See that picture above? It is the Olympic Games’ primary symbol created by founder Pierre de Coubertin in 1913: interlocking five rings on white background, representing every color that appeared in every nations’ flag at the time. But wait, there’s a catch, the modern Olympic games that began in 1896 was actually inspired from ancient Olympic games that can be traced back to 776BC.
The games were traditionally held every four years in the western Peloponnesos, in a place within Elis called Olympia –hence the name of the game. Legend has it that Heracles (Roman Hercules, son of Zeus and mortal woman Alcmene) staged the game in honor of Zeus because he has helped Heracles conquer Elis during war against Augeas. By the end of 6th century BC, the game has become the most popular of physical events, celebrated as a part of a religious festival in honor of Zeus, the father of Greek gods and goddesses. A sacred temple by the name Sanctuary of Zeus was also located in the city centre of Olympia, which became the meeting place for religious worship and political practices.
ANCIENT OLYMPIC TRUCE
The value of the ancient Olympic Games can be emphasized through the ancient Olympic Truce. “Ekecheiria” is the Greek word for truce, meaning “the holding of hands”. In order to prevent social unrest due to civil wars, there was a peace agreement in 824BCE between Iphitus, Kleosthenes, king of the neighbouring town of Pisa and the Spartan legislator Lykourgos. The truce took place over a month and during that duration, no armies and weapons were allowed to enter the city of Elis, where the games was held at. In addition, no death penalties were to be carried out. These measures were to ensure a safe journey for athletes and audiences travelling across cities for the games.
News of the truce was then transmitted to the city states by three heralds (royal messengers). In their olives wreaths and carrying staffs (symbolic rods), they would travel to every Greek state and personally invite the people over to Elis for the games. It is also their duty to ensure that the people are sure of the date and time of the games (calendar system differs for each state). If the truce was not abided by, a fine to Olympian Zeus would be imposed as a punishment. Players may be refused participation as well. The truce played a significant role in maintaining a common Greek identity.
As the Games was an event whereby scattered Greek states would meet and reunite, it was also used as a platform for critical political and military discussions. Inevitably, conflicts would break out despite the truce. In 364 BCE, the Eleans along with the Achaeans attacked Arcadians and Argians. The Eleans wanted to regain control of the sanctuary of Olympia, which was conquered by the Arcadians who took over the Olympic Games. The battle continued for a day and involved more than a thousand soldiers. It was only resolved a year later with a treaty when the Arcadians agreed to return some of the cities that they have conquered back to the Eleans.
The Ancient Olympic Games were different in various aspects compared to the modern Olympics. The Olympic Games in Ancient era allowed only people of Greek descendant’s to participate ,unlike modern Olympic games which athletes of international background could join. Ancient Olympic Games was only held in Olympia every 4 years, wherelse countries would have to bid for the host of modern Olympic Games. Married women were also not allowed as spectators, even though unmarried women could watch the Games. Ancient Olympics games was not as diverse as the modern ones. Did you know that the first game only had one event of 192 meter( stade) footrace called the Stadion and a cook named Coroebus from Elis won the event? Eventually, this event was included in the proper ancient Olympic Games whereby more events were added to a four-day competition.
Although the sequence of the game is unknown, historians concluded that pentathlon became the Olympic sport in 708 B.C. It had many elements, such as:
Running consists of the stadion race, the dialous -a 2 stades race and the dolichos which was 7-24 stades. Finally, there was the toughest event of all where athletes had to run with shields and armor over a distance of 2-4 stades. There was also a running event for women except Spartans, called the Heraia. It was held in honour of Hera, wife of Zeus. The running track was only 1/6th shorter than the men’s track. Running was seen as the requirements of a fit soldier, hence the Olympic race was influenced from the military.
Other days held the event of wrestling, boxing and the pankration, a combination of the two. Boxing and panckration was considered a nasty event where it became brutal. Boxers were seen using leather gloves, sometimes weighted with metal, hitting the opponent even if he was on the ground. Pankration on the other hand was almost without any rule; though biting and poking were banned, most competitors were doing it. Cheating was illegal then, where cheaters caught red handed were to pay for a bronze statue of Zeus as punishment.
Other Games that were known in the ancient Olympic Games includes chariot race, discus throwing, javelin, and jump.
Figure 2: Nudity was a norm at that era as competitors were to compete in the Ancient Olympic Games
Dress Code and Athletes’ Routine
The Greek competed in nude. One of many stories to explain this is when a runner named Orsippos from Megara lost his shorts while running introduced nudity to the Games. However, the most logical reasoning was that they had the tradition of doing things such as training in the nude. Incidentally, the modern word “gymnasium” came from the word “Gymos” which meant naked in Greek. The nudity was to display athletes’ masculinity and male physique to competitors as well as a tribute to the gods by showing the peak of their training. They also took good care of their skin by rubbing it with olive oil to give radiant shine.
Awards, Prizes and The End
Figure 3: Award presentation of olive wreath
The awards given to winners were actually a wreath of olive leaves on his head, different from modern prizes such as gold, silver and bronze medal. This is similar for the women in the event of Heraia. Many of the winners also get to marry the rich and can enjoy free meals in their hometown.
Although the Olympic tradition had been going for 12 centuries then, in 393 A.D., Emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, called for a ban on all “pagan” festivals, ending the ancient Olympic games.