Olympics in Ancient Times

The ancient Greeks believed that the Olympic Games were founded by the Greek Hero Hercules or Heracles, as he was also known, the son of the God Zeus. He performed twelve seemingly impossible tasks to become the greatest of all Greek heroes who started the Olympics in the honor of his father.

The Greeks believed that their gods were immortal, and more powerful than human beings, and they honored them with festivals devoted to sports. The Pythian Games were developed in Delphi in honor of the God Apollo, the Isthmian Games were held in Corinth in honor of the God Poseidon, the Nemea Games were held in honor of God Zeus, and the Olympic Games were held in Olympia, also in honor of Zeus. With the course of time, the Olympic Games became the most prominent of these festivals. Poets, singers and artists came to Olympia to sing praises of the gods, and the victors of the contests to show their own mastery over different art forms. Olympics were part of a great five day festival held every four years at Olympia, in a valley near a city called Elis. The first recorded ancient Olympic Games were held in 776 B.C. with only one event- the stade.

Olympics were regarded as a time of peace and friendship, so during the Olympic Games, all the city states stopped fighting for the month during which the games were held, according to an agreement called the Sacred Truce. Therefore, they had a peaceful influence on the war-like city states. But this time of peace and friendship lasted only for a month. Once the games were over, the fighting began all over again!

Though the ancient Greeks were said to be democratic, only free-born males- that is, men who were not born as slaves were citizens. This meant that women were not citizens, and therefore, could not take part in the games, and if they disobeyed this rule, then they could even be sentenced to death. In the course of time, however, this unfair rule was changed, and women were allowed to take part in the games. In fact, in 264BC, a woman was the winning driver in the chariot race. Women in ancient Greece were rarely allowed to take part in sport, except in the city of Sparta, where it was believed that mothers who were tough and strong would produce good Spartan soldiers. Women however, did have a separate festival dedicated to goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, called the Heraia.

Like the modern Olympics, there were many strict rules and standards set for the ancient Olympics too. Every athlete participating had to arrive a month prior to the beginning of the games, and train under the watchful eyes of the judges until the games began. Once admitted, the athlete could not withdraw from competition. Competitors were usually nude, not just because of the weather but also because the festival was meant to be a kind of celebration of the achievements of the human body. All the athletes had to take an oath that they would see all the rules and standards. In fact, the Greeks were the first to develop game rules and standards of fair play that were strictly followed during the Olympic Games. The games were always held at Olympia instead of moving around to different sites across the city states. Some of the events included wrestling, boxing, chariot racing, pancratium and the pentathlon, which consisted of five contests in one. Long jump, javelin throw, a foot race, discus throw and wrestling were the events that came under the class of pentathlon. In fact, at one time or another, there were twenty-three sports events, although they were never all held at the same festival.

The prizes given to the winners of the ancient games were wreaths and palm leaves. The wreaths used be made of laurel or olive leaves, and in some cases, celery was the prize since the players or contestants did not take part for prizes or awards; the glory that they used to get, the honor with which they were participating used be their biggest achievements. Winners were awarded handsomely by their home states. They became valuable properties of the state and were welcomed home with great pomp and pageantry.

When the Romans conquered Greece in the first century B.C. then, the importance of the Olympic Games began to decline. The games drew fewer and fewer participants and the contests became bloodier. The Roman emperor Theodosius finally banned the games in 394 AD because he considered them indecent rites of the ancient Greek religion. Invaders, earthquakes, fire and floods totally destroyed the majestic buildings at Olympia and it was over one thousand years before the ruins were unearthed to prove a sad reminder of the past glory of the ancient Greek Olympics.

Aditi Swami

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