The Tokyo Olympics begin today with Pakistan being represented by a contingent of 10 athletes who will compete in various sports. But when did these games start in ancient Greece and what was their purpose?
It is traditionally said that the Olympic Games began in Olympia around 776 BC when Homer was born. But before that, for centuries, Olympia was a place of worship for Zeus, a special place along the Elf River, considered sacred away from the human population, that could be seen from the hill.
But what happened when people began to respect Zeus through athletics instead of offering sacrifices? It seems to have been driven by a number of factors. One of them was the rise of the Greek police or city-state.
As the number of civil states increased in different places, each of them needed to prove their supremacy, so they started sending their representatives to Olympia so that they could excel in physical competitions.
The development of military training is also linked to this. Sports were also an attractive way to keep men fit. The second element was the traditional Greek theory that the gods were with the conqueror, so by holding a contest in which the highest conqueror was created, they were proving the power and influence of their supreme god Zeus over human beings.
The first race
There was only one competition in the first 13 Olympics, and that was the stadium race.
The race was the same length as the stadium. One can only speculate about how long the race was because the 192-meter-long Olympia stadium we see now did not exist at the time.
In 724 BC, the long race Diolus was introduced, and four years later came the long-distance race Dolichos, which was probably 12 laps. The idea behind running in the early years of the Olympics was that only fit and healthy soldiers could run.
Boxing, wrestling, and pentathlon (a race in which all sorts of physical attacks were performed) were followed by pentathlon and then charitable races. In 520 BC, a new race was introduced with armored vehicles a mule race (it was not generally popular in 500 BC).
So the Olympics have always been innovative, although the ancient Greeks if they saw some of our modern ‘sports’, might reject them.
Religion and politics
Religion was a major factor in the ancient Olympics. Zeus was believed to see competitors, support some, and defeat others. If an athlete was fined for cheating or taking a bribe, any money raised would be used to make a statue of Zeus.
During the Games, 100 bulls were sacrificed to please Zeus. Olympia was one of the most important places in Greece where divination was sought from the gods. One of them was the oracle for Zeus, which had an altar with burnt offerings.
When these offerings were burned, a priest would examine them and announce the Oracle, a secret and often vague prophecy about the future. Athletes turned to Oracle to find out their potential in sports.
The Greeks tried to keep some aspects of politics away from the Olympics, but their efforts were not very successful. The Olympic ceasefire was intended to reduce hostilities across Greece, allowing all competitors to travel and participate safely, but this has not always been the case.
The great historian of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, describes how the Spartans violated the peace by attacking a fort in 420 BC and were banned from participating in sports.
But one of the Spartans’ leading figures, Lichas, found another way to participate. He joined the chariot race to represent Boeotian. However, when his true nationality was discovered, he was publicly flogged at Olympia.
A winning athlete was a great honor for his hometown. In the sixth century, the Athenian politician Solan promoted athletics by financially rewarding Athenian winners. The winner of the Olympics was given 500 drachmas (at that time a sheep cost about one drachma).
Thucydides represented the Athenian leader Elsebedez as he sought political support in 415 BC, boasting of his previous Olympic achievements.
Nudity and women
Homer’s contemporary poet Hesswood says, “Sow the seed bare, plow the field bare, reap the harvest bare.”
He may have said, “Take part in sports naked,” because it was generally considered a standard practice in the ancient Greeks. Some people disagree, although there is evidence of this in the form of pictures made on vases, where athletes are usually seen playing naked, and all sorts of other people without clothes. Look
Runners and boxers can also be seen wearing lungi on some vases, and Thucydides says athletes stopped wearing such clothes shortly before their time. Another argument is that it will be difficult to compete naked. However, it is generally believed that male athletes competed naked in sports competitions.
Women did not participate in the Central Olympic Festival. In honor of the goddess Heera, she had her own games where she ran for one-fifth or one-sixth of the total length of the stadium and was considered inferior in the men’s world. There are conflicting opinions on whether women could watch the festival.
Perhaps only women who were ‘unmarried’, unmarried, having sex or motherhood could see it so that the religious purity of the occasion was maintained. Festivals and funerals were limited occasions in which women, especially virgins, or parthenos had a public role. In sports, unmarried girls helped organize the festival chose the right husband for their future.