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Thursday, 10 November 2016

Ancient Olympic Games


The Ancient Greek Olympic Games are thought to have begun in 776 BC.

The games were staged in the wooded valley of Olympia in Elis. Here the Greeks erected statues and built temples in a grove dedicated to Zeus, supreme among the gods. The greatest shrine was an ivory and gold statue of Zeus. Created by the sculptor Phidias, it was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The palaestra of Olympia, devoted to the training of athletes. By User: Bgabel

The games were always held at Olympia rather than moving between different locations as is the practice with the modern Olympic Games.

To begin with, the Olympic Games were confined to one day - the day of the first full moon after the summer solstice.

During the first 13 Games recorded, the foot race was the sole event. The stadion sprint was a race over about 190 metres (620 ft), measured after the feet of Hercules. The word stadium is derived from this race.

The custom of nude sprinting began in 720 because one runner's loin cloth fell off; he won, so others copied him.

In 716BC two more races were added to the Olympic Games, a two-stadia sprint (1200 feet) and one where 24 lengths of the stadium was run.

Three runners featured on an Attic black-figured Panathenaic prize amphora. By Marie-Lan Nguyen 

The first Olympians in Greece celebrated victory wearing wreaths of bay and parsley from a sacred olive tree that grew behind the temple of Zeus. According to tradition this tree was planted by Hercules, founder of the games. The winners marched around the grove to the accompaniment of a flute while admirers chanted songs written by a prominent poet.


Wrestling is recorded as being introduced at the 18th Olympiad in 708. Three throws were necessary for a win.

The pentathlon was also added in 708. This pentathlon was a five-event match consisted of running, wrestling, leaping, throwing the discus, and hurling the javelin.

Ancient Olympic javelin throwers would wrap a leather throng around the javelin that would act as a kind of sling, applying spin to the javelin to aid distance.

A special event was known as the Pancratium, from the Greek, meaning "all strength," in which the entire body served as a weapon. The fighters were naked and used methods of boxing and wrestling; they hit, strangled, and twisted the limbs of the opponent. To kick the other man in the stomach or to break his fingers was fair. Only gouging and biting were disallowed.

The bout ended only when one of the contestants yielded or, as was frequently the case, with his death. Realizing the cruelty of the Pancration, the Greeks eventually omitted it from their programs.

Pankration scene: a pankriatiast tries to gouge his opponent's eye; From an Attic red-figure kylix

The chariot race was probably the Ancient Olympics' most dangerous sport. It was so popular that it replaced sprinting as the opening event of the games.


Through each of these contests the emphasis on winning was paramount and the champions were treated as celebrities.

The first Olympic champion listed in the records was a cook, Coroebus of Elis. He won the sprint race in 776 BC.

Athletes from any Greek city-state and kingdom were allowed to participate, although the Hellanodikai, the officials in charge, allowed king Alexander I of Macedon to participate in the games only after he had proven his Greek ancestry.

The Roman emperor Nero won a number of Olympic titles for horse riding, tragedy and harp, singing competitions and declamation. In all these cases the competition finished with a crown adorning his head, a "feat" probably achieved by bribing the judges.

Athletes who made false starts in running races were publicly whipped and humiliated.

The Greeks used onions to fortify their athletes for the Olympic Games. Before competition, athletes consumed many pounds of onions and drunk onion juice.  Furthermore, they rubbed onions on their bodies in preparation.

Women were banned from competing, mainly because the Greek men competed naked, although there were victorious women chariot owners.


Crowds of up to 40,000 people were attracted to the stadium at Olympia to watch the Olympics.

An artist's impression of ancient Olympia

In the month before the ancient Olympics no wars were permitted so that spectators could travel from across Greece unharmed.

The only married woman allowed to watch the ancient Olympics was the Priestess of Demeter. Any other married woman spectator was threatened with being thrown to her death from a cliff.


Under Roman rule the Olympic Games continued to be held. However, after an existence of almost 1,200 years, the decline of Greek culture led to the deterioration of the event.

The new Christian teaching of the sinfulness of the body, and its abhorrence of heathen practice, dealt the deathblow to the Games, which were finally banned in AD 393 by the Christian Emperor, Theodosius I, as he believed they encouraged "pagan idolatry."

When Theodosius I's grandson, Theodosius II, learned that in spite of the prohibition the contests were still being held at Olympia, he had its buildings burned to he ground and the last physical traces of the Olympics thus disappeared.

Sources Compton's Encyclopedia, Europress Encyclopedia

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