The Olympics has been the stomping ground for athletes all over the world for a very long time. Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Shaun White, Bruce (Caitlyn) Jenner, Jesse Owens and Simone Biles are all names that have made their mark in the history of the Olympic Games (and that’s only naming a few).
However, what is now a biannual competition against the athletes of 200+ countries, began as a sacred event with many ties to Greek religion.
According to an article by Penn Museum titled ‘The real story of the Ancient Olympic Games’, the Olympics first began back in 776 B.C. In its early years of life, the competition was actually a religious festival to honor Zeus, the father of Greek gods and goddesses in Greek mythology.
This festival was held in Olympia, Greece, a rural town in the western Peloponnesos that was named after Mt. Olympos and was home to the Sanctuary of Zeus.
According to a BBC Bitesize article titled ‘How did the Olympic Games begin,’ every four years around 50,000 Greeks would travel to Olympia to watch the games. Messengers would be sent out in the months leading up to the games announcing a “sacred truce” which had the sole purpose of stopping wars within Greece to allow civilians to travel safely to Olympia.
The original Ancient Olympic Games consisted of several different sporting events.
According to ‘Ancient Olympic Sports’ from olympic.org, these events were running, long jump, discus, javelin, wrestling, boxing, pankration, horse racing, and chariot racing.
The running event consisted of three different races. The first race was called the stade race which saw athletes sprinting 200-meters, which was the length of the track at Olympia. The second race one could run in was the diaulos, which was two stades or 400-meters. The third race was the dolichos, which in this day and age would be considered a distance event in track, ranging from 7 to 24 stades or 1,400-meters to 4,800-meters. According to ancientolympics.arts.kuleauven.be the Greek athletes also competed in a “race in armour” and a “torch-race”. The race in armour saw athletes running the diaulos in a helmet, greaves, and while holding a shield. The torch-race was a relay-style running competition in which a team of athletes would pass off a torch in hopes of making it to the end of the race with the torch still burning.
The long jump event has changed greatly to transform into what many consider long jumping today. The athletes would jump from a standing position while holding weights in their hands. These weights, also called ‘halters’, ranged from 1.5 to 2 kilograms each and were used to help propel the athlete forward in their jump. The best Ancient Olympic long jumper was recorded to be Phayllos of Kroton, who jumped 55-feet. Because of the fact that even a current-day long jumping Olympian jumping 9-feet from a stand-still position is amazing, historians determined that Ancient Olympic long jumping most likely consisted of athletes completing 5 consecutive stand-still jumps with their ending distance being marked as their jump.
The discus throwing event has not changed much between Ancient Olympic times and the modern Olympic times. The discus was made of stone and the throwing technique used was very similar to the techniques used today.
The javelin event was not held as an independent event but rather as a part of a pentathlon which consisted of running, long jump, discus, wrestling, and javelin throwing. Ancient javelin throwing, like discus, is very similar to the modern way athletes throw a javelin now. The only difference was that the ancient javelins had leather loops that the athletes would put their fingers in when throwing. The loops allowed the athletes to artificially extend their push on the javelin, allowing it to have a longer time of acceleration before it being released completely.
Wrestling, boxing, and pankration were all hand-to-hand combat fighting that would take place between two athletes. During the original Olympic games, for an athlete to win a wrestling dual they must make their opponent fall from their feet three times. When it came to ancient Olympic boxing, the only way an athlete could win was if they forced their opponent to submit. Another fun fact about boxing back then was that matches had no time limitations and weight classes were completely ignored, the Greeks strictly went off of age class. Pankration is a sport that is unheard of in modern day Olympics, however, was a favorite sport by spectators in the ancient times. Pankration was a combination of wrestling and boxing in which the only rules were no biting, gouging of eyes, nose, or mouth and no attacking the opponent’s genitals. The way an athlete won pankration was to force their opponent to submit.
The ancient Olympic games also recognized two equestrian sports, horse racing and chariot racing.
The Olympics has modernized into a competition of countries to see who has the superior athletes, however back when it first was created it was strictly a religious festival used to worship the Greek god Zeus. While the fate of what was supposed to be the 2020 Summer Olympic Games held in Tokyo has changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is certain that this global competition is not going away anytime soon.
Claire Boughton can be contacted