Imagine you are in 776 B.C. as you are witnessing Coroebus, a cook, run for the stade or a 192-meter footrace and win the only event of the Olympic Games. The word ‘stade’ originates ‘stadium,’ and our Coroebus becomes the first champion of the Olympics. While it is said that this event is the first recorded game in history, it is also believed that plenty of unreported Games were held previously.
According to a legend, the Games’ originators were Heracles, the demigod, and Alcmene, a mortal woman. Such was their popularity that it was the most loved and famous game of the Greeks by the end of the 6th century. Celebrated every four years from August 6 to September 19, they transformed into a ritual rather than mere pastime sports activities.
The games originated from the sacred site of Olympia, located in southern Greece in proximity to the Peloponnese peninsula. They were held in honor of the most powerful ancient greek god Zeus, religiously. Heracles staged the games in his honor as a courtesy for having helped him conquer Elis against Augeas.
Another mythological account asserts that it was a grand celebration for the Greeks as Zeus won over Kronos. Others claim that Pelops initiated it in honor of Oinomaos.
The mightiest god of the Greek pantheon presided over Mount Olympus, and it was a celebration in his honor. Hence, the name is derived from the same mountain the gods lived. However, the conviction continues that it was dedicated to the everyday local heroes, who died in one way or another. Thus, it was otherwise known as the funeral games, often accompanying funeral rituals. Pelops was one such example of the dead hero, whose grave was found in the Altis.
Spondophoroi or messengers were appointed before the games to discourage wars and renounce all intentions of wars, better known as the Olympic Truce. Ekecheiria or Olympic Truce was an ancient Greek tradition of the 8th century B.C.
The Truce began seven days before and ended seven days after the closing of the games. During this period, the heralds or messengers announced a no-war zone throughout Elis for the athletes and sportspeople. It allowed the athletes to travel safely to Olympia for the games. Similarly, it fostered a safe environment for their return.
Initially, it lasted for a month but continued for up to three months of peace and cessation of war. Moreover, no arms could be carried in and around the territory of Elis.
It was a significant tradition of protecting the players and spectators and continued even after it was revived after a period of decline. Scathing wars had almost devastated Peloponnese. As a result, the oracle of Delphi had declared the adoption of a long-lasting peace accord known as the Olympic Truce.
Amidst the whole event stood a giant temple of Zeus, made of ivory and gold, to whom the games were dedicated. Many people gathered at the event to see the Temple of Zeus and enjoy the sports.
Although it was a sporting event through and through, the game’s main event consisted of sacrificial rituals. The third day was when 100 oxen were sacrificed on the Altar of Zeus. The oxen were burnt to offer them for the king of gods himself. It was known as a hecatomb.
After the sacrifices were made, a little piece of meat was offered to the god Zeus, and the onlookers consumed the remaining as a hearty meal.
Instead of making a stone mound, the ashes from the sacrifice were used to make the altar. The ash altar had stood, surprisingly, about six meters tall by approximately 200 AD.
Participants of the Game
All males of all social classes, ethnicity, and status could participate in the Greek games. There was no category or restrictions for the admission of the players. Free males belonged to the farmhands as well as rich heirs. Some of the few emperors also took part in the games.
The participants were assorted from the general from Megara, Orsippos; a shepherd called Polumnistor; Diagoras, who belonged to the royal family in Rhodes; King of Macedonia, Alexander I; and the philosopher, Democritus.
The boys and men were sectioned into different categories based on their size and strength, and age by the Elean judges. The boys were pitted against the boys and the men against other men of the same size and age.
They were all trained by the gymnastes, a professional trainer or a paidotribes, a physical trainer. The trainers worked up the athletes with the proper diet and rigorous exercise to develop muscles. Sometimes, successful athletes would have their trainers’ statues made at the site as a form of reverence. Aleiptes were the ones who smeared and rubbed the athletes with oil before and after their exercise.
An interesting fact is that they performed naked, perhaps to enjoy free movement. Shields and anchors would impede their swiftness, so they preferred to fight naked in the arena. There were no records set or won over by victors as their idea of winning meant becoming the best of the best.
As a misogynistic rule, no woman could participate or even attend the games, especially married women. Unmarried women were, however, allowed to attend the games. The priestess of the fertility greek goddess, Demeter, was reserved a special seat next to the Stadium altar.
There was a loophole to that misogynistic rule, and Kyniska, the first female Olympic victor of Antiquity, took the advantage.
The daughter of Spartan King Archidamos, Kyniska, knew well of the loophole that whenever a player won a chariot race, it was the owner of the awarded horses. She was allowed to own horses and so had them race in the competitions.
Thus, becoming the pioneer of female victors during those times by winning four times in 396 BC and 392 BC (96th and 97th Olympiads, respectively). She was adorned with wreaths, or kotinos, on her head, like every other winner was crowned.
Interestingly, Herman Games was held in the name of goddess Hera, the wife of Zeus, for all the women players. In Olympia, the games featured girls competing on race tracks that were one-sixth times shorter than that of the men’s track race.
As for the spectators, they assembled from beyond the borders of Greece, arriving from islands such as Ionia and Magna Graecia. All the excited viewers lived on make-shift camps until accommodation was provided later on.
It was conducive to displaying and exchanging ideas and wares and arts and crafts of various artists, philosophers, merchants, musicians, poets, etc. Moreover, slaves were attending the games, residing over the embankment of the stadium.
The accurate number of visitors was unknown, yet approximately 45,000 spectators swarmed the site to attend the most famous event on their calendars. They were allowed to participate equally and were showered with flowers and laurels after their victory.
Sports in the Games
Until 684 BC, the Olympics were initially a one-day event, which was extended to a five-day event after that. Running, shot-put, javelin, boxing, pankration, and equestrian events. The popularly known game was the Pentathlon, a list of five games in the Olympics.
With wrestling, Pentathlon consolidated in 708 BC and included running, jumping, discus throw, wrestling, and boxing. It is amalgamation of two Greek words, pente meaning five, and athlon, meaning competition.
Combining a length of 200-meter foot race called the stade race, the 400-meter foot race called the dialogs (two states), and the 7 to 24 stade race called the dolichos was the game of running. The competitors had to out-win the other in these categories to become a victor.
Long jumps comprised holding on to weights by the athletes for their flights, which would leverage their jump. The weights were made of stone or lead called halteres and weighed about 1.5 to 2kgs. These halteres were held in each hand and then leaped for the long jump. With their help, they landed at further distances than they usually would. This is one of the distinctive characters of the ancient jumping from the modern one.
Initially made of stone, the discus was later made of iron, lead, or bronze. It was similar to today’s practice of discus throw. A flying saucer-shaped item of metal determined the strength of the athletes. It was also interestingly sized different for the men and the boys of differing ages and physical stature.
Wrestling was a highly valued practice during the ancient Olympics. Also known as Pale, it was the most loved organized game. The main aim of the players was to throw the other into the ground through a standing grapple. The competitors were not allowed to attack their sensitive areas even though they were naked. Hence, the holds were confined only to their upper bodies. Anybody, until they submitted defeat, could continue playing this game.
Held in memory of Patroclus, the late friend of Achilles, boxing was another sport played in the games. The trainees practiced punching bags called korykos before entering the match. Also known as pygmachia or fist fighting, boxing dates back as far as the 8th century. However, due to the fragmented collection of evidence and accounts of boxing in Antiquity, its customs and rules are not accurate or plenty.
Pankration is an amalgamation of boxing and wrestling played during the Antiquity. This practice is based on ancient martial arts and was also another most loved sport of the crowd. Introduced in 648 BC, it was hand-to-hand combat with a few rules. Choking, joint-locking, kicking, holding were accompanied by boxing and wrestling techniques to win over. Like today’s mixed martial arts, the Spartans later used it to excel in hand combats during wars.
Hippodrome was a vast open space where equestrian events such as the chariot race took place. Horse racing and riding were some other contests held as equestrian events. As the riders lacked saddle and protective gears, it jeopardized their lives. Perhaps, the most dangerous game at the ancient Olympics was horse riding, as often many riders lost their lives by crashing on the ground.
In ancient times, the period between two consecutive Olympic Games was named Olympiad and used by ancient Greeks to date events, thus, transcending the name Olympiad from just the game’s meaning. It became a mascot of celebration, victory, religious significance, and lavish feasts.
Soon Olympic games, the most loved Greek invention, escalated into a pan-Hellenistic game, where spectators and participants catered from different parts of the world. The Truce became a symbol of teaching peace through sports and continued even after the decline into revival into Japan for the new Olympic games to be held there.
About the Author
Richard is from Budapest, Hungary. He holds a degree in Cultural Anthropology from Eötvös Loránd University. He believes education to be one of the essential parts of a human being. Be it acquiring knowledge from the formal setting of education such as schools or universities or be it through articles, books, or any forms of informative materials.
However, his interest inclines more towards education and acquiring knowledge about history. Any topic that has a depth relating to history, it could be monumental, critical, or antiquarian motivates him to know more.
His interest began from the first time he read about the history of Genghis Khan and has not stopped learning about any forms of history until today. He has been creating content about ancient, medieval, and modern history at historyten.com and providing relevant information and data to his readers.