The Greek Games at Olympia

Watching an absorbing BBC4 programme on ancient Delphi brought back memories of a family visit to this magical, mountainous place many years ago. It was a trip that started in Aegina, involved picking up a rental car in Athens, and took us not only to Delphi but to Olympia and Corinth as well. Like Olympia, Delphi and Corinth were sites of significant sporting festivals, and I recall the excitement of wending my way up to see the stadia at Delphi and then, the icing on the cake, Olympia (there was less to see at Corinth). While the games at Olympia were the oldest, starting in 776 BC and surviving without cancellation at least until AD 261, the Pythian games at Delphi (in honour of the god Apollo) and the Isthmian games at Corinth (in honour of Poseidon) were both established in 582 BC. Together with the Nemean games (honouring Zeus), located at Nemea and dating back to 573 BC, these pan-Hellenic festivals comprised the periodos or ‘circuit’ games. The Pythian games took place every four years in even years between the Olympic games; the biennial Isthmian games occurred in Olympic and Pythian years; and the biennial Nemean games took place in the years in between.

I wrote about the ancient Olympics in my Sport and Society: History, Power and Culture (Open University Press in 2005), and I have been revisiting the literature for a new book, Sport and Society: Issues and Controversies (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming). It is instructive to compare the ancient games at Olympia with (1) de Coubertin’s Victorian, amateur ‘reconstruction’ of the Olympics, and (2) the Olympic movement in the professional era of financial capitalism. So although what follows is predominantly descriptive, a few pointers are included on what is now called the sociology of mega-events.

The site of Olympia was sacred long before the advent of the games. A local monument to Zeus, a vast ash altar, probably dates back to the tenth century BC. This ‘altar’ has been depicted as a huge mound in excess of 20 feet high, consisting entirely of charred bones and ashes from centuries of animal sacrifices. Only priests and diviners were permitted to ascend to preside over rituals, the central sacrifice to Zeus taking place on the morning of the third or middle day of the games and culminating in the slaughter of 100 oxen.

Originally, the sanctuary at Olympia was a rustic outpost, but it developed rapidly from the fifth century BC. The Temple of Zeus was completed in 450 BC, the 40-foot high statue it contained, designed by Pheidias and wrought in gold and ivory, being one of the seven wonders of the world. In the early centuries of the Olympic games the athletes used an open, level stretch of ground with a line scratched in the sand to mark the start (hence the expression ‘starting from scratch’). In keeping with the religious nature of the festival, the finishing line was close to the altar of Zeus. Spectators lined the lower slopes of the Hill of Kronos. In time a rudimentary rectangular stadium was built, but it was not until 350 BC that a state-of-the-art stadium with a capacity of 40,000 was constructed. By this time the games had an aura: athletes had become thoroughly professional in outlook and preparation and victors stood to become cult heroes. As if in acknowledgement of this transition, the new stadium was located outside the sacred precinct. The stadium track measured 600 Olympic feet, or 192.28 metres, and was of clay with a light covering of sand. I walked rather than sprinted its length with a degree of reverence during my visit. There were stone stills at each end to mark the start and finish of the races. It seems that neither the stadium nor the other buildings were much in use during the period between the games.

As for the games, the principal officials or Hellanodikai began their preparations 10 months beforehand. Numbering 10 over most of the games and chosen by lot, they resided in nearby Ellis. One acted as supervisor-in-chief, while the others divided responsibilities for equestrian events, the pentathlon and ‘other events’. The athletes were required to train in their home towns for 10 months prior to the games. For the final month they honed their skills in Ellis under the strict supervision of the Hellanodikai. During this unforgiving, no-nonsense final period the Hellanodikai disqualified the unfit, checked candidates’ parentage and Greek descent, and settled any disputes concerning the classification of boys and men, colts and horses.

Given the strictures around preparations, only the reasonably affluent could aspire to compete. Moreover women, slaves and foreigners were specifically excluded from participating. Women were also banned as spectators. They were allocated their own festival at Olympia, the Heraia, or games held in the honour of Hera. The games at Hera were held every four years and consisted of a single foot race, the track being shortened by one-sixth to approximately 160 metres. Winners were awarded crowns of olive like male Olympic victors.

Two days before the commencement of the games at Olympia the assembly of Hellanodikai and other officials, athletes and their trainers, horses and chariots, together with their owners, jockeys and charioteers, travelled the 58 kilometres from Ellis to Olympia. Meanwhile the spectators were arriving, their safety guaranteed by the Olympic truce, the terms of which were engraved on a bronze discuss kept in the Temple of Hera in the Altius. It forbade all states participating in the games to take up arms, to pursue legal disputes or to carry out death penalties. Initially lasting one month, it was extended to two and then three months to cover those travelling from further afield. While the truce did not eliminate all martial activity, it did suppress most local wars.

In a British Museum Publication in 1982, Swaddling paints a wonderful picture of Olympia’s transformation around the games:

‘Princes and tyrants from Sicily and southern Italy sailed up the river in splendid barges; ambassadors came from various towns, vying with each other in dress and paraphernalia. The rich came on horseback and in chariots; the poor came on donkeys, in carts and even on foot. Food sellers came loaded with supplies for there was no town near Olympia. Merchants flocked in with their wares. Artisans came to make figurines that pilgrims could buy to offer their god. Booths and stalls were set up; tents and huts were erected, for only official delegates were given accommodation in the magnificent guest-house known as the Leonidaion. Most visitors looked for a suitable spot to put down their belongings and slept each night under the summer skies’.

The religious nature of the sporting festival did not mean there were nocrown problems’, as the names of the assistants appointed by the Hellanodikai to police both athletes and spectators imply: the mastigophoroi, or ‘whip-bearers’, and the rabdouchoi, or ‘truncheon-bearers.

Passing reference has been made to types of Olympic event. In fact, the short foot-race of around 200 metres was the oldest event, and indeed the only event at the first 13 Olympiads. The winner was held in the highest esteem: not only was the Olympiad named after him but the list of victors came to be used as a lynchpin of Greek chronology (the only common denominator in a country where every city had its own calendar). Over time additional foot-races were included: the diaulos (from 724 BC) consisted of two lengths of the stadium (about 400 metres), and the dolichos (from 720 BC), the only long race, consisted of 24 lengths (just shy of 5000 metres). In both the diaulos and the dolichos athletes ran up and down the track and around turning posts at each end. False starts were punished by flogging, that is, until starting gates were introduced in the fifth century BC.

Initially athletes wore a type of shorts, but this practice was soon abandoned and they competed nude. Why this change? There are various theories: maybe it was because the shorts of an Athenian runner, leading at the time, came adrift and he was impeded; maybe it was down to Orrhippos of Megara, who lost his shorts altogether despite winning the short foot-race in 720 BC; or maybe Greek men just liked to parade their bodies (a short favourite).

The remaining track-and-field events familiar to us today were contained in the pentathlon, which comprised discuss, (long) jump, javelin, running and wrestling. The first three events were only found in the pentathlon, while running and wrestling commanded separate competitions. The pentathlon and wresting first made their appearance in 708 BC. Interestingly, documents survive on events’ victors but not on times, distances and so on. The Greeks were not bothered about records.

There is much more to be said on change over time, particularly in relation to the Roman takeover of the games, but this is a blog and I must content myself with an observation or two. The first concerns what we now know as ‘professionalism’. If the earliest of Olympia’s spectacles were religious and ‘fun’, if well rewarded fun, this was far from true of their successors. By the close of the fifth century BC commentators like Euripides were regretting the games’ usurpation by fanaticism, adulation and money. The pot-hunting ‘mercenary’ athletic career had arrived. Familiar? In many respects the ancient Olympiads were closer to, say, the modern/postmodern games post-Los Angeles (1984) than they were to de Coubertin’s very English-public-school fabrications post-1896.

Aristotle once compared combat between armed and unarmed men with a contest between professional and non-professional athletes. For the Greeks, ‘professional’ denoted serious commitment and diligent training, not payment (even the earliest Olympic champions were handsomely rewarded). It may be that prizes of value were given at Olympia prior to 752 BC, when the olive wreath was first introduced; after this date, although no money changed hands, there is no doubt that winners’ futures were secure. In 594 BC Solon passed a law that led to the awarding of 500 drachmas to winners at Olympia (and 100 drachmas to victors at the Isthmian games). One tongue-in-cheek calculation suggests that 500 drachmas in Solon’s Athens was equivalent to something like $338,000 in 1980.

Of course there are marked historical discontinuities (which the American sociologist of sport, Guttman, has endeavoured to summarize); but there are some parallels too, I suggest, between the ethos of the ancient games and the Olympiads of financial capitalism. In some respects, Jamaican short-race specialist Usain Bolt, self-proclaimed ‘living legend’, might have felt at home as a polis celebrity.

Scotts’ televised account of life focused around the oracle in Delphi sparked this blog. I recall being quite emotional as I slunk away and approached Olympia’s stadium (partly, I confess, because I slipped and splintered the best lens – of a Canon T70 – I’ve yet possessed). But don’t let anyone tell us that the study of ancient, or for that matter early/late modern/postmodern, history doesn’t matter. Resist the metrics and fight for history and for education.

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