Nearly 2800 years ago, citizens from all over the Greek world flocked to Olympia for one of the most central rituals in Ancient Greece – the Olympic Games. Perhaps unknown to many people, the Games were as much a religious festival as they were a celebration of athletic strength and power. This great event was held in honour of the mythological god Zeus; a thirteen-metre gold and ivory statue, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient-World. The statue had been dedicated in the Temple of Zeus for all to see in the fifth century BC.
The origin of the Games differs depending on which ancient text you consult. The poet Pindar would tell you that Olympia was created by Herakles (known in the Roman and modern world as Hercules), who instituted the first games. The Games were created to celebrate Herakles’ success in cleaning the Augean stables in a single day – one of his twelve labours. Pausanias, a Greek traveller and geographer, gives the story of the dactyl Herakles – not the same man as in Pindar’s account- and his four brothers. They raced to Olympia to entertain Zeus, thus symbolising the chariot races in the Games. Herakles was crowned the victor over his siblings and given an olive tree wreath, which then became a peace symbol and was given to all winners at the Games.
Held every 4 years after 776BC, freemen from Greece would participate in different events, although the number of events is nowhere near close to that of modern day Olympics. The philosopher Epictetus states the very strict rules that they had to adhere to; for instance, they could not eat desserts, drink wine, or drink cold water whenever they wanted to.
Before the events, participants would rub oil all over themselves. The oil is believed to have protected the skin from the sun and other elements, or helped limber the muscles. However, the glistening of the oil was aesthetically desirable to the Greeks, hence they carried out this activity.
There were a number of events; for the stadion (running event), participants would run barefoot on sand for different distances such as two hundred metres or even four thousand eight hundred metres. Other running events included particularly gruelling ones; for one, contestants were made to run in armour weighing around fifty to sixty pounds. This race would help build up speed and stamina that aided the Greeks during their military service.
To win in wrestling, a contestant was required to throw his opponent on the ground, landing on a hip, shoulder or his back in order to win a point. Three points were required for a victory. Another similar game called pankration, which is literally defined as ‘all force,’ was a combination of boxing and wrestling. Athletes were permitted to do anything, except for biting, eye-gouging, and genital holds. Due to the levels of danger in these events, men and boys were separated into two divisions. The poet Xenophanes described the pankration in his works as “the new and terrible contest… of all holds.”
The pentathlon, similar to the modern day Olympics, was an event combining five disciplines; running, wrestling, javelin, discus, and jumping. The javelin was made of wood with either a sharp point at one end or an attached metal point. It was the length of a human, and was used in the same way as modern-day javelins are thrown. The discus was considered very important; it was made of either stone, bronze, lead or iron and shaped like a flying saucer. The size of the discus was slightly bigger than that of modern discuses. Again, there were separate divisions for men and boys in terms of the weight of the discus thrown. The jump was slightly different than it is nowadays because athletes were expected to land firmly on both feet. They also held and swung halteres (lead or stone jump weights) to propel their bodies further when they jumped. The pentathlon claimed some of the “most beautiful” men, according to Aristotle. He describes in one of his works “a body capable of enduring all efforts of bodily strength.”
Finally, the two-horse or four-horse chariot race and horse race were some of the most anticipated yet dangerous events. Only the wealthy were able to afford the equipment needed as well as training and feeding the horse. Therefore, the owner received the olive wreath, not the victor.
The Olympic Games continued to be held even when Rome ruled over Greece; however, the Emperor Theodosius I later put at stop to them as part of his campaign to impose Christianity as the religion of the Empire.