home > history > ancient games
The ancient Olympic Games

I. The epochs of the games

Ancient vase
Start to the torch run

DThe Olympic Games of the antiquity can be divided roughly in five epochs which characterize the beginning, the course and the decline of the games.
In the first epoch many Greek legends and myths struggle to themselves for the origin of the Olympic Games. Once Herakles has killed king Augias whose stable he had cleaned by diverting the river Alpheios, and he has donated to the celebration of the day competition games in the place Olympia. In another legend one says that Herakles grandfather, Pelops, courted for a princess and had to line up in a carriage running against the king and further competitors. The king stabbed to death the suitors during overtaking, only Pelops has sabotaged the king's carriage so that the king was dragged to death. Then in future one has carried out the Olympic Games.
At that time one believed the version that Herakles put together his brothers to a race and garlanded the winner with a branch of the wild olive tree which Herakles has brought to the Greeks from a far land. Zeus whose temple stands in Olympia was entrusted with Herakles and his brothers.

The first recordings about the Olympic Games, and with it the introduction of the second epoch, has been found from the year 776 B.C., as the priests of Elis started to keep a record of the games. The origins, one dispenses with the myths of that time, are to be led back on the so-called "corpse games" in Elis. It was a matter there of killing the defeated person in the competitions. This kind of the "competitions" fell into oblivion briefly, until wars struck the today's areas in Greece. The king of Elis questioned the oracle of Delphi because of this predicament and received the instruction that yearly celebrations would donate peace. With the help of a contract he seeked an alliance with the king of Sparta and they allowed to carry out a ritual celebration, whose disturbance would call not only both city states, but also the rage of the God, to the mark of their alliance. The Olympic Games were (re)born.
In the third epoch from 472 to 400 B.C. there was the "golden age", in whose frame the games received their shine which may be responsible for the reintroduction in the modern age (see there), but also restricted the true picture of Olympia on a fraction of its time and veiled the backgrounds and worse time. From 472 the duration of the games was fixed to five days whose course was regulated stringently because of the status of the Olympic Games as a cultural celebration. At this time state men and princes also took part as athletes, the famous historian Herodot comes to Olympia and reads from his works, Pindar writes his odes about the winners, Phidias creates one of Seven Wonders of the World: the Zeus' statue. Olympia has become a cultural center of Greece and the whole Mediterranean.
On the "golden one" the "silver age" followed to 338 B.C. Because of constant wars the Greeks were weakened, and they could bring less and less good athletes to Olympia, and more and more streamed from other colonies, like Sicily, Asia Minor and Africa. Olympia became a kind of national place of pilgrimage. In the last epoch the games neglected, as Greece lost his independency to the further extending Roman empire and became whose province. More and more occupational athletes lined up. Olympia, as a site of a ritual celebration, lost slowly its importance. After intertemporal period of bloom emperor Theodosius forbade the games as a pagan cult in 393 A.D.

II. The course

Another ancient vase
Discus thrower and runner at the training

Already ten months before beginning of the games in Olympia who took place always in the most hot time of the year, how many deplored, the training camp of Elis opened. The taking part athletes had to have arrived there thirty days before beginning at the latest. This camp may have served the model of the Olympic village, however, the lodgings were very mediocre at the that time, and every athlete received the same food. The training which was supervised by the Helladonics (judges) was very hard, it already began before sunrise. A philosopher noted at this time that success in Olympia, skills and pride could only appear after "big sufferings".
Nevertheless, the area was many-sided. For the sportsmen sport fields, distances and Gymnasion (cf. gymnastics, today corresponds to the concept of gymnasium) were made available for wrestlers, fist combatants and for the boys, in another building the rules were explained amd taught to the Helladonics. Baths served for the rest. Furthermore there was a city hall (Buleuterion) in which it was kept account and the athletes were introduced in the theory.

At the latest since 472 B.C. the games lasted exactly five days. During the first day the games are opened, all athletes, judges and spectators assemble in the holy district of Olympia in which also among other things there is the temple of Zeus, and they swear an oath to the observance of the rules. The symbolism has kept to this day in the opening celebration and swearing the Olympic oath for the athletes and for the judges. In the afternoon the boys (from 16 years) contest her competitions. During the second day the carriage runnings already begin in all early in the Hippodrom, situated to the south of the Olympic stadium. Besides, the pentathlon takes place later. During the third day a Zeus' sacrifice is carried out with 100 bulls. Run over longer distance, stadium run and double-run are the competitions during this day. The next day the athletes line up to the remained competitions in the wrestling match and boxing contest, in the pankration (a mixture of both) and weapon run. The presentation ceremony takes place during the last day. The winners are exclaimed and walk ceremonially, to be garlanded with branches of the holy olive tree, which Herakles should have got from the far land of the Hyperboreer. A renewed sacrifice of thanks forms the end of the games.

Ancient Olympia
The area of Olympia
(in the middle the temple of Zeus)

It was a torture for the spectators to be present at the games. In the middle in August it was very hot, the rivers scarcely led water, and the bath grounds were accessible only to athletes. Lodging possibilities did not exist, merely a hostel for more senior staff. In the stadium it was not allowed to carry headgears, apart from the torrid sun the stench of the meat of the sacrificed animals, which were not allowed to be eaten, even permitted itself, plus the fly plague, sweat, excrements, bitting clouds of smoke … it could already go off there.

III. Sports and disciplines

Fist combatant
Fist combatant with bandages
(bronze statue, ~100 B.C.)

As well as in the modern age, so the list of the delivered sports or disciplines has developed. As already from the five day course evidently, there were the following sports: running, multi-discipline event , wrestling, boxing contest and carriage running. Generally all athletes lined up completely nakedly as one can look also in all pictures on vases and amphoras.
There were for the origin of the running different distances and exact lengths were out of it. It was measured in stadium rounds, there was a stadium run (approx. 180 to 190 m), double-run (2 rounds) and the run over longer distance which was run more than 7 – 24 rounds, converted between 1,400 m and 4,600 m. By a false start the suitable runner was whipped. By a false start the suitable runner was whipped. Because only a certain number of runners could line up at the same time, there wre also already qualification runs.
The athletes who lined up in the pentathlon counted as the nicest men, because this competition checked the versatility of the athletes, because near quickness strength and agility were also asked. The pentathlon consisted of running (probably a round), discus throwing, long jump, spear throwing and wrestling. The about four to five kilogram discus was thrown three times, the widest throw was marked with a peg. The distances which were not measured might have lain with about 30 m. At the spear throwing there counted not the width, but the accuracy, in which a wooden column or a shield served as a target. The long jump occurred from the state with dumbbells in the hands which owned a weight between one and a half and 4.5 kilograms. The jump width were around approx. three meters.

At the wrestling match, as a discipline for the Pentathlon, as well as the independent competition which belonged, besides, to the education of the male youth, it was a matter of putting off balance the opponent or at least on a knee. Who succeeded in doing this three times, he was explained to the winner. If both went down, the judges had to decide. The boxing contest was harder a little. There it was fought so long, until one was fight-incapable and surrendered. If no winner crystallized out, a kind of penalty shoot-out was carried out. Everybody had alternately a free blow which the other had not to refuse, so long one was knocked out. At beginning fist combatants carried bandages to save their joints, later the bandages became harder and, with the help of weaved iron pieces, these became real knuckle-dusters. This kind of fight reminds of the "corpse games" of Elis.
The pankration or multi-disciplined fight is a mixture of wrestling match and boxing contest. The hardness of this sport excelled everything. One also continued fighting on ground and everything was permitted what helped to the opponents retirement and to one's own victory, it is to be broken limbs or to choke. Indeed manslaughter was not permitted, but one was only mild punished, so that often happened this misfortune. Twice a killed athlete was even explained to the winner because he did not surrender and had fought properly to the last gasp.
Carriage runnings took place in the Hippodrom, however, these were introduced only 680 B.C. Nevertheless, the program was expanded constantly with quadrigas, carriages and pairs, mules and foals. Mostly these were chosen as a winner to which the horses or bottom plates belonged and not these which had steered them and came empty-handed.

IV. The "honour" of the winners

Nevertheless, the winners from Olympia were given many honours. Apart from a statue in the Altis, paid by the hometown of the athlete, there were big parties with the return of the glorius athlete(s). Partly pieces of the town walls were torn on the ground that a town which has such sons would have no walls urgently. An Olympic champion also has earned financially enough to live comfortably for the rest of his life, he need not to pay taxes, he received in many places free charge food and lodging, he received complimentary seats in theaters and vast amounts of presents.
However, he also had some duties. The participation also at the following Olympic Games was expected from him, the towns vied with each other so that he will start for it. Just bigger towns like Athens, Delphi or Corinth, often offered more than 10,000 € (at that time these were five talents). And just in the war they were given the "honour" to fight in the foremost front.
The most famous athlete of the antiquity was Milon of Kroton about which many anecdotes were spread. Among to other things he had so much strength that he carried around a four-year-old ox on his shoulder for fun, killed him with one blow and ate it completely. He has daily 50,000 calories in form of 17 pounds of meat, 17 pounds of bread and 10 liters of wine to eat, the five- to sixfold of today's professional athletes of wrestling, weight-lifting etc. He was the best wrestler in the history of the games, from 540 through 516 B.C. he became Olympic champion six times. Besides, he still won multifold at the Isthmic, Pythic and Nemeic games. Then he has carried and put up a statue sculptured by him in natural size in the Altis to his honour.
The most significant runner was Leonidas of Rhodos who gained every time the victories in the stadium run, double-run and weapon run in four Olympic Games. After his death the fist combatant and pankratiast Theogenes of Thasos, successful in 480 and 476 B.C., was honoured as a remedial God. More than three generations long, from 464 through 404 B.C., however, the house of the Diagorids from Rhodes has brought Olympic champions in the athletic disciplines and it was also leading politically on the island.