This summer I sprinted in the Olympic stadium and stood on the winner’s podium. No, I’m not dreaming. One of the ports of call on my Mediterranean cruise was Katakolon, Greece which is a short bus ride from Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic Games which first took place in 776 BCE. I was fascinated by the archeological ruins as well as by the history and Greek mythology.
The ancient Olympics began as a religious festival in honour of Zeus, the legendary king of the Greek gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus. Opening ceremonies included animal sacrifices. Only Greek-born males were allowed to compete. Unmarried females participated in foot races in a separate festival to honour Hera, the wife of Zeus.
The Greeks put great effort into physical training, mental conditioning and nutrition. Many of their training practices are employed today such as cross-training, post-exercise rest and recovery, eating carbohydrates for energy and protein for muscle building. Training took place in the gymnasium which is derived from the Greek word “gymnos” meaning naked. Athletes trained and competed in the nude!
The Olympic events took place in the stadium. Greek males, girls and single women were allowed to watch the events. Married women, slaves and foreigners were forbidden from watching; there was a separate building where they stayed during the events and waited for news of the victors.
The ancient Olympics had only one winner per event. There were heats to reduce the competition. The final winner would enter the colossal Temple of Zeus. Inside it was a 40-foot wooden, gold and ivory statue of Zeus seated on a throne with Nike, the winged goddess of victory on his hand. The statue was removed over 1,600 years ago and was accidentally destroyed in a fire. All that remains of the temple today are its columns. After being crowned with a wreath made of branches from a sacred olive tree, the victor would return to the stadium where up to 40,000 spectators would cheer.
Olympic foot races were popular and varied in length. The shortest race was a single length of the stadium. The unit of measure was the stade (192 metres). There was also a two-stade race and races up to 24 stades (4.6 km). While touring the site, I placed my foot on the marble slab, a vestige of the ancient starting line. Our tour guide asked if anyone wanted to run the length of the stadium. I eagerly volunteered, then two men followed suit. When our guide shouted, “Go!” I took off like a rocket as I imagined myself running in ancient times. I was in the lead for most of the distance but then the two men overtook me. I jokingly declared myself the “female victor” and excitedly posed for photos on the winner’s podium with my arms in the air and fists clenched like the goddess of victory.
During the ancient Olympics, the victors were immortalized with statues in the Temple of Zeus. Sculptors employed a new style that emphasized movement and muscles. Statues of athletes caught cheating or bribing were erected along the pathway leading to the stadium as a tactic to dissuade others from taking such action.
Original Olympic sports included boxing, chariot racing and horse racing, running, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing and the long jump. There was also pankration – a violent sport combining wrestling and boxing. It was similar to modern mixed martial arts. There were few rules and combatants would beat each other to a pulp.
The ancient Olympics took place every four years and continued under the Roman Empire. It was in 394 CE that a Christian emperor abolished the Olympic Games due to their Hellenic polytheistic foundations.
The first modern Olympics took place in 1896 in Athens. It was no longer limited to Greek-born athletes but females were still barred from competing. Over time, women’s events were added. In 2012, all Olympic sports had female representation after women’s boxing was added. 2012 was also the first time all participating countries included female athletes. There is still gender inequality to some degree. Men can’t participate in synchronized swimming or rhythmic gymnastics and several sports limit women to shorter distances and fewer sub-events.
While some ancient Olympic practices are unacceptable by today’s standards, the Greeks were very advanced in many ways and had a profound impact on modern sport that we can all appreciate.