
“the grandest height to which mortals can aspire,” as
close to immortality as a Greek could come. Participation was not enough: Pindar writes of embarrassed
losers sneaking home.An uncontested victory when an
athlete faced no challengers was rare, and most victories were hard ones, long sought and much celebrated.
Ancient Olympians represented many Greek states
but only one Greek culture. Competitors had to be free
(non-slave), male Greeks (non-“barbarians,” although
Romans were permitted later) not otherwise excluded
by grave religious sin or Olympic sanctions. Early
Games drew locally and Sparta dominated, but with the
age of colonization athletes came from the Black Sea to
North Africa. Southern Italy and Sicily became prominent, as did Alexandria later in the Hellenistic Era.Athletes usually represented their native states but they
could declare themselves as representatives of other
states. The runner Astylos won races for Kroton in
southern Italy in 488 and again in 484, but in 480 he won for Syracuse in Sicily, supposedly to honor his
friend, Hieron, tyrant of Syracuse. Athletes swore a
solemn oath that they would abide by the rules and that
they had been in continuous training for the previous
10 months. Subject to the judges’ estimation of their
physical maturity, athletes were eligible for boys’ events
from age 12 on but were excluded at 18 or perhaps 19.
All athletes (and trainers) in the stadium, and jockeys
but not charioteers in the hippodrome, competed nude.
Ancient explanations about safety or advantages for
speed aside, nudity was of cultic rather than practical
origin. Except for one priestess of Demeter, women
were barred from Olympia during the Games, ostensibly on pain of death, although one woman from a famous athletic family discovered on site was spared. At
separate times, however, the site housed contests for females in the quadrennial Heraia, the Games of Hera.
Famous athletes were glorified even to the point of
cultic hero worship, and ancient Olympians inspired
many tall tales. The famous Milo of Kroton had six
Olympic wins (boys’ wrestling in 536, then 5 men’s by
516) among his 31 in the Periodos, the circuit of Panhellenic crown games, over a career of at least 24 years.
He is said to have eaten 18 kilograms (40 pounds) of
meat and bread and 7.5 liters (8 quarts) of wine at one
setting, and to have carried, killed, and then consumed
a four-year-old bull. Supposedly he could hold a pomegranate in his fist and not bruise it even as others tried
to pry it from his hand, and he could burst a cord tied
about his forehead merely by the strength of his veins
when he held his breath. Theagenes of Thasos, who
won the pankration (476) and boxing (480) at Olympia,
claimed some 1,400 wins in his long and much-traveled career.
Scholars debate the historical continuity or changes
in the social origins of the ancient Olympians. Traditional views of an early golden age of pure, noble competitors have been challenged. Specialized training,
professional coaching, excesses, and profit came early.
Greeks had neither the concept nor a word for amateurism in the elitist 19th-century sense of banning
material profit from sport. From the start, athletes of all
classes accepted material as well as symbolic prizes
and rewards. On site at Olympia victors won only a
wreath of olive leaves, an intrinsically priceless gift
picked from Zeus’s sacred trees, along with ceremonial
decorations and honors (fillets of wool, sprigs of vegetation, the herald’s proclamation, and the right to establish a statue in the Altis). On his homecoming, however, a victor received extrinsic benefits, such as cash
bonuses, free meals, and honorary seats at theaters and
public gatherings for life. By the 6th century Athens
gave its Olympic victors monetary rewards of 500
drachmas (about $340,000).
Beyond the Periodos many games with valuable
material prizes (such as money, cloaks, olive oil) were
available, and seeing prizes as gifts rather than wages,
athletes competed wherever they wanted. The door was
open for middle-class and even poor athletes, but those
with family resources still had advantages for the required time, travel, and training under instruction. Financial subsidization of athletes is attested from
around 300 B.C.E. on, but the dramatic record of archaic
Kroton, whose runners won over 40 percent of the victories in the Olympic stadion from 588 to 484, may have
involved civic intervention. By Hellenistic times at the
latest, Greek athletics knew most aspects of modern
professionalism; guilds of professional athletes existed
from about 50 B.C.E. and were later subsidized by Roman emperors.
Like their modern counterparts, critics of ancient
athletics found material for satire but had no effect.
The 6th-century philosopher Xenophanes said that
honors and rewards should go to intellectuals rather
than athletes, and a fragment of Euripides’ lost Autolykos from around 420 lampooned athletes, “the
worst of the thousand ills of Greece,” as musclebound
gluttons, uncouth, useless, and parasitical members of
the community. Although he wished otherwise, Plato
admitted that most Greeks saw the life of Olympic victors as the happiest.