On the Peloponnese peninsula in Southern Greece, an ancient religious ritual gave rise to one of the greatest sporting events of all times. An event that brings the world together, where there is no distinction between color, creed or gender and all compete as equals. The Olympiads were as much a sought after event almost 3000 years ago, as they are today. This Weekend, we take a journey back through centuries to the story of the origins of the Olympiads - the Olympic games.
The Olympic games were originally part of an elaborate series of games organised in four major parts of ancient Greece, which were collectively called the Panhellenic Games. These were organised every four years, starting with the Olympics at Olympia, followed by the Pythian games at Delphi, Nemean games at Nemea and finally the Isthmian games at Isthmia. In this four year cycle, athletes performed in not just athletic games but as with the Pythian Games, song and dance routines were also part of the schedule, which lead to their immense popularity. The Olympic games saw an audience of upto 50,000 spectators; however most of the spectators back then were men since women, especially married ones, were forbidden from watching the games.
Artists, warriors and tragic deaths
The Theban poet Pindar is one of the most celebrated winners of the Pythian games with a selection of 45 poems. The games started sometime in the sixth century BCE and were primarily focused on the performing arts. These games were in honour of the Greek god of music Apollo, and thus paid homage to the ancient tradition of poetry, music and dance - an essential part of Greek culture. Apollo is said to have slain the mythical serpent Python that had chased his mother Leto. However, as a payback for slaying a creature, Apollo founded the games and thus, the games took on the nature of song and dance. Winners were awarded a wreath of bay laurel, which were a favourite of the god Apollo.
A sick child or the slaying of yet another animal, this time the Nemean lion, are attributed for the origins of the Nemean games, around 573 BCE. In the first version of the story, Opheltes was the child of a priest of Zeus and was killed by a dragon. The games were held in his honour, where the winner received a wreath of celery from Argon, which was a symbol of mourning. The other version claims that Hercules, after slaying the Neman lion as a part of the famous 12 labours he had to carry out, formed the games to honour Zeus. The games initially attracted warriors and their sons, but eventually morphed into a mix of the Olympics and the Pythian games, with the inclusion of dances and the judges awarding the winners with their wreath of celery. They also donned black robes, perhaps as a symbol of mourning for the child Opheltes.
Around 582 BCE, according to available texts, the Isthmian games began as a funerary homage to Melicertes, who had died a tragic death, and his Uncle Sisyphus, King of Corinth, started the Isthmian games. Melicertes was cousin of Dionysis, who was the son of Zeus with the mortal woman Semele. However, once Melicertes’s mother Ino raised Dionysis, she had earned the wrath of Zeus’s wife Hera, who drove Ino’s husband mad and forced her to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff with her son Melicertes. The games were dedicated to the god Poseidon and while a wreath of celery was given here too, the major difference was the inclusion of women in the performing arts segments.
Olympians of all identities
The Olympics at Olympia were said to have been the oldest of the four panhellenic games and although a date of 776 BCE has been attributed to it, some say the games were running from as long ago as the ninth and tenth centuries BCE. The games were held in honour of Zeus at Olympia, on the Peloponnese peninsula of South Western Greece. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Zeus was built in commemoration of the games and added to its already heightened fame and glamour! The games also have several sources of origin, one of the popular ones again including Hercules and his twelve labours, where he again dedicated a series of games to Zeus. The other tradition includes women, who competed in a foot race to win the position of head priestess to the goddess Hera. These are also known as the Herea games and were possibly occurring alongside the male version of the Olympics. The original format of the games included wrestling, foot races, chariot races, discus throwing, jumping and running with an armour.
The Spartans were possibly influential at introducing the culture of nude athletes, and it was common for a bunch of sweaty, naked men warming up at the back stage of the Olympic arena waiting for their turns. They smeared a concoction of olive oil and sand on their bodies, and some written inscriptions have been found of men praising each other’s beauty before a match. Interestingly though, unmarried women were allowed to ogle at these men while the married women were barred. On the other hand, women wore a toga, which only covered one shoulder and one breast for their games, but there are no accounts of men also being barred from watching them. Although they started off as separate games, Kyniska of Sparta was the first female to break the rules and participate in a men’s chariot race in 396 BCE & 392 BCE respectively.
A simple baker called Coroebus from Elis won the first ever Olympics in a foot race called the Stadion (stadium is derived from this word). The Olympics were open to all free, Greek men from all over the Greek realm, so they came from as far off as Asia Minor. The Romans were normally not allowed to participate, but King Nero once embarrassed himself by falling off his chariot and still claiming to be the winner! The games ultimately ended in 393 CE, as the Christian Emperor Theodosius I banned all “pagan” rituals. They were revived only after Greece’s independence from the Ottomans and by the 1850s, a businessman Zappa sponsored these events in a bid to revive the ancient Greek customs and inspire national integrity.
And the rest is history! Next issue, we shall explore more historical timelines and events but for this week, enjoy the games!