(This essay was originally published as “Ancient Roots of Olympics,” by the Newport Daily News on August 19, 2016.)
Among their many other innovations, the ancient Greeks invented organized, competitive sports, commonly accepted to have begun in 776 BC. The ancient Olympic Games continued for almost 1200 years until the Christian Emperor Theodosius outlawed the games in 393 AD as a form of pagan ritual. While the modern Olympic Games, re-instituted in 1896, share some similarities with the ancient Games, there are also vast differences.
The ancient Games were and the modern Games are truly majestic spectacles. However, the ancient Games were more than just a remarkable athletic event. Writer Tony Perrottet describes the overall experience at the ancient Games as a combination of “Carnival in Rio, Easter Mass at the Vatican, and a tour of Universal Studios.”
We are not sure why the ancient Greeks began the Games; however, they were certainly motivated by religion, dedicating the Games to their main god Zeus. Factors which help explain their initiation include the ancient Greeks’ love of physical exercise and challenge, their adoration of the beauty and functionality of the human body, and finally their intense competitiveness.
In modern times, the site of the Games is determined by a formal, complex bidding process among major cities of the world. Rio is the first South American city to host the Summer Games, and the Rio Games are the first to be held in Latin America since 1968.
Unlike the modern Games, the ancient Games were held in one place, Olympia, a rather remote location in southwest Greece on the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Ancient Greece was not a unified country as we know it today. It was a collection of city-states (town and city political units) which shared a “Greek-ness”: common linguistic, cultural, religious, and political elements.
As today, the ancient Games took place every four years. Also as today, there were many other regular athletic competitions, the three other important games being at Delphi, Corinth, and Nemea. The Games of Zeus at Olympia, however, were the most sacred and prestigious and the olive wreath prizes were the most coveted. There were no winter games; these were added to the modern Games in 1924. The Rio Games will last for a total of 17 days while the ancient Games were simply five days.
While today’s Games may have an air of spirituality at certain times, the ancient Games were imbued with religion. A sacred war truce was declared for the month preceding and the month after the Games. The altar of Zeus and the eventual 40-foot statue of Zeus played large roles in the Games, the statue becoming one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Finally, of the five days of the ancient Games, over two full days were devoted to religious ceremonies and rituals.
While the modern Games are open to the best athletes of the world, the ancient Games were restricted to adult, free-born, Greek males, at least until Rome annexed Greece in the second century BC. Women, slaves, and foreigners were banned. Greek girls, probably teenagers, had a separate sporting event dedicated to the goddess Hera.
Attire was starkly different. Athletes, and eventually their trainers, were stark naked. The Greeks believed that only barbarians would be ashamed of displaying their bodies. This also helped to eliminate any vestiges of social status differentiating the competitors.
The Rio Games are featuring 28 sports, including two new ones: rugby sevens and golf, with 306 events at which medals may be won. The ancient Games contained 18 core events, many similar to today’s events, such as running, boxing, javelin, and discus. However, the ancient Games also included others, such as chariot racing, a foot race in full armor, and finally the pankration, an extreme form of wrestling and boxing even more of a brawl than our professional “ultimate fighting”. Only eye-gouging was banned. There were no team sports, ball sports, swimming events, or marathons, even though we get our word “marathon” from ancient Greek history. There were also events for boys 12-18 years of age.
In terms of prizes, while today’s Olympics offer “gold”, “silver”, and “bronze” medals, the ancient Games at Olympia awarded olive wreaths. There were no prizes for second or third place. Just like today, however, lucrative benefits flowed for those who were victors. Every city in ancient Greece had cash prizes for athletes who won, but also other benefits, such as victory parades, lifetime seats at theatrical venues, pensions, community roles, and free meals.
Attendance at the ancient Games was restricted to men and unmarried women, with strict punishment for married women who sought to attend.
The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus in the first century pondered the popularity and longevity of the Games and argued that they were like life itself: “Unpleasant and difficult things happen in life. Don’t they happen at Olympia?” The heat of the sun, the crowds, the bad washing facilities, the rain, the noise, the shouting, and many other annoyances. “But of course you endure all of it because it’s unforgettable spectacle.”
Fred Zilian teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University.
Amos, H.D. & A.D.P. Lang. These Were the Greeks. Chester Springs, PA: Dufour, 1982.
Freeman, Charles. The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World. NY: Viking, 1999.
Perrottet, Tony. The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games. NY: Random House, 2004.