The Greek Olympics

Ancient Greek Culture

Ancient Greece was a collection of city states during the great Hellenic period. Thousands of years before the modern age the saw great civilizations rise and flourish.

Their wealth was massive, their cities were magnificent, their achievements in artistic, military and political- have rarely been equaled. How did they do it? And why, eventually, did they all fail?

Glorious monuments may be durable reminders of past societies, but less tangible achievements can leave just as lasting a legacy. Some cultures have endured as much by what they did as by what they built.

Although the ancient Greeks produced some of the finest achievements and works of arts ever seen, their largely, and possibly the most important legacy is more the product of their minds than their hands.

Greek concepts live on in our thoughts and politics. Their words fill modern western languages. The ideas of Homer, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle are with us still.

Another Greek creation whose longevity would have surprised its inventors. It has brought the Greeks and their ideas to a wider audience more than almost anything else. And nearly 3,000 years later, it’s still recognized in every country in the world.

The Beginnings

In 1,000 BC, a group of women gathered in a remote corner of the Peloponnese (Peninsula in Greece) to celebrate a successful harvest. They danced on a mountainside. It was a sacred place dedicated to the gods. It was called Olympia.

400 years later, a temple had been built to Hera. She was wife to the great god Zeus. She was the goddess of women’s affairs and her followers, all female, ran races in her honor.

In 50 more years, Olympia had been transformed into the major spiritual center of the ancient Greek world. There were dozens of new buildings.

A large central temple dedicated to the god Zeus. Within the temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Standing 60 feet high made of ivory and gold was a statue of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods.

The informal girl races of the Hera worshipping days gave away to new sporting events. The raves were still dedicated to the gods, but formalized and expanded. They were watched by hundreds of spectators and all the competitors were men.

The Olympics

This was the beginning of the world’s first and longest lasting major organized sporting event- the Olympics Games. For more than a 1,000 years the games would be celebrated once every 4 years at Olympia.

Already, by 776 BC, the games were a prestigious event and Olympic athletes were celebrated throughout the Greek speaking world. The games were of such importance that meticulous records were kept of every single winner. It’s the oldest chronological list in the Greek and Roman world.

The Olympics were more than a sporting event. The thing that distances our practice of sports from their practice is the aspect of religion.

In Ancient Greece athletes before they competed, they worshipped. The religious fervor went further than the ritual that surrounded the games.

The events themselves were considered a sacred offerings. In the Greek ideal, sports- a practice for war- and religion were inseparable. Athletes flocked to the Olympic Games to compete and to worship.

They came from all the City States (Athens, Sparta, Croton and others) into which the area of Greece was divided.

Pride and Honor

The games were rooted in religion, but the competition was fierce and often dangerous. Second place meant nothing. The winner gets it all.

Not just the prize, but the status of being a winner when he got home. He’ll get the same status if he dies in the games.

Not all events were as dangerous as the chariot races where competitors were stomped to death. Each event demanded absolute dedication.

The more often an athlete won, the more the pressure mounted to win again and again.

Phayilos the Olympian

Phayilos was said to be the greatest Olympic pentathlete. His praises were sung far and wide. A hero of the Persian wars he had a formidable reputation to maintain and defend.

There was a lot riding on the result.

Victory would bring “kudos” (praise) not to himself, but to Croton, his city-state. He spent months in training for the event. Under the keen eye of the judge, cheating occasionally happened. Phayilos prepared for his final decisive discus throw.

He should have been more confident. His was the longest recorded throw with the heavy bronze discus. His prize was a simple wreath made of olive leaf and the esteem of the gods. There was more to come.

Olympic Heroes

Returning Olympic heroes had gifts heaped upon them.

Their rewards included a lifetime and the right to take their meals at public expense, front row seats at the theater and tax exemption. All were provided by the winner’s city-state as a mark of their respect and gratitude.

City-states took a keen interest in their champions. For them the games had a significance beyond religious. They were an alternative to war.

Alternative to War

Ancient Greece was not a united nation in the way we would recognize today.

Many historians regard the Olympics as being typical of what being Greek was all about. You were a part of a network of city-states.

What they have in common their religion, their language and culture.

They were almost always in a state of war with each other. They only united when the threat of the Persians became too much for a few city-state to defeat.

What happens at Olympia is that war with each other becomes sublimated and changes from bad to good in the competition.

When called to war every citizen was expected to take part in the hostilities. It was a civic duty to fight for your city-state.

Much of the fighting was hard hand-to-hand combat, where strength and endurance were basic requirements. Fitness, it followed was highly valued. A goal to which the entire society aspired.

The ideal male, revered in life and celebrated in Greek art and sculpture was a supreme athlete with a muscular, toned body.

The Gymnasium

It was the Greeks who invented the gymnasium. Going to the gymnasium was accepted part of Greek daily life.

Every city had a municipal gymnasium at its heart. A large, well-appointed complex of buildings that male life centered around.

Most able-bodied men went every day for exercise, bathing and massage. The gymnasium’s focus was simple: the development and care of the male body.

There were baths, changing rooms, and even areas where athletes could douse themselves in olive oil. Outside areas were marked out for wrestling, strength training, javelin and discus throwing.

The activities of the gymnasium were modeled after the demands of the battlefield. Discus throwing strengthened the shield arm. The javelin was a variant of spear throwing.

Wrestling was preparation for hand-to-hand fighting. These were the core gymnasium skills from which the first Olympic game events were developed.

In the games the city-states saw a chance not only to demonstrate not just their athletic skills, but their potential prowess in battle. Events on the sports field were as hotly contested as any military encounter.

The Greeks discovered that sporting contests could act as a nonviolent way to conduct their struggles without the need to call out whole armies. A truce was called for, leading up to and including the games.

This allowed the city-states to concentrate on the contest without the distraction of a real battle. What the Olympics were really about was providing a sort of arena where the Greeks cities could slug it out without killing too many people.

There is a lot to be said for that as a justification of the games. The phrase used that George Orwell coined about sports and competition, “… that it is about war minus the shooting.”

The Olympic Games Today

The games have come a long way since the days of old. They no longer act as an alternative to war, but the competition between nations live on. At their best, they embody the noblest Greek ideals of patriotism, sportsmanship, and excellence.

Still, nearly 3,000 years later, an Olympic victory is acknowledged as the greatest of sporting achievements. Now, every 4 years, the nations of the world gather to light the Olympic flame.

As the world focuses on the pinnacles of competition, it remembers the ancient Greeks. It is unlikely the Greeks could have ever predicated their most globally recognized legacy.

It makes you wonder what we will leave behind for future generations to discover.