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World Sport

The Ancient Olympics

By Paul Sussman for CNN

we may sing of no contest greater than Olympia,
just as water is the most precious of all the elements,
just as gold is the most valuable of all goods,
and just as the sun shines brighter than any other star,
so shines Olympia, putting all other games into the shade

Pindar, First Olympian Ode (5th century BC)

Olympic Running track
The ancient running track at Olympia.
The modern Olympics may have come a long way from their ancient origins, but the key events can all be traced back to classical Greece.

They might be bigger, glitzier and certainly a lot more commercialized, but in spirit at least the modern day Olympics -- inaugurated in 1896 -- have remained remarkably true to the ancient Greek Games on which they were modeled.

Competition, controversy, rivalry, heroics: the ancient Olympics had them all, not to mention their fair share of political intrigue and the occasional flagrant act of cheating.

Although games in one form or another had almost certainly been held earlier, tradition maintains that the first proper Olympics took place in 776 BC at Olympia in the Greek Peleponnese -- hence the competition's name.

From that date onwards they would be held every four years for the next twelve centuries, always in July or August, and always in the same place - unlike the modern Games, the ancient competition did not move around.

Olympia was sacred to Zeus, head of the pantheon of Greek Gods and Goddesses, and the ancient Games were essentially a religious festival in his honor.

They had an important political raison d'etre as well, however, bringing together representatives from all the various independent city-states that at that time made up the Greek world, states that more often than not were at war with each other.

Whereas the modern Olympics are an international competition -- a record 201 countries will be participating in the 2004 Olympiad -- the ancient Games were, for most of their 1200-year history, an exclusively Greek institution.

They were open to all free-born, Greek-speaking males, attracting athletes not just from the Greek mainland and surrounding islands, but also from the most far-flung Greek colonies, everywhere from Iberia (Spain) in the west to the Black Sea in the east.

Non-Greeks, slaves and women were barred from competing, and, with the exception of unmarried girls, from spectating as well (unmarried girls were also allowed to participate in a footrace at a separate religious festival in honor of the Goddess Hera). To break the ban on spectating was punishable by death.

The Games were organized and controlled by the city of Elis, 48 kms (30 miles) to the north of Olympia.

Wars suspended

Every four years heralds would be dispatched across the Greek world to announce the approach of the Olympiad, and also to proclaim the Olympic Truce (ekecheiria ) whereby all wars and acts of aggression would be suspended for the duration of the competition.

Stadium entrance
The ancient tunnel at Olympia through which athletes would pass to enter the stadium.

Athletes -- the term derives from the Greek words athlon (prize) and athlein (to compete for a prize) - would arrive in Elis a month before the start of the games where they would train for four weeks under the supervision of ten special judges known as Hellenodikai (literally, The Judges of the Hellenes). These judges would then choose which athletes actually appeared in the Games. Unlike today there were no heats, just finals.

The first Games in 776 BC lasted only a single day, and consisted of just one event, the stadion, a 200 yard (183 meter) foot race, won in that year by Koroibos, a cook from Elis.

Over the following years new events were gradually added -- including wrestling, boxing, the pentathlon and equestrian competitions (see box) - while the overall length of the Games expanded to five days.

Unlike modern sportsmen with their designer labels and ergonomically-friendly kits, ancient competitors performed naked.

Victory in a particular event was rewarded with a kotinos, a wreath made from an olive branch cut with a golden knife from a sacred tree. There was no recognition for second or third place.

As well as the honor of being an Olympic champion, winners became heroes in their home states, where they could expect huge material rewards for their efforts. In Athens, for instance, Olympic victors would receive a cash payout of 500 drachmai from the city authorities -- a fortune in those days -- as well as a free meal in the city hall for the rest of their lives.

Olympic runners, as depicted on a classical vase.

While in the early days of the Games participants were drawn mainly from the leisured aristocracy, as time went on a class of professional athletes gradually started to emerge, men who made their living from their sporting prowess, training full time and employing expert coaches to hone and develop their skills.

The most successful of these athletes became known throughout the Greek world, with poems written in their honor, statues of them erected and their likenesses reproduced on vases and coins -- the pin-ups of their day

Among the most renowned ancient Olympic competitors were Theagenes of Thasos, who won Olympic titles in both boxing (480 BC) and pankration (476 BC), and Milo of Croton, a five-times Olympic wrestling champion and the most famous ancient athlete of them all.

The latter, who lived in the 6th century BC, would reputedly eat 40lbs (18 kgs) of meat and bread at one sitting, and was said to be so strong that he could tie a cord around his forehead and, holding his breath, snap the cord simply by making his forehead veins bulge.

Cheats and villains

If they had their heroes, however, the ancient Olympics also had their cheats and villains.

The remains of the "Leonidaion," the building at Olympia in which dignitaries would stay for the duration of the Games.

Bribery of opponents was commonplace -- the first recorded instance was that of Eupolus of Thessaly who, in 384 BC, tried to fix the boxing competition -- while there are several examples of city-states, desperate for the kudos of an Olympic victor, paying athletes from other city-states to lie about their place of origin.

Such rule breaking was punished with heavy fines, the money being used to erect statues of the God Zeus along the road leading to the Olympic arena.

Political rivalry could also undermine the spirit of the ancient Games. Boycotts were not unheard of, while on several occasions the Olympic Truce broke down altogether as animosity between rival city-states spilled over into full-blown conflict.

In 364 BC, for instance, the historian Xenophon records how, in the middle of the pentathlon competition, a pitched battle broke out between soldiers from Elis and troops from the neighboring city of Pisa, the fighting continuing for an entire day and involving thousands of men.

Despite the rule breaking, political intrigue and occasional eruptions of violence, the Games remained a central, and cherished aspect of ancient Greek culture for well over a thousand years, celebrating as they did all the virtues that were most admired by that culture -- courage, physicality, competitiveness, honor -- as well as offering a unique period of respite from the internecine confrontations that habitually tore apart the Greek world.

With the fall of Greece to the Roman Empire, however, the ethos of the Games became steadily more debased (in 67 AD the Emperor Nero competed in the chariot race and was declared the victor despite the fact that he fallen out of his chariot).

It was not this that finally put paid to the ancient Olympics, however, but the rise of Christianity. For the newly-converted Roman Emperors the Games were a throwback to an age of barbarism and pagan worship, and in 393 AD, 1169 years after Koroibos of Elis became the first ever Olympic victor, the Emperor Theodosius I finally outlawed the Games.

It was to be 1,500 years before they were held again.

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