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Ancient Games marked by violence

By John Mehaffey
May 20, 2004 14:36 IST
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Spectacle, violence and myth mingled every fourth summer for more than 1,000 years in the ancient Olympic Games to celebrate the Greek passion for competitive sport.

Controversies and dramas chronicled by the poets and dramatists abounded during that astonishing span of uninterrupted competition starting when Corobeus streaked naked across the line in Olympia in 776 B.C.

The earliest Greek sporting account to survive appears in Homer's Iliad. Achilles organised a series of events including chariot races, a foot race, boxing and wrestling to accompany the burial rites of his comrade Patroclus, killed by Hector before the gates of Troy.

Olympia, a shrine to Zeus in the fertile district of Elis southwest of Athens, was one of hundreds of sites devoted to religious festivals. The stadium was situated near the temple of Zeus, where the gold and ivory statue of the principal god of the Greek pantheon, sculpted by Pheidias, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

According to legend, the greatest of the mythical heroes Hercules, the demigod son of Zeus, made a clearing in the grove and instituted the first Olympic Games to celebrate the success of one of his 12 labours, cleaning the stables of King Augeas of Elis.

Corobeus was the first champion in the only event at the first recorded Games, winning the stadion, the length-of-the-stadium race, over 192.27 metres.

The Roman emperor Nero was the most notorious champion, arranging a special Games in A.D. 67 featuring a 10-horse chariot race and a musical contest. Unsurprisingly he won every event he entered.


After 776, further events were gradually added to the five-day Games, which devoted a substantial part of the programme to religious ceremonies.

The first day was exclusively reserved for ceremony, as was the morning of the third day which culminated in the sacrifice of 100 oxen on the great altar of Zeus.

Contemporary accounts chronicle a riot of colour and confusion in Olympia as touts, gamblers, pimps, pedlars musicians, dancers and flower-sellers gathered from as far away as Libya and Egypt for the Games.

At a loftier level, some of the great philosophers and writers made the pilgrimage to Olympia.

Plato attended the festival when he was 70. Thucydides, the greatest ancient historian, was in the audience when Herodotus, known as the "Father of History", read from his works.

The contestants, who had arrived a month before the Games from all regions of Greece, swore by Zeus that they would obey the laws and the contests then began in earnest.

Winning was everything. Victors were given a wreath of wild olive, cut with a golden knife from a sacred grove. Losers got nothing. Competitors prayed for either victory or death.

The chariot race, featuring two-wheeled chariots drawn by four horses abreast, started the programme, followed by the horse race. As only the wealthy could own horses, the winner's wreath went to the owner.

Chariot and horse races were often spectacular. The boxing, wresting and a brutal combination of the two called the pankration were invariably violent.

Boxers, who wrapped leather thongs around their hands and wrists, fought without rounds until one was knocked out or conceded defeat.

Thongs were not used in the pankration, in which only biting and gouging an opponent's eyes, nose or mouth with the fingernails were forbidden.


Purer pleasures were accorded by the athletics events, in particular the pentathlon which comprised the discus, javelin, jumping, running and wrestling.

For Aristotle the pentathlon captured the ideal of physical perfection, "a body capable of enduring all efforts, either of the racecourse or bodily strength...This is why athletes in the pentathlon are most beautiful".

The discus inspired one of the most praised and most copied statues, "The Discus Thrower" sculpted by Athenian Myron around 450 B.C.

Sparta, the military city-state with its rigorous physical training and a bitter rival of Athens, dominated the running events, producing half the Olympic winners up to 600 B.C.

Protected by the Olympic truce, which may not have stopped wars but did prevent them interrupting the Games, the ancient Olympics lasted until A.D. 393.

By then the schism between paganism and Christianity had grown too great and the Christian emperor Theodosius I ordered the closure of all pagan cults and centres.

The only near equivalent of the ancient Olympics has been the Tailteann Games in Ireland, featuring the high jump, pole vault, stone and javelin throws, which started in 829 B.C. and continued into the 14th century.

The ancient Games provided the inspiration for the modern revival in Athens in 1896. Unlike their predecessors, the modern Olympics were twice interrupted by world wars within half a century.

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John Mehaffey
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