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London Olympics Information » About the Olympics » Ancient Olympics

Ancient Olympics

Earliest records indicate that Olympic Games, as tournaments showcasing various disciplines in sports, were held from 776 BC onwards which continued till 393 AD. These Games were held in honour of Zeus, the supreme god of the Greek pantheon. They were held in Olympia, which was a part of the Elis region of Greece.

There are many myths surrounding the origins of Olympics. There exists one which says that Zeus instated the first Olympic Games in Olympia after the victory on his father, Kronos.

Although, as per recorded history, King Iphitus of Elis established the Games on the recommendation of the Oracle of Delphi in 776 BC, as he aimed to end civil wars and stem the contagion of foreign ideas, which were steadily corrupting the culture of ancient Greece. The priestess advised that institution of Olympic Games would bring about momentous détente.

According to another popular myth, the games were held in honour of Pelops, king of Olympia an eponymic hero of the Peloponnesus.

Participants representing various Grecian states competed in a series of competitions which were held quadrennially (once in every four years) and were referred to as Olympiads. Olympiads were significant in Greek history as these were also a means by which the great civilisation synchronised time.

Organised as the Greeks were, there was a provision of time for athletes to travel from their respective countries with due security. This was known as Olympic Truce, Ekecheiria, which was diligently implemented with suspension of wars and prohibition of armies from disrupting the Games. The news of Truce being implemented before the Olympic celebrations was spread to all the Greek-controlled regions across the globe by specially trained heralds, who also happened to be skilled diplomats and legal advisers to the Elians. The heralds, apart from communicating the date for the start of the Olympic Truce, also had the responsibility of announcing the exact date of the festivals and to invite the citizens to the celebrations. These envoys, or 'spondophori', later came to be known as Truce-bearers. The Truce had its own political relevance as it was during this time that kings and leaders of the ancient Greek confederation from across the seas could meet unarmed, exchange political thoughts and discuss trade.

The archaic fashion was evident in the laurels used to adorn victors, which included olive wreaths, palm branches, and woollen ribbons. However, records and paintings on relics indicate the athletes competed 'gymnos', the Greed word for 'naked'. Olive wreath was bestowed upon the winner, inherited from one of the symbols of the god Apollo, perhaps as a constant reminder that a lot was expected of its conferee and that he was an embodiment of the highest contemporary moral values. The palm branch and woollen ribbon were awarded as insigne for a well-deserved victory.

Olympia, the impressive site where the Games were held, was a sanctuary which had temples of Greek gods and goddesses such as Zeus, Hera and Rhea. It was located in the North Western Peloponnese peninsula at the junction of Alpheios and Kladeos Rivers. It was and still is a fertile and sylvan region enclosed by hills, thick with vegetation. Olympia during those times was a one square kilometre area which housed administrative offices, accommodation for visitors, a running track and a horse track. The imposing temple of Zeus was the dominating feature of Olympia with all other important buildings surrounding it. The ancient stadium, capable of accommodating over 40,000 spectators, was surrounded by ancillary buildings which were erected to house training facilities for the athletes or to accommodate the judges of the Games.

All free and unpunished Greek men belonging to any of the Greek city-states were allowed to participate in the sporting events. Duration of the Games was for only five days, but the athletes had to come one month prior to train themselves under the 'hellanodikai' or judge of the Greeks. A competitor was required to have undergone preparation training for a minimum of ten months in his home and a month at Olympia. Women and slaves were strictly forbidden to even watch the events, and an offender was thrown down from Mt. Typaeon. Barbarians were permitted to watch the games but were not allowed to compete. Olympia remained the only venue throughout the duration of the Games, unlike present day Games which have multiple sites for different disciplines.

Athletic training was an important part in every Greek boy's schooling, and any youth excelling in sports could set his eyes on participation in the mega-event. The significance of early athletic training was echoed in Plato's laws which say that athletics improve military skills. In order to qualify for final matches at the Games, contenders had to pass preliminary heats. The athletes hired professional coaches, as they sought the highest level of training. Apart from supervising a rigorous training schedule, the trainers also ensured balance between a particular type of physical exercise and the corresponding diet.

It seems that the Olympic contenders continued with their professions and did not dedicate their full-time to training. Records mention the case of Philonides, a versatile athlete from Chersonesus in Crete, who won the pentathlon, which included discus, javelin, long jump, and wrestling competitions as well as running. He was also a courier during Alexander's rule. Coroebus, a runner and a cook by profession, was the first ever Olympic champion who won the sole event at the Games of those times, the stade. The stade was a run of approximately 192 meters (210 yards). The winners were taken care of well for the rest of their lives with free meals, cash, tax breaks and appointments to important positions in their communities. The victors were venerated with erection of their statues with victory odes inscribed on them.

During their training period, the athletes strictly abstained from many pleasures. They stayed away from sex, as it was widely believed that conservation of sperm would enhance masculinity and strength. The diet which athletes followed was heavy in protein content, and hence, fish was the main food alongside other nutritious and carbohydrate-rich foods like bread or corn-porridge with a side-dish, which included fresh vegetables, olives, cheese or dried figs. Meat and sweets were avoided except at feasts after sacrifices. However, Pythagoras, who himself was a vegetarian, recommended meat to athletes for muscle growth. Athletes were free to use all kinds of herbal potions recommended by their trainers during injury, and the concept of real doping or performance-enhancing through drugs did not exist because no potions or medicine were prohibited. Ancient athletes were a superstitious lot, and they tried to curse their opponents with black magic for underperformance. Thus, the only psychotropic technique that judges took a strong objection about was sorcery.

Many multi-skilled athletes graced the occasion with their participation. According to records, the very first Olympic victor was Koroibos of Elis. However, one of the most prominent ones was Milo of Croton, an associate of the philosopher Pythogoras, who was the winner for six Olympic Games, once in boys' wrestling, 60th Olympiad, 540 BCE, and five-time wrestling champion from 62nd to 66th Olympiad, 532 to 516 BCE. He remained unchallenged till 516 BC, and the defeat which ensued was very much in line with his other illustrious deeds, no less dramatic. The victorious young wrestler is said to have followed a technique by which he kept avoiding Milo's embrace until the reigning old wrestler was exhausted with the ordeal and collapsed, conceding defeat for the first and the last time. A legend on his super-strength says that he used to carry a calf on his shoulders for four years till it grew into an ox, when he devoured it all alone.

The ancient Olympics, which continued being held successfully for four centuries, began losing their importance during Roman period during the second century BC. The Roman influence coupled with embrace to Christianity began to make its impact on the Olympic Games. The Games, which were essentially religious celebrations held to honour the Greek god Zeus, were finally abolished in AD 394, as they lost their place in the Christian empire. Emperor Theodosius of Rome put an end to the Games as he wanted to prohibit all pagan traditions.


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