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The History and Legend of the Olympic Games

The National Herald

Spyridon Louis at 1896 Summer Olympics. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Seldom in human history, including the life of empires, has anything lasted more than a few centuries. The Olympic Games began long before recorded history, on the rugged land of Greece, and fused with its mythology, legend, history, and culture. Thus, the birth of the first Olympic Games predate the first ‘official’ Olympiad by many years. Nevertheless, historians have established 776 BC as the year of the first Olympiad because the name of the young man Korivos, from the province of Elia in the Peloponnese, was recorded as the winner of the ‘stadium’, the running competition which was also the oldest Olympic game. This was the equivalent of the modern 200-meter sprint. Soon the Olympics became Panhellenic, attended by mainland Greeks and Hellenes from Greek city-states around the Mediterranean.

The first official Olympiad set a precedent for a practical chronology based on the serial number of the Olympiad and the name of the winner of the footrace. This ‘calendar’ was followed for many eons by the ancient Hellenes, centuries before the introduction of the Julian/Gregorian calendars. It is thanks to this Olympic calendar that historians were able to accurately date many events from 776 BC until the last recorded Olympiad in 393 AD, a period of almost 1,200 years! The following year the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I put an end to formal Olympic Games, ostensibly because they were a ‘pagan festival’! The modern Olympic Games began in 1896, 1,503 years after the ancient Olympics were abolished.

For ancient Greeks the early Olympic Games had a deep religious meaning and according to legend, the gods themselves were present at the inaugural Olympiad. As athletes and spectators from the entire Mediterranean world attended, social contact became as much a part of the festivities and feasts as was the competition. With the passing of time, what began mainly as a religious expression, became primarily an athletic event, first local, then Panhellenic, then Greco-Roman, and presently global. Early on, there were also female contests, called the Heraia, in honor of Hera, Olympian Zeus’s wife, and the first winner was a young lady named Chloris.

The history of Olympia – like the history of Delphi and its Pythian Games – is so deeply infused in mythology, it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. To the ancient Hellenes, mythology was history written by historians with a poetic license, just as the Odyssey and the Iliad were. The very name ‘Europe’ was born out of a Greek myth, but that never affected the reality of Europe. Myths to the ancient Greeks were often allegories of realities!

The idea of religion, the notion of physical and mental health, the appreciation of fit figures and beauty, and the time-honored concepts of challenge, personal excellence, and individual achievement, all merged to make the Olympics an essential part of the lives of the ancient Greeks and an indispensable national ‘bonding medium’ among the Hellenes. Olympia became so important to them that they declared the site and the surrounding area sacred, forbidding any armies or armed men from entering it; violators were sternly punished. Not even the massive Persian invasion of Greece failed to cancel the 480 BC Olympiad!

Several days before the Olympics, special heralds visited the various Greek city-states and implemented truces among warring parties. Those refusing to make peace, or attempting to cheat after a truce, were severely sanctioned, barred from the Games and prohibited from seeking counsel from Delphi, which was a big deal in antiquity.

The first Olympic ‘game’ (‘Aγών’ - ‘agon’ – meaning ‘struggle’, or ‘contest’) was the ‘stadion’, or stadium - a footrace of a distance of 192.25 meters (about 631 feet).  Henceforth the ancient Greeks used the stadium as a measure of distance. Later, the area in which the running took place was named stadium and it was 212.30 meters or about 697 ft. long. Except for the charioteers, a typical Olympian was ‘gymnos’, or naked, and his training area was the ‘gymnasion’ or gymnasium. Most cities had gymnasiums where teaching the mind and training the body were practiced. New games, and even contests for children, who participated in their own category of games, were introduced all the time. There were usually 14 athletic contests, extending over four days. On the fifth day, the important prize-awarding ceremony took place and a great feast followed. 

The Olympiads were held every four years in late summer, marking the completion of the harvest and the beginning of rest, relaxation, and enjoyment of the Olympic spectacles. The athletic events were held in daylight and poetry readings, religious celebrations, orations, banquets, and festivities were enjoyed in the evenings.

The first day of celebrations included a procession of the representatives of the various city-states dressed in their richest garments and riding their finest chariots; then followed a solemn sacrifice to Olympian Zeus and the examination of the citizenship and credentials of the athletes, the judges, and the trainers; all of them swore that they were free citizens, never convicted of a crime, and would obey the rules. The athletes also had to show that they had followed all the rules of training. Then the games began.

The games were timed to take place during a full moon and some of the ceremonies were held under moonlight and by the glow of torches; they were followed by festive banquets held in the open spaces near the temples and under the trees, as hymns of victory and songs filled the air with exotic, for us, rhythms and melodies that are forever lost and can never be revived.

The last day was devoted to honoring the winners. In the beginning, the ‘athlon’ or ‘epathlon’, that is the prize for the winners, was an apple or a copper ‘tripodon’, or tripod. Starting with the seventh Olympiad, the established prize for the Olympic victors became a wreath made from branches of wild olive trees from the Altis, Olympia’s sacred grove. This simple olive wreath was valued like a treasure. The inference was that the competition was for virtue and merit, not for silver or gold! A boy, using a golden knife, was sent to cut branches from wild olive trees in the sacred grove and wreaths were made for the victors.

The climactic moment for the winners came when the heralds called their names, their fathers’ names, and native cities, and a wreath was placed on their heads. In the applause of the crowds, the winners found a total vindication for their long and arduous months of training. They then made a sacrifice to Zeus, while those of their attending compatriots celebrated the glory brought to their city-states. The olive wreath was considered a priceless reward, but there were other honors for the winners. The victors returned to their cities dressed in rich robes and riding four-horse chariots.

The prizes for the horse races went to the owners of the horses, not the riders. The first female to win an Olympic event was Cynisca from Sparta who won in 396 BC and again in 392 BC. Cynisca was a royal princess, daughter of king Archidamos II and sister of king Agesilaos, historian Xenophon’s admired king. The next woman to win at Olympia was Velestichi from Macedonia, who won in 268 BC. In the first few centuries only Greeks could participate in the Olympics, which clearly included the Macedonians. The Macedon king Alexander I, progenitor of Alexander the Great, also competed at Olympia.

The ever-increasing influx of spectators at the Games offered great opportunities for competition and demonstration of skills in other, non-athletic, areas such as literature, poetry, public speaking, painting, singing, playing musical instruments, etc. Among those who were highly acclaimed and greatly honored in such contests were some of the great minds of Western civilization, as Pythagoras, Pindar, Themistocles, Plato, and others. Such public gatherings, presented unique occasions for the debut of new intellectual works. Thus, the Olympic Games were more than athletic contests.

The word ‘athletic’ comes from the Greek word ‘athlon’, which meant award, or prize for the winner of each event. Thus, an athlete was one who competed for a prize. 

Imposing temples such as the large Doric temples of Zeus (211 x 91 ft., built c. 460 BC) and that of his wife Hera (164 x 62 ft., built c. 590 BC) occupied center stage at Olympia. Spacious buildings such as the Gymnasion, the Palaistra, the Bouleuterion, the Stoa, the Prytaneion, the treasuries, and many other buildings filled the great expanse of Olympia. The ‘Crypte’, meaning hidden or covered arched passage, led from central Olympia to the Stadium seating over 30,000 spectators, as its man-made banks of earth were raised over the years to accommodate more and more people. There was even an 80-room luxury hotel for visiting dignitaries. This colonnaded complex was named the Leonidaion, after its Naxian architect Leonides, and its ruins are still impressive today. Exquisite statues and sculptures adorned the grounds, the temples, and the other buildings. Inside the Temple of Zeus stood one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, the magnificent 41 ft. seated statue of Zeus by the incomparable sculptor Pheidias (c. 430 BC).

The high and the mighty of the ancient world were competing to dedicate monuments at Olympia, perhaps as a way of achieving their own immortality at this most famous place. Alexander the Great completed the Philippeion, the graceful colonnaded circular building begun by his father king Philip II. In the center of the building stood five gold and ivory statues depicting Philip, his father Amyntas, his mother Eurydice, his wife Olympias, and their son Alexander. Ptolemy II, king of Egypt and his queen Arsione dedicated statues of themselves. The Romans built a number of structures including the Roman Baths. The wealthy Athenian Herodes Attikos built (154-160 AD) the Monumental Terrace named after him. A forest of statues, honoring winners, adorned the central open area of Olympia competing for space with the many wild olive trees. Today, even in ruins, the buildings and sculptures of Olympia stand silent witnesses to some of Civilization’s great architectural and artistic achievements and are timeless monuments to mankind’s ingenuity for devising a form of tough and intense competition without bloodshed.

In the 19th century the value of the Olympics was recognized by the beneficiaries of the remarkable civilization that created them and the Olympic Games were revived 125 years ago spearheaded by the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin in Paris in 1895 with the first modern International Olympiad held in Athens in 1896 and repeated, in different countries, every four years ever since, except during world wars. The first Winter Games were held in Chamonix, France, in 1924. 

Today, Olympia is a place of pilgrimage and a sanctuary of the mind. Visiting athletes, lovers of sports, intellectuals, archaeologists, historians, and general tourists – all find something that moves them in a visceral way. In this little corner of the Earth, the true spirit of civilized sporting competition was born 3,000 years ago, uplifting the world, then and now. This alone would have been enough, but it was more, much more than that. This is where the concepts of rules – not brute force or military power; of discipline – not uncontrollable rage; of balance – not extremes; of order – not anarchy; of honor – not disgrace; of valor – not cowardice; of method – not disorder; of fraternity – not animosity; of reason – not madness; of confidence and self-reliance – not pessimism and gloom – all these underpinnings of civilized and honorable life – were vigorously and exuberantly promoted through these games.

Edith Hamilton wrote in her book The Greek Way: “And while Egypt submitted and suffered and turned her face toward death, Greece resisted and rejoiced and turned full-face to life. For somewhere among those steep stone mountains, in little sheltered valleys where the great hills were ramparts to defend and men could have security for peace and happy living, something quite new came into the world; the joy of life found expression. Perhaps it was born there, among the shepherds pasturing their flocks where the wild flowers made a glory on the hillside; among the sailors on a sapphire sea washing enchanted islands purple in luminous air. At any rate it has left no trace anywhere else in antiquity. In Greece nothing is more in evidence.

“The Greeks were the first people to play, and they played on a great scale … If we had no other knowledge of what the Greeks were like, if nothing were left of Greek art and literature, the fact that they were in love with play and played magnificently would be proof enough of how they lived and how they looked at life. Wretched people, toiling people, do not play. Nothing like the Greek games is conceivable in Egypt or Mesopotamia … And when Greece died and her reading of the great enigma was buried with her statues, play, too died out of the world. The brutal, bloody Roman games had nothing to do with the spirit of play. They were fathered by the Orient, not by Greece. Play died when Greece died and many a century passed before it was resurrected.”

                                                             

Ernest A. Kollitides, P.E., Scientist/Professional Engineer, Fortune-500 Corp. Executive, Historian, Lecturer has published numerous articles, traveled extensively, and studied all sites referenced in his writings.