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Games of the Ancient Olympics

The Olympics began in ancient Olympia Greece, which lies 10km east of Pirgos, in a valley between Mt. Kronos, the Alfios river, and the Kladeos. This area was inhabited by the Pisans, whose King was Oinomaus. His daughter Hippodameia had married Pelops, and it has been said that the first games were held in their honor around 1000 B.C. Through the years the games began to attract interest in nearby towns. In 776 B.C. , the leader of the Eleians, Iphitos, rededicated the games to the honor of Zeus, (the most important god in the ancient Greek pantheon). As a result of the religious nature of the games, all wars would cease during the contests. The original games only consisted of one race, one day with a cook, Coroibus of Elis, being the first winner. Later in time the powerful Spartans influenced the games by adding roughly ten new events to the agenda (Carlos 1).

In contrast to modern olympics, there were fewer events, women were barred rights of participation, and the games were always held at Olympia instead of moving to different sites. The winners would be rewarded with a simple olive tree branch, which was cut with a gold-handled knife, from a wild olive tree, as well as being known as heroes for putting their hometown on the map (Library Advanced Org. [LAO], 1).

While the exact amount of spectators that attended the Olympics is unknown, the tiers of the Olympic stadium were built to accommodate around forty-five to fifty thousand. As the games grew, royalty began to compete for personal gain, mainly in the chariot events. Humans and gods were glorified as well as many winners erecting statues around the arena to deify themselves (Carlos 1,2).

The pentathlon was added in 708 B.C. in the 18th Olympiad consisting of five events: discus, javelin, long jump, running and wrestling. The pentathlon was said to be invented by Jason, who combined the five events and awarded the first prize to a friend, Peleus, who placed second in everything except for wrestling, which he placed first.

The pentathlon was a combination of light events: jumping, running, javelin and heavy events: discus and wrestling. While it remains unknown how the decision of the winner was made, it is believed that the last two winners confronted each other in wrestling, with the winner declared pentathlon victor. Speed, strength, skill, and endurance are all qualities necessary to participate in the pentathlon. A quote from Aristotle, ?The pentathletes are the best, because they are naturally endowed with both strength and speed? (Foundation of the Hellenic World [FHW], 1).

Boxing, added in 688 B.C., was first mentioned in Homeric poems, and was held in honor of Patroclus. It is said that Apollo, who defeated and killed Phorbus, was the inventor of the boxing event. The ancient boxing differed in many ways from the modern boxing that we are used to. While having no time limit to the fight, opponents fought until one raised his hand in defeat, or fell knocked out or dead. An effective tactic of ancient boxing was positioning your opponent to face the sun, blinding him with the glare. When a match would stalemate, the contestants had the option of klimax, which meant both men stood still and allowed his opponent a blow without making an attempt to avoid it.

For wrist and hand support, the boxers would wrap himantes, or straps of soft ox-hide around the first knuckles of the fingers, then ran diagonally across the palm onto the back of the hand, leaving the thumb uncovered. Because himantes were time consuming, boxers later started using ?oxies himantes? which had hard leather straps with a layer of wool to protect the hand. The Romans later invented the caestus, which was a boxing glove reinforced with iron and lead, transforming the art of boxing into a deadly contest.

Philostratos claims that a good boxer should have long strong arms, a high neck and powerful flexible wrists. It is also important that the boxer has persistence, patience, endurance, as well as great will power and strength.

A popular boxing match that was recorded in ancient mythology was a battle between Polydeukes and Amykos, king of Bebrykes. The king challenged all travelers through his country, and he would kill them in the match. He then proceeded to challenge Polydeukes who was too tough of a competitor for the king, and he made the king swear to leave all travelors alone from there on in (FHWB 1-2, LAO 1).

The discus is one of the competitions that does not relate to any military or farming action. Homer?s description of the event dates back to when Achilles held events in honor of Patroclus.

Through archeological discoveries, vase paintings indicate that the discuss was at first made of stone, then later made of iron, lead, or bronze. The discuss ranged from 17 to 32 cm in diameter, and weighed from 1.3 to 6.6 kilograms with two curves that had a large circumference. In order to be a successful discuss thrower it was required to have rhythm, precision, and power. To throw the discuss, the athlete would hold the discuss high with one hand and support it with the other swinging it forcefully down and forward or from the side and forward. Shoulders muscles, chest and ribs are all used in this motion.

In Greek mythology, it is said that Apollo accidentally killed his friend Hyakinthios with the discus, when the Zephyr blew it off its course. However unlike mythology, there is no proof of any accidental deaths during the competition because the spectators sat on embankments (FHWD 1).

With war and hunting being connected to everyday life, the javelin event had no shortage of competitors. Homer mentions this event as one of the games Achilles held to honor his friend Patroclus.

It is uncertain whether javelin had a metal head, or if it was just simply pointed, but it was wooden and about as long as a man?s height. A javelin with the pointed head was necessary for target practice while one with a rounded blunt head was used for a smooth, steady flight. In ancient javelin throwing a leather strap that formed a loop, called a thong, was used to increase the power of the throw because it made the grip more secure. With a rotating motion in its axis that stabilized the javelin in flight, it helped to achieve greater distance.

There were two forms to the javelin event which were: throwing the javelin for distance, and throwing it at a predetermined target. When throwing the javelin for distance, the athlete stood at the starting line of the stadium, which enabled room for a couple of steps before throwing. There was an area marked off where the javelin had to land or it was considered invalid.

Throwing for distance was a highly skilled sequence of events that started with the athlete first tying the thong tight, and putting his middle index fingers into the loop of the thong. He then pushed the javelin back with his left hand to tighten the thong and to grip the fingers of his right hand. Then, while holding the javelin close to his head, the body turns in the direction of the throw and the run-up starts. He took a few steps before the starting line, pulled his right arm back and turned his body and head to the right. He crossed his right foot in front of the left and drew his left arm back to help the turn. Then bending at the knees slightly, the left leg is stretched out in front of him to stop his movement so he could remain behind the line. The javelin is then thrown over the head in the final position, similar to that of today?s athlete.

When throwing at a target, the athlete is usually on horseback. While the horse is galloping the rider had to throw the javelin when it was a certain distance from the target. Being on horseback made for an unsteady hand, making this event difficult. A steady eye, a strong hand , and experience on a horse were necessary to succeed in this event (FHWJ 1,2).

Linking to the rough Greek countryside and warfare, the soldiers? had the advantage in the jumping event. In order to move quickly in battle, long jumping was crucial in the countryside with many ravines. Mainly being an event in the decathlon, the jumping contest was rarely used as a separate event.

The earliest equipment used in jumping events were stone or lead weights called halteres. They were made in various shapes and sizes so that the athlete could grip it. Varying in weight, their main purpose was to increase the length of the jump. On one side of the fifty foot jumping pit, there was a fixed point called the bater. This was a point from where all jumps were measured. By swinging the halteres and getting a running start, the athlete would then jump and hold onto the weights until the end of his flight, then throw them backwards. He then came down onto the soil with his feet together, with his jumped being measured with a wooden rod called a kanon.

A good jumper needed quick acceleration within the limited runway. Coordination and power was essential in using the bater for proper spring in their jump. It all had to be put together for the proper execution of kicking, swinging the arms, and of throwing the weights in the air. A flute player was sometimes used in helping the athlete perform the proper rhythm and musical flow of the jump (FHWJ 1,2).

The sport of running was the true ancient form of athletic competition. This sport is so ancient there is no true way to clarify the exact time or origin for the beginning of the sport of running. Running was an important part of children?s education as they learned of the techniques and philosophies.

Runners began by wearing a loin cloth around their waist, then abandoned it and started running completely naked. One exception was a separate event in which the runners would race in complete armor, consisting of a shield, a helmet, and shin plates. A hysplex was also formed to ensure that all runners started at the same time.

There were three main kinds of foot-races being the stade, which was the length of one stade or two-hundred meters, the diaulos, which was the length of two stades or four-hundred meters, and the dolichos, which ranged between seven to twenty-four stades, or fourteen to eighteen hundred meters. All runners started at the hysplex at the same time under a specific word or command. There was an understanding code of honors between all the competitors of no hindering opponents physically, no bribery, and no magic spells. Being the most common form of exercise in ancient Greece, there was a surplus of good competition in this event with many athletes having the possession of great strength, speed and endurance (FHWR 1-2, LAO 3).

According to tradition, the first equestrian event, (chariot race), was between Pelops and Oinomaos, the king of Pisa. Homer also includes the chariot event as being organized by Achilles in honor of Patroclus. To be successful at driving the chariot, one had to have the ability to keep the chariot on a straight course which was difficult with four horses varying in strength leading the way.

The Hippodrome, a wide open space with two pillars marking start and finish, was the site of the equestrian events. The horses ran in an area divided by a partition of stone or wood, measuring the distance of four stades, (seven-hundred sixty-nine meters). There were three different horse races held at Olympia. These races included the following: the keles, a race designed for a rider on a full grown horse, the kalpe, a race for the mares, and the race for the foals. There were four main chariot races whose origin is influenced by the war-like manner of the Archaens. They are as follows: the tethrippon- four horse chariot, the apene- a chariot pulled by two mules, the synoris- chariot pulled by a pair of horses, as well as the tethrippon and the synoris for the foals.

The standard war chariot was built for two men, and left open in the back. However, the chariot used in the two and four horse races only carried the charioteer. Many accidents were caused during these events because to gain an advantage you would strive for the inside of the hippodrome, which many did, causing congestion, leading to accidents. Not to much information has been revealed as far as the exact ruling of the events but it is known that swerving in front of opponents was illegal, except for trying to avoid accidents. The perimeter of the race-course at Olympia was eight stades, one-thousand five-hundred thirty-eight meters (HTMCE 1-2, LAO 2).

The pankration was added at the thirty-third Olympiad, in six-forty eight B.C. It is believed that pankration was founded by Theseus, who combined wrestling and boxing together to defeat the fierce Minotaur in the labryinth. According to Philostratos, it is an excellent way to train warriors because this was the primitive way to fight the enemy whether it be human or animal.

With no equipment being used in this event, all wrestling holds and boxing blows were legal, with biting and eye gouging not being permitted. The pankration was the toughest of all of the events having no regard to the dangers of the body or the life of either contestant. The pankration had two main forms: the kato pankration- allowed the contest to continue after both opponents fell to the ground, and the ano pankration- were the opponents had to remain standing. With pankratiasts not wearing the lead gloves that the boxers were allowed to wear, they were allowed to hold with one hand and punch with the other, unlike boxing. Different tactics such as the hyptiasmos (back fall), the apopternizein (heel trick), and the gastrizein (stomach kick) were used. The competitors with the advantage were the ones with such physical builds which allowed them to be the best boxers amongst the wrestlers and vice versa. Courage, endurance, and psychological advantages were also key for success (HTMP 1, LAO 2).

The first records of Olympic wrestling occurred in seven-hundred eight B.C. Being valued as an important military exercise without weapons, there were two distinct variations, differing in holds and methods. First was the orthia pale, were the object was to throw your opponent to the ground three times. The matches continued until someone was victorious and named ?triakter.? Second was the kato pale, were the wrestlers would compete until submission, which was indicated by the raising of one?s right hand with the index finger pointed. The wrestlers were anointed with olive oil then dusted with powder to make them easier to grasp. Punching, tripping, biting, and eye gouging were not allowed and there was no weight distinction. The matches took place in the ?keroma?, a muddy, sticky arena. Men with stout builds, agility, strength and skill were the most successful (HTMW 1, LAO 3).

Messengers and trumpeters, aside from athletes, were introduced in the 96th Olympics (three-ninety six B.C.). The winners of their events were honored with the privilege to trumpet and announce the athletes during the athletes (HTMM 1).

When the Roman emperor Nero began his rule over Greece the glory of the Olympics dissolved into the personal gain of the champions who then began demanding money and gifts for their reward. The Roman soldiers then converted the stadium into amphitheaters. Instead of athletes from surrounding cities competing, slaves were brought in to compete for their lives in events usually against animals. The games continued until about three-ninety four A.D., when Theodosius I , the Roman emperor put a halt to the games feeling that they had pagan connotations (Anderson 11). About thirty years later, Theodosius II ordered for the walls of the Olympic stadium to be leveled. Approximately one century later an earthquake had turned the historic site into ruins when the Alpheus River flowed across what was once the Olympic site (Kristy 31).

The Greeks had made two attempts to restore the Olympics in Athens in eighteen-fifty nine and again in eighteen-seventy. It was not until the work of Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin that the Olympics were revived in Athens on April 6, 1896 (Anderson 12).

The true meaning of the Olympics has been somewhat upstaged by both the Summer Games and the Winter Games, which now seem to be more of a big business than a sport. Although certain traits of the ancient Olympics still exist. The thrill of competition not just winning still exists along with representation of ones country. Opening and closing ceremonies still exist with the torch being lit which leads to flames burning during competition. Lastly, competitors are still inspired by the Olympic motto of Citius Altius-Fortius, words that translate from latin to, ?Faster-Higher-Stronger? (Kristy 12).


Anderson, Dave. The Story of the Olympics. New York: William Morrow and

Company, 1996.

Australian Sports Commission. Olympic Facts: History of the Ancient Olympics.

Homepage. 14 March 1999. *http://.ausport.gov.au/anc.html*.

Carlos, John. History: The Ancient Olympics. Homepage. 14 March 1999.


FHW. Welcome to the Foundation of the Hellenic World. Home Page. 4 Dec. 1998.

*http://www.fhw.gr/projects/olympics/classical games.html*.

Kristy, Davida. Coubertein?s Olympics: How the Games Began. Minneapolis: Lerner

Publications company, 1995.

LAO. The Ancient Olympics. Home Page. 3 March 1999.


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