Thursday, 26 July 2012

How The Olympics Began

Head of Modern Languages and Classics, Benedict Lister, explains the origins of the Olympic Games (this article first appeared in Portsmouth Point magazine).

Herakles diverts the river (from
Temple of Zeus, Olympia)
Long, long ago, Herakles (Hercules to his Disney friends) had a serious dung issue. A thousand cattle had been doing what cows do for thirty years in the stables of Aegeus and Herakles had to give the cowsheds a spring clean. Instead of shovelling his way through the fetid faeces, he simply diverted the streams of the two local rivers, washed away the mountain of manure and the job was done. With time on his hands, he organized some athletic competitions in honour of his dad, next to a low hill between the two rivers. His dad was Olympian Zeus and the Olympic Games were born.

Pelops' chariot -- note its flimsiness
(designed for speed, not safety)
This combination of determination, deviousness and glory (rather symbolic of the ancient Olympics to my mind) is reinforced by the other legend related to the beginnings of the games, the chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos.  Pelops wanted to marry the local king’s daughter but any suitor had to beat the king in a chariot-race to secure the marriage. The price of defeat was death and many young heads were already nailed to the battlements by the time Pelops arrived. The only way he could win was by bribing a servant to sabotage the chariot. Oinomaos’ chariot duly collapsed during the race and he was flung to his death. Pelops had won his bride and was honoured at Olympia as a hero ever afterwards. It was Pelops, according to legend, who held the first chariot-racing competition at Olympia.

The Olympic Games were celebrated every four years between mid-August and mid-September (very hot, but a quiet time of year for farmers). The earliest recorded Olympics were held in 776BC. They became, as the Olympics are today, the most prestigious sporting event in the known world in which athletes, mostly professional, travelled from all over the Mediterranean to Olympia for the glory and prestige which victory in the five-day event would bring. But although victory brought nothing more than an olive wreath and a few woollen ribbons tied round the arms and legs, on his return to his native city the victorious athlete would be richly rewarded. He could expect sponsorship and might be paid simply for participating in lesser events in addition to the large cash prizes for victory. Just as today, victory at the Olympics brought enormous material benefits as well as fame to the individuals concerned.

Winner presented with a red woollen ribbon
(note the Olympics official carries a stick)
The stakes were therefore very high. There were no second prizes. It was victory or nothing (if there was a tie, no prize was given), and cheating remained a perennial problem. Numerous measures were introduced to keep things fair. Ten special officials were chosen by lot to supervise the athletes before and during the competition. In the month before the Olympics the athletes had to stay in a local town and train under the supervision of these officials (although they could bring a family member or professional trainer). As today, special diets went in and out of fashion to help optimize performance and an experienced doctor was on hand to offer advice. Athletes considered unfit were not allowed to compete. The officials carried sticks and could and would publically whip competitors or trainers who broke the rules (a punishment normally reserved for slaves). Heavy fines could be imposed, especially for bribery, and the money from such fines was used to pay for bronze statues of Zeus.

So much for the dirt; what about the glory?

Firstly the site itself developed into an impressive complex of temples, stadia, hotels for important guests and even swimming pools (outdoor and indoor). Rather as in rock/pop festivals today, the important people stayed in some comfort while the average spectator lived in tented villages just outside the main site. Because the site was so sacred, it contained a number of treasuries in which individual cities deposited money for safe-keeping.  Above all, the Olympics were a celebration of the power of Zeus, including a grand procession of athletes and magnificent sacrifices. There was also a temple of Hera on the site and separate Games of Hera in which women took part in foot-races.

The events were not all athletic - there were competitions for trumpeters, heralds as well as conventional horse races -  but the most prestigious event was the chariot race. This was the equivalent of horse racing or Formula One today. The teams were owned by exceptionally wealthy men (or women – the only event in which they could officially compete) and driven by professional riders or slaves. The prize went to the owner of the winning team while all the risks were undergone by the runners and riders. It was an extremely dangerous sport, not least for the spectators. No trace of the track remains today but it is likely to have had little in the way of barriers and the ground would have been bone-hard in the mid-summer heat. Accidents and fatalities were frequent.

A sprint race
(The athletes wore no clothes. It saved on laundry)
The stade race (a sprint of a little under 200m down the length of the stadium) was the oldest historical competition at the Olympics. The games were named after the winner so that it had the prestige of the 100m today. The other athletic events were all associated with military and fitness training including further running events, discus, javelin and a number of ‘contact’ sports: wrestling, boxing and, most notoriously of all, pankration. Pankration was a combination of boxing and wrestling in which almost anything seems to have been allowed. The Spartans were supposed to have developed the skill in order to kill people in battle when unarmed. All these events were brutal in the extreme and were particularly dominated by professional athletes. However, if an opponent actually died in competition, the winner could not receive a prize and victory was achieved generally by submission rather than a knock-out.

A contestant raises his finger as a sign of submission
Needless to say, stories of legendary feats abound. One fighter, called Arrhichion, won the competition despite being dead. His opponent had him locked in a chokehold and, in struggling to break free, Arrhichion grabbed his opponent’s toe (or ankle) and broke it. His opponent, in agony, submitted but, when the referee stopped the fight, it was discovered that Arrhichion was already dead. Nevertheless, as his opponent had submitted, the dead man was awarded the prize and his body was taken back to his home city in triumph. (For those interested in the gory details, read more here.)

So why did all this fun and games stop? The Christians banned the Olympics around 400 AD, not because of the violence but because the Games honoured pagan gods and heroes. No religious group in ancient times was more intolerant of other faiths than the Christians. Herakles became just a legend and, perhaps out of pique, he caused the rivers to change their course once again, washing away most of his father’s magnificent sanctuary along with a thousand years of tradition.

The modern Olympics were born in a very different spirit, based on a rather rosy-tinted view of the Greek athlete. Today’s professionals are much closer to Greek reality than the nineteenth century amateurs, although there is nothing to match the violence of Classical contact sports nor is Usain Bolt likely to be publically caned for a false-start in the 100 metres final!

1 comment:

  1. I just typed in cows because cows are clearly awesome, and this came up! I can't believe these incredible animals could have started such an incredible event...well, i suppose i could because they are amazing.


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