Birth of the Games

A Roman marble copy of the famous Greek sculpture Discobolus, the discus thrower, by Myron. The original dated to 460-450 B.C.

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

In the ancient Olympic Games, wrestlers could break the fingers, arms and legs of their opponents. The only thing they couldn’t do was gouge out eyes. Needless to say, the rules have changed since 776 B.C.

How faithful are the modern Olympics to the ancient Games?

Soon, we’ll be able to judge for ourselves. The 2012 Summer Games will be held in London starting July 27.

Shrouded in myth, the origins of the Games remain a mystery. Did they rise out of Greek warfare – military training turned into competition? Did they evolve from funeral rites – the games mentioned in the Iliad to honor a fallen warrior?

One thing is certain: 776 B.C. is the first firm date for the Games in Greek history. That’s the year names of victors were first recorded at Olympia. Today, you can go to that great stadium, crouch on the marble starting line, and sprint down the arena toward another marble block, the finish line, 200 meters away. And you can imagine up to 40,000 spectators watching from the grassy slopes surrounding the stadium.

The ancient Games flourished at Olympia for a thousand years. The last Olympiad took place in 393 A.D. In that year, the Christian Emperor Theodosius prohibited the practice of pagan cults and the games associated with them. The world’s greatest pageant of athletic skill disappeared until 1896, when a revival brought about the modern Games.

SCOPE: It’s wider today, fully international in nature. But in their time, the original Games drew athletes from all over the Greek world, from Spain to the Black Sea.

COMPETITION: Ancient Greeks viewed all of life as a contest, the “agon” at the center of existence – strife. Even today, it’s the core idea behind Greek drama, government, sports and daily life. Walk down any Greek street in any town, and you hear people arguing with great vigor – verbal sport. To the Greeks, other people are opponents.

CHEATING: Then and now, cheating has been a feature of Olympic competition. Bribery was not uncommon in the ancient Games. If athletes were caught, they had to atone by paying fines. The money paid for statues of Zeus. At Olympia, a long row of statue bases still stand (the Zanes). They signal public restitution by the athletes. The use of performance-enhancing drugs? No, not mentioned anywhere in ancient texts or seen in art.

FLAME:In the ancient Games there was a sacred flame at an altar. Today, a torch is lit from the eternal flame at Olympia and carried to the next site by runners.

What’s different?

PARTICIPANTS: Only men participated in the ancient Games. Furthermore, they had to be free-born Greek citizens. That translates to elites because only aristocratic men had the leisure to participate in sports. No slaves and no women were allowed.

Athletes competed as individuals. They may have brought honor to their city states, but they were celebrated primarily as individual athletes. We continue our own form of hero worship, but the modern Games have become intensely nationalistic.

RELIGION: Ancient Games were part of religious festivals. The scope of the sacred was deep and wide in ancient Greece; polytheism permeated every aspect of life. A religious calendar dictated cycles of events, including competitions, where specific gods were worshiped.

Games began with a pilgrimage, a ritual cleansing and dedication ceremonies – all before the competition. After the athletics, elaborate tribute ceremonies followed with more offerings to the gods, purifications and a long trip home.

Part of a sacred pageant, the ancient Games combined performance excellence with praise – totally different from the highly commercialized Games today. Holy rites have been supplanted by big-money television rights.

SITES: Unlike the modern Olympics, which constantly change venues, the ancient Games were held at fixed sites. Olympia, the oldest, is one of four sacred sites for ancient Games. Three others held biennial or quadrennial Games: Delphi, Nemea and Isthmia.

In 582 B.C., the Pythian Games at the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi began. Named Pythian for the snake god of the underworld whom Apollo supposedly killed at the site, the Games attracted pilgrims and athletes from all over the Hellenic world.

The stadium sits high up in a rocky grove and seats 6,500 people on stone terraces. The track is 178 meters (584 feet), shorter than Olympia. There was no standardization in those days.

Like Olympia, the Nemean Games were dedicated to Zeus, and the ruins of an enormous temple can be seen today among vineyards and olive groves. The nearby stadium has a vaulted entrance for judges and athletes, similar to Olympia’s. The fourth-century B.C. passageway points to the fact that the Greeks had developed this architectural form well before the Romans.

The Isthmian Games began in 580 B.C. and venerated Poseidon, god of the sea. Astonishingly, the site wasn’t excavated until the 1950s. Much of its stone had been plundered for a nearby fortress and the Isthmian Wall. The site lies on a narrow isthmus that separates the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf.

TRUCE: For the ancient Greeks, who rarely united politically, war was common. But they were able to forge a common culture partly through language, custom and their games. Before the Games, heralds traveled throughout greater Greece proclaiming a one-month truce. This gave athletes and pilgrims safe passage. All wars between rivaling city states had to cease.

It didn’t always work. In 420 B.C., judges banned the Spartans from the Games for breaking the truce. A different kind of twist occurred in our time. Remember when the USA boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest over the USSR invasion of Afghanistan?

Wars don’t cease today for the Olympics, nor do terrorist attacks. Security at modern Games has become a major expenditure for hosting cities.

EVENTS: If the ancient Games grew out of training exercises for warfare, early events support that idea. From sprints of less than 200 meters to long-distance runs, foot races predominated the ancient Games. Races in full armor are depicted in Greek art. The pentathlon included a foot race, jumping, the javelin and discus, plus wrestling. Boxing became the second confrontational sport.

The animal/human events included chariot and horseback races; one showcased the ability to throw a javelin accurately from one’s mount at full gallop. All the events tested martial skills.

The marathon never appeared in ancient Games. Its origin lies in Greek history at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. Legend has it that at victory, Miltiades ordered a herald to run to Athens with the news – 26 miles to the south. On arrival, the herald collapsed and died – one of the many ways a new sporting event can be born.

Today, the modern Games include the marathon and a large variety of competitions, not to mention the addition of the winter Games in 1924. But breaking your rival’s bones now is frowned upon.

Judith Reynolds is a freelance writer and political cartoonist for the Herald. She has traveled to Greece and visited the ancient sites of the Games.

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