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The Real Story of the Ancient Olympic Games

The Real Story of the Ancient Olympic Games

BY David Stuttard

This past April, a solemn ceremony was held in front of the ruined Temple of Hera in Olympia in southern Greece. Serious young men and women dressed in classical-style costumes danced and sang while a torch was lighted from the focused rays of the sun. The torch then began its long trek, first through Greece and thence to Switzerland, before crossing the Atlantic to Brazil, where a team of more than 12,000 relay runners carried it around the country to 83 cities and 500 towns before it reached Rio de Janeiro, its final destination. 

In Rio, at the climax of a celebration in the Maracanã Stadium, to the resounding cheers of a packed audience and watched globally by perhaps four billion people, the torch flame is being used to light a massive caldron. The official website of the Games proclaims that the torch “emphasizes the link between the ancient and modern Games and underlines the profound connection between these two events.” But what were those ancient Games really like? And how profound is the connection? 

The ancient Games were celebrated for over a millennium from the eighth century B.C. (before the Homeric poems were written down) to the fifth century A.D. (after Alaric’s sack of Rome). To survive for so long, they needed to adapt to suit changing realities, while at the same time offering a stable forum not just for competition among the participants but for exchange among the spectators.

The Games provided opportunities for the sale of food and merchandise, for artistic, literary and philosophical discussion, and for political summits among powerful leaders. Like their modern counterparts, they were a unifying force, bringing far-flung people together in one place at one time to celebrate a common ethos.

But like so much in antiquity, what at first seems reassuringly familiar proves on closer examination to be bewilderingly alien. Exploring the ancient Olympics can seem like falling down the rabbit hole or gazing into a curiously distorting mirror.

While today’s Games stress inclusivity, their ancient counterparts were rigidly exclusive. To compete in this celebration of not just Greek (and, later, Greco-Roman) identity but of proud god-fearing masculinity, you had to speak Greek, be free from the pollution of murder—and be male. Women couldn’t even be spectators. Only the priestess of Demeter could attend. 

The chief reason for these restrictions is that the original Games were not really about sport at all. Rather, they were one part of a major male religious festival in honor of the great god Zeus. Indeed, Olympia, site of the Games, was named for Mount Olympus, where Zeus was considered to have had his throne.

Olympia was a rural sanctuary in a fertile valley between two rivers. No one quite agreed what made the site so sacred. Some said it was because Zeus defeated his father Cronus here and seized supreme power. Others maintained that, after cleansing the Augean stables and then defeating the local king in battle, the hero Heracles inaugurated the early Games in Zeus’ honor. Still others told how Pelops, Zeus’ grandson, established them, having won the hand of a local princess, Hippodameia, after sabotaging her father’s chariot to win a race, for which she was the prize. The father died as a result, and Pelops, haunted and remorseful, set up the early competitions in his honor. 

All these foundation myths were emblazoned in sculptures on the fifth-century B.C. Temple of Olympian Zeus, while inside the building a seated statue of the god reduced onlookers to a state of awe. Forty feet high and faced in gold and ivory, it gleamed in the echoing, incense-laden inner chamber. As the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus swooned: “You journey to Olympia to gaze on the statue of Zeus and every one of you would think it a great misfortune to die never having seen it.”

This Greek amphora (jar) shows long jumping. The jumper holds lead or stone weights, to help him jump further. Pegs in the ground mark previous jumps.

Separated from the Temple of Zeus by a sacred area housing the supposed grave mound of Pelops, there stood a second, squatter temple dedicated to Hera. In it were stored some of the key paraphernalia of the Olympic Games, including a discus on which were inscribed the terms of the “Olympic Truce,” proclaimed by itinerant heralds months before the festival began to ensure that participants and spectators could enjoy safe passage.

As time went on, these heralds’ journeys became longer. The first Games, traditionally held in 776 B.C., were small-scale and local. Apart from sacrifices and other religious rites, it included only one sporting event, a footrace of 200 yards, a distance which the Greeks called a stade (hence our “stadium”), and which took well under a minute to run. The first winner was Coroebus, a young man from Elis, the local city which administered the festival, and the victors in the next 10 Games were local, too. But new events were soon introduced, and by the early fifth century B.C., the Olympic Games had become quite literally the hub of the Greek-speaking world. 

For the five days in August straddling the first full moon, athletes and their trainers, aristocrats and artists, poets, philosophers, hawkers and artisans congregated at Olympia to see and be seen, do deals and exchange ideas. Much of that time was spent in worship: grand processions, the sacrifice of many hundred oxen, banquets in honor of gods and heroes. But increasingly, competition assumed a more central role.

The stade race, run at the midpoint of the Games, remained the centerpiece—so much so that in the fifth-century B.C., when it became desirable to introduce an internationally recognized dating system, the polymath philosopher Hippias hit on the formula, “in the xth year of the yth Olympiad, when z was victor in the footrace.” 

Runners in the 'race in armour' at Olympia. The winner has taken off his helmet. The other runner (a bad loser?) has thrown away his shield!

The formula caught on, not only promoting the importance of the Games still further but becoming the means whereby a triumphant runner could win everlasting fame. Many such winners received spectacular welcomes when they returned home. In 412 B.C., when the Sicilian Exaenetus docked at his native Acragas (modern Agrigento) having won the stade race for the second time, he was met by 300 chariots, each drawn by two snow-white horses, ready to escort him up into the city.

Like other athletes at the Games, runners competed naked. Again, the origins of this tradition were debated, but the most well-known involved Orisippus, a young man from Megara near Athens. Until 720 B.C., loincloths were de rigueur, but that year Orisippus raced so vigorously that his fell off. When he crossed the line to victory, it was seen as a sign from the gods and henceforth any kind of clothing was banned.

But the athletes probably didn’t look exactly naked. By Roman times, if not before, it was common first to anoint the bodies of competitors in oil, then to sprinkle them with dust or powder. One treatise recommended the dust of terra-cotta for helping to open pores, asphalt dust for heating the chilled and yellow earth for softening the skin, commenting that: “Yellow dust also adds glisten, and is a delight to see on a body which is in good shape.” Athletes may well have looked like moving statues.

There were no team events in the ancient Olympics. Apart from races over various distances up to 2¾ miles (24 lengths of the stadium), there were two other main types of contests: those involving strength and those involving horses. Some—racing, boxing and wrestling—featured contests for both men and boys. It was during a boys’ boxing match that one of the greatest scandals of the ancient Games was unmasked.

Pisodorus came from a long line of boxers from the island of Rhodes, but disaster struck when his father, who was also his trainer, died. At last a mysterious substitute stepped in, accompanying the boy to Olympia to cheer him on. But when Pisodorus won, his coach (who, like everyone else at the time, was a stranger to underwear) excitedly leapt over the ring fence, with robes hitched high to stop them from getting caught.  

In a flash, the truth was out. The trainer was a woman, Pisodorus’s mother. The penalty for a woman caught attending the Games was to be flung off a nearby cliff to her death, but the judges were so in awe of her illustrious family (or perhaps of her muscular physique) that they consented on this one occasion to bend the rules. From then on, they introduced new legislation. Henceforth trainers, like athletes, were obliged to come naked to the Games—just in case.

The only contact sport forbidden to boys was the pancration, an almost-no-holds-barred free-for-all, in which only biting and eye-gouging were prohibited. A Roman commentator reflected that the competitor must “endure black eyes…and learn holds by which the fallen can still win, and they must be skillful in the various arts of strangulation.” 

One pancratist’s win was particularly unconventional. Arrhachion came from Phigalia, a city in mountainous Arcadia. In 564 B.C. the two-time winner came to Olympia where “his opponent, whoever he was, got a grip first and held Arrhachion with his legs squeezed around his neck at the same time. Meanwhile, Arrhachion dislocated a toe on his opponent’s foot but was strangled and expired. At the same time, however, Arrhachion’s opponent gave up because of the pain in his toe. The judges proclaimed Arrhachion the winner and crowned his corpse.”

When Baron de Coubertin revived—or reimagined—the Olympics in 1896, drawing on the ethos of both the ancient Games and English public schools for inspiration, he averred: “What is important in life is not to triumph, but to take part; what is essential is not to have won, but to have fought well.” This may have been a fine late-Victorian ideal, but it was far from the ancient view. At Olympia there were no prizes for coming second, and, fueled by the Homeric exhortation “always to be best,” the desire to win kudos at almost any cost motivated every competitor.

For the aristocratic elite, it was in that most dangerous and exciting of all events, the chariot race, that the most kudos could be earned. Since its introduction in 680 B.C., leading Greek families from Sicily to Libya to the mainland and beyond coveted this prize above all others, because to win it was a sign of immense wealth and good judgment—and, since they hired charioteers to race for them, they ran no physical risks themselves. 

The cost of buying and maintaining a racing-chariot and team was astronomical, which was why the Athenian playboy-politician Alcibiades caused such a stir in 416 B.C. For that year he entered not one but seven chariots. The result was perhaps predictable. Of his teams, one came in first, another second, another either third or fourth. To celebrate his victory (and flaunt his wealth and connections), Alcibiades laid on a lavish banquet for every spectator at the Games—many thousands in all—and commissioned both a victory ode from Euripides and a painting marking his success, which he displayed on the Athenian Acropolis.

But Alcibiades was far from the most controversial entrant in the chariot race. In A.D. 67, the Roman emperor Nero (who had recently killed his mother) personally drove a 10-horse chariot team of his own. His biographer Suetonius records: “He fell from his chariot and was helped back in, but he could not continue and gave up before the end of the race. Even so he received the victor’s crown.”

In the pankration, wrestlers could do almost anything, except bite and poke out the other man's eyes. One fighter (right) is fouling, so the referee is about to hit him with a stick!

Like doping scandals today, rigged outcomes and cheating, though not common, certainly did tarnish the ancient Games. Visit Olympia, and you can still see the bases of the “Zanes,” bronze statues of Zeus erected from fines imposed on cheating athletes, with inscriptions naming and shaming the culprits. But nothing diminished the allure of the Olympics. Only Christianity could overcome them. With the banning of pagan practices by the Roman Emperor Theodosius in A.D. 391, their days were numbered, and by 425 the Olympics were no more.

For well over a thousand years the Games survived seismic shifts in politics and society, not to mention long-raging wars. Their religious focus undoubtedly played a major part in their longevity. And they evolved, too, with new contests being introduced (those for heralds and trumpeters were perhaps the most bizarre) while others (such as the mule race) were phased out. 

But it was more than all that, and here we arrive at the continuing appeal of the modern Games as well. The philosopher Epictetus put his finger on it. Even as he noted “the cacophony, the din, the jostling, the shoving [and] the crowding” of the ancient Games, he had to admit that “you are happy to put up with all this when you think of the splendor of the spectacles.”