Since 1896, the year the Olympics were resurrected from ancient history, the Olympics have been a symbol of the camaraderie and harmony possible on a global scale. The gathering of athletic representatives, the pride of the pack, from participating governments, even throughout the recent Cold War period, is proof that world unity is possible; just as it was in Ancient Greece with the polis or city-states.
Olympic Games were held throughout Ancient Greece, but the most famous are the games that were held in Olympia in honor of Zeus every four years from August 6th to September 19th. The first record of these games is of one Coroebus of Elis, a cook, winning a sprint race in 776 BC. Most historians believe the games to have been going on for approximately 500 years before this. In the year Coroebus was made a part of history, there was apparently only one simple event, a race called the stade. The track was said to be one stade long or roughly 210 yards.
In subsequent games, additional events were to be added, most likely to increase the challenge to these amazing athletes. In 724 BC, the diaulos, a two stade race, was added, followed by a long distance race, about 2 1/4 miles and called the dolichos, at the next games four years later. Wrestling and the famous Pentathlon were introduced in 708 BC.
The Pentathlon consisted of five events; the long jump, javelin throw, discus throw, foot race, and wrestling. The Pentathlons, especially the successful ones, were often treated and even worshipped like gods. Because of their exquisite physiques, they were used as the models for statues of the Greek Gods. The superior athletic ability of these athletes affects the games even today. The twisting and throwing method of the discus throw, which originated in Ancient Greece, is still used today. The original events were even more challenging than those of today. The modern discus weighs in at just 5 pounds, one-third of the original weight, and the long jumps were done with the contestant carrying a five pound weight in each hand. The pit to be traversed in this jump allowed for a 50 foot jump, compared to just over 29 feet in our modern Olympics. Apparently, the carried weights, used correctly, could create momentum to carry the athlete further. Legend has it that one Olympian cleared the entire pit by approximately 5 feet, breaking both legs as he landed.
One significant difference between the modern and ancient games; the original Olympians competed in the nude. Because of this, the 45,000 spectators consisted of men and unwed virgin women only. The only exception to this would be the priestess of Demeter who was also the only spectator honored with a seat. The young unwed women were allowed to watch to introduce them to men in all their splendor and brutality whereas it was felt that married women should not see what they could not have. In addition, the virgins had their own event which occurred on the men's religious day of rest. Called the Haria, in honor of Hara the wife of Zeus, the young women would race dressed in a short tunic which exposed the right breast. Traditionally, Spartan women dominated this event, being trained from birth for just this purpose.
The religious undertones of the events became extremely apparent on the third day of the games when a herd of 100 cows were killed as a sacrifice to Zeus. In actuality, only the most useless parts were burned in honor of Zeus; most of the meat would be cooked and eaten that day. The sacrifices were conducted on a huge cone-shaped alter built up from the ashes of previously sacrificed animals. The mound was so large, the Greeks would cut steps into the cone after discovering it could be hardened by adding water and drying.
Another ingenious invention was a system to prevent early starts in the foot races. It consisted of a bar in front of the runners to ensure they all start at the same time. This most likely was viewed as a blessing by the competitors, as previous to this, they would be beaten by the judges with rods for an early jump. This system led to the extravagant mechanisms used for starting the chariot races in 680 BC. Other introductions to the games were boxing in 688 BC, the pancratium, a no-holds barred form of wrestling, in 648 BC, and eventually some events for boys between 632 and 616 BC.
The Olympics of old were entirely a man on man competition. No records were kept to be broken but a few amazing legends of the games have survived the test of time. Aegeus, for instance, was said to have completed his competition and then to run home to Argos, over 60 miles away, in one day. Milo, one of the most feared Olympians of Ancient Greece, was said to have carried a full grown bull to the arena, butchered it, and ate the entire animal in one day. Not surprisingly, he was said to have one many a wrestling match by the forfeiture of his opponent. He also walked away with six consecutive Olympic crowns.
These legends, for all their blood, sweat, and tears, were awarded an olive branch from the tree behind the alter of Zeus when they won. Fortunately, the regions they represented were usually somewhat more grateful for bringing honor home. It was not uncommon for the victors to receive free food for life, money, or other valuable offers. They were often worshipped as gods and sometimes their sweat was preserved and sold as a magical potion.
In the later years of the games, an additional event was added which signaled the end of the games and the return to the war ridden life of ancient history. Soldiers, adorned with a full body of armor weighing upwards of 50 pounds, would compete in a foot race. Unfortunately, even the apparent athletic ability of these soldiers could not prevent the fall of Greece to Rome in the middle of the second century BC. Under Roman rule, the Olympics began to lose its fervor until it was abolished in 393 AD by the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I who most likely objected to the pagan rites associated with the Olympics.
Some historians believe that even after the official abolishment of the Olympics, it may have survived for an additional 120 years. Its subsequent revival in 1896 was brought about by the discovery of the ancient stadium. Since that time, it has been held every four years, in accordance with tradition, being interrupted only for the two world wars. The competition of the nations in these events represents the age old competitive spirit of man. The need for people to take pride in something larger than themselves and feel as if they are part of a greater good. The Olympics, today as well as 3,000 years ago, offers a non-combative environment to do so.