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History of the Olympic Games
According to the Greek history, the first Olympic Games in the Greek Antiquity can be traced back to the 776 BC. The games were dedicated to the 12 Olympian Gods and were hosted on the ancient green plains of Olympia, the place was famous for its magnificent great temples of the two gods Zeus and his wife Hera. The games initially had a very religious character combined by a number of ancient sport events, which many of those were based on the ancient Greek mythology.
The ancient Olympic Games had an important position in the life of the Ancient Greeks. The Olympiad it was a time of union, with a four-year interval. The participants came from every corner of the Greek world to compete for the ultimate prize, the olive wreath and the return to their city-states as heroes. But the Olympic values apart from the victory, it was themselves which had the special meaning in the Games, the noble competition and effort to combine the body, mind, and will in a balanced whole.
As the Olympics developed, so did developed the procedures such as the standard schedule of the events and the Olympic Truce. They Games continued for almost 12 centuries, until the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned them, in 393 AD, accusing them as pagan cults.
The Olympics is a sporting event for many different sports that is every four years. The original Olympic Games were held in the ancient Greek city of Olympia that since the 10th century BC. was a religious and political meeting place.
The first recorded celebration of the Games at Olympia was in 776 BC. It is almost certain that this was not the first time that the Games were held. Then the Games were only local and had only one race, the race of the stadium.
Although the Olympic games were originally held on the fields around the temple of Zeus, with the growth of the Games increased also the buildings of the Stadium. Finally Ancient Olympia had a stadium that offered enough space to 40,000 spectators. The Olympic Games which were held every four years, were one of the four Pan-Hellenic Games. The purpose of Olympic Games was for young men to show their physical qualities and to enforce the relationship between the various Greek cities. Only Greek men were allowed to participate in the Olympics but not women.
From 776 BC the Olympic Games, became more important in the ancient Greece reaching the height of their fame in the 5th and 6th century BC. The Olympics also had religious significance since there were dedicated to Zeus, whose huge statue was standing in Olympia. The number of sports was twenty and the celebrations were held for several days. The winners of the games were admired and immortalised through poems and statues. The prize for the winner was a crown of olive branches.
The Games gradually lost their importance when the Romans conquered Greece and when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Games were regarded more as a pagan celebration, and in 393 AD, the Emperor Theodosius banned them completely. So ended a period of one thousand years during which the Olympics were to be conducted every four years thereafter.
Ancient Olympic Games
The ancient Olympic Games were a sporting event held every four years at the sacred site of Olympia, in the western Peloponnese, in honour of Zeus, the supreme god of the Greek religion. The games, held from 776 BCE to 393 CE, involved participants and spectators from all over Greece and even beyond.
The Olympic Games were the most important cultural event in ancient Greece and they ran for 293 consecutive Olympiads. So important were the Games in the ancient world that they were even used as a basis for the calendar.
Origins of the Games
Sporting events were originally associated with funeral rituals, particularly those of heroes and the fallen in battle, for example, the games for Patroklos in Homer's Iliad. At Olympia, in particular, some mythological accounts credit Zeus with beginning the Games to celebrate his victory over Kronos whilst other accounts state the hero Pelops began them in honour of Oinomaos. In any case, sport, a healthy body and the competitive spirit were a large part of Greek education and so it is hardly surprising that organised athletic competitions would at some point be created, as they had been in the earlier Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations.
The first Olympics were held from 776 BCE at the first full moon after the summer solstice (around the middle of July) in honour of Zeus. The winner of the first and only event, the stadion foot-race was Koroibos of Elis and from then on every victor was recorded and each Olympiad named after them, thus giving us the first accurate chronology of the ancient Greek world. An Olympiad was not only the name of the event itself but also of the period between games. During a three-month pan-Hellenic truce, athletes and as many as 40,000 spectators came from all over Greece to participate in the Games at Olympia. Later, other games would be organised at other sacred sites such as Delphi, Isthmia and Nemea but the Olympian Games would remain the most prestigious.
The Games started with a procession which went from the host town of Elis to Olympia, led by the Hellanodikai (judges) and on arrival at Olympia all athletes and officials swore an oath to follow the established rules of the competitions and to compete with honour and respect. The most important religious ceremony of the event was the sacrifice of 100 oxen, known as the hecatomb, at the altar of Zeus, carried out when the sporting events were over.
Heralds (spondophoroi) were sent from Elis to advertise the coming of the Games across Greece. Spectators came from not only the Greek mainland but also the islands, Ionia and Magna Graecia. To facilitate the movement of spectators and athletes and in respect of the religious importance of the Games a sacred truce (ekecheiria) was called across Greece. Initially, the truce was for one month but in later centuries it was extended to three. No wars were permitted, no arms could be carried in the territory of Elis and no hindrance was to be given to any spectator, athlete or theoriai - (the official missions representing particular cities) travelling to the games from wherever they came from and whichever territory they had to cross.
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The site of Olympia must have been positively buzzing during a Games with mass crowds of excited spectators staying in make-shift camp sites (only later was accommodation provided for the visitors) and admiring the masses of fine statues and buildings at the site. Food vendors, craftsmen, musicians, poets and philosophers took full advantage of the crowds to publicise their wares or ideas. Just how many spectators attended each Games is unknown but we do know that around 45,000 spectators consisting of men, slaves and foreigners sat and watched from the embankments of the stadium which hosted the main events. Spectators actively participated in the events through their boisterous support of the athletes and after each event they showered flowers and laurel leaves on the victors.
Women were not permitted to participate in or watch the events although young girls were allowed in the crowd. There was a single exception to this rule, the priestess of Demeter Chamyne. A famous breach of the men only rule was the case of Kallipateira. She had trained her son Peisirodos and when he won his race his mother, celebrating a little too exuberantly in the crowd, loosened her clothes and revealed her sex. She escaped the prescribed punishment of the death penalty because she came from a family of great Olympic victors but from then on all trainers had to be naked - like the athletes - to avoid such an occurrence in the future.
Athletes trained under the watchful eye of a professional trainer (gymnastes) or physical trainer (paidotribes) who knew how to best develop particular muscles, the best diet and the correct amount of exercises to be done. Trainers were often thanked by their more successful athletes by the dedication of a statue of them at the site. Athletes also had an aleiptes who rubbed them down with oil and massaged them both before exercising and after.
The athletes competed naked, probably for complete freedom of movement. Events were open to all free Greek males and the list of victors illustrates just how pan-Hellenic the Games were with athletes coming from all parts of Greece and in Roman times the no-foreigner rule for athletes was relaxed. Victors were those who beat all other competitors. There are practically no records of times and distances achieved by victorious athletes as these were simply not considered important, the idea was to be first amongst the best, not to beat records.
The Stadion Footrace
For the first 12 Olympics the stadion foot-race was the only event and it remained the most prestigious event throughout the history of the Games. The race was ran over one length (a stadion) of the stadium track, 600 ancient feet or 192 m and preliminary heats were held with heat winners going into the final. Athletes were grouped by lot and in the interest of fairness this was also the way pairings were matched in the other events. The eventual winner of the stadion would even give his name to that particular Games and so be remembered for all time.
Other Sporting Events
Over time other events were added to the Games to bring the total programme to 18 events spread over five days:
- diaulos - the two stadium lengths foot-race, added in 724 BCE.
- dolichos - longer foot-races 7 to 20 stadium lengths, added in 720 BCE.
- wrestling - added in 708 BCE. Competitors had to throw their opponent to the ground three times to gain victory.
- pentathlon - also added in 708 BCE. All done in a single day, the event order was: jumping (in a soft soil pit using hand-weights or halteres and accompanied to music), discuss (in stone, iron or bronze), stadion, javelin (in wood and thrown using a leather thong), and wrestling. Just how an athlete won the overall event is unclear, three event victories may have guaranteed overall victory.
- boxing - added in 688 BCE. Athletes wore straps of leather (himantes) around their hands, initially as protection but they evolved into destructive weapons with metal pieces added. Rules were limited to no low-blows and no holding. Serious injuries were common and deaths not unknown.
- tethrippon - the four-horse chariot race added in 680 BCE, run over ten or twelve circuits of the hippodrome. A version using foals over 8 circuits was added in 384 BCE.
- keles - a horse race added in 648 BCE and run over 6 cicuits. A version for foals was added in 256 BCE.
- pankration - a mix of boxing and wrestling also added in 648 BCE. The pankration was a brutal event and the only moves not allowed were biting and gouging, although competitors did not wear the damaging leather thongs of the boxers.
- hoplitodromos - the race in hoplite armour (helmet, shield and spear) between 2 and 4 stadium lengths was added in 520 BCE and was usually the last event of the Games.
- apene - a race with chariots pulled by two mules, added in 500 BCE (dropped from 444 BCE).
- kalpe - a trotting horse race for mares, added in 496 BCE (dropped from 444 BCE).
- synoris - the two-horse chariot race run over eight circuits of the hippodrome, added in 408 BCE. A version using foals over three circuits was added in 268 BCE.
- competitions for trumpeters and heralds - added in 396 BCE. This was held on the first day and the winners - those whose sound carried the furthest - were also given the honour of announcing the victors on the final day at the official prize-giving event.
Competition Rules & Judges
Athletes had to arrive at Olympia one month before the Games for training and, further, they had to declare that they had been in training for at least ten months. Non-Greeks, slaves, murderers, those convicted of defiling temples and all those who had not respected the truce were excluded from participating. Indeed, cities could be included in the latter category, for example, Sparta in 420 BCE.
The events were supervised by trained judges from Elis, the Hellanodikai (or agonothetai) who also had various assistants such as the alytai (police officers). For the first 49 Olympics there was only one judge but he was joined by others to reach a peak of twelve, distributed amongst the various events. Originally, the office was hereditary and for life but later judges were selected from Elis by lot. The Hellanodikai had the power to disqualify and fine athletes for any infringement of the rules and, wearing their purple cloaks, they were given special seats of honour in the stadium. The decisions of the Hellanodikai could never be revoked but the judges were themselves subject to judgment from a council of elders and should an athlete successfully appeal, the judge concerned could be fined.
Rules were very rarely broken and when they were penalties were imposed ranging from exclusion and fines to flogging. Fines were paid both to the sanctuary and the wronged athlete. If an offender did not pay the fine then the city he represented had to or else be excluded from the next Games. Revenue from fines was in part used to erect statues of Zeus known as zanes and a number of the bases of these statues can still be seen at the site today.
The Hellanodikai also gave out the victory crown (kotinos) of wild olive leaves and an olive branch cut from the sacred tree (Kallistephanos) to each event winner. The olive was significant because the trees of Olympia were believed to have been originally planted by Hercules. Another prize could be a red woollen ribbon which was worn on the upper arm or around the head, especially for chariot racers as it was the horse owner who actually received the olive crown.
Victors were welcomed back to their hometowns as heroes after the Games. Typically entering the city in a procession where they rode a four-horse chariot, the victors had huge banquets held in their honour and they could receive additional benefits such as exemption from tax and invitations to join the political elite. Cities also received prestige from victories at the Games and for this reason they sometimes offered financial incentives for athletes such as Solon's 500 drachmas prize (a substantial sum considering one sheep cost one drachma at the time).
However, the real prize for athletes was glory, fame and, in a very real sense, historical immortality. This was achieved through renown whilst still alive but was perpetuated after death via victor's lists, personal statues and victory odes written in the victor's honour.
There were many great athletes who won fame and glory in multiple Games. Kroton from southern Italy won three consecutive stadion races from 488 to 480 BCE. Phanas of Pellene managed to win three events in the Olympics of 521 BCE - the stadion, diaulos and the race in armour. Leonidas of Rhodes went even better and managed to win all three events in four consecutive Olympics between 164 and 152 BCE. A feat almost matched by Hermogenes of Xanthos, known as 'the horse' who won eight running events over three Olympics between 81 and 89 CE. Milon of Kroton won the wrestling competition five times from 532 to 516 BCE and the runner Astylos of Kroton won six crowns across the three Olympics of 488, 484 and 480 BCE. Finally, Herodoros of Megara won an incredible ten consecutive trumpet competitions from 328 to 292 BCE.
The Games and their prestige also attracted famous competitors from outside the sporting world. The great Athenian general and statesman Alcibiades won three chariot races in 416 BCE. Philip II of Macedon won the horse race in 356 BCE and repeated his winning streak in the chariot races of the 352 and 348 BCE Games. Also, Roman emperor Nero famously won every event he entered in 65 CE. These powerful political leaders even sought to milk the prestige of their successes at Olympia by minting coins to commemorate their victories.
The first woman to win the crown of victory was Kyniska in 392 BCE. Although women were not permitted to compete, they could own horses and it was the owner who won the olive crown prize. Many other women went on to emulate Kyniska and Spartan women, in particular, enjoyed a high reputation in the equestrian events at Olympia.
End of the Games
The Games continued through the Hellenistic period with more buildings added to the site, greater comforts offered for the spectators and an increase in the professionalism and event specialisation of the athletes. In Roman times, although there were some changes to tradition such as Sulla's moving of the 80 BCE Games to Rome, the Games continued to be popular and their prestige increased under hellenophile emperors such as Hadrian. However, it was Emperor Theodosios who finally decreed that all cult practices, including Games, be stopped and the final Olympics was held in 393 CE after a run of 293 Olympics over more than a millennium.
TAKING HOME THE GOLD
The Romans eventually banned the Olympics in A.D. 393, after Rome conquered Greece in the second century B.C. But the games were revived in 1896 in Athens, Greece, and have been celebrated every four years since. And in 1924, the Winter Olympics were added to showcase chillier sports such as cross-country skiing, speed skating, and ice hockey.
Today thousands of athletes from hundreds of countries all over the world compete for the gold (or silver or bronze) in the summer and winter events. The modern Olympics aim to bring people from different parts of the world together and encourage friendly competition and peace among neighboring nations. Game on!
Olympic Winter Games
The first Winter Olympics were held in the year 1924, in Chamonix, France. Both, Summer and Winter Olympics, were held in the same year but as a separated events. There were 256 athletes from 16 nation and they competed in 9 sports, including ice hockey.
There were eight teams – Canada, Czechoslovakia, USA, Switzerland, Sweden, Great Britain, France and Belgium. The final standing was:
- Gold medal – Canada (represented by Toronto Granites)
- Silver medal – USA
- Bronze medal – Great Britain
Again, ice hockey tournament played on the Olympic Games is considered as a Ice Hockey World Championship.
24 facts about the Olympics that will blow your mind
Even if you don’t care much about sports, there’s something magical about the Olympics: Athletes train for years to give their all and deliver the performance of a lifetime – often within a few seconds. We cry happy tears for the winners, sympathize with the losers, yell at the TV, and high-five strangers. Every two years, we adjust to a different time zone, feel a little bit more patriotic, and get really good at recognizing flags and national anthems from around the world.
In order to get into the Olympic spirit and the emotions that come with it, we put some facts about the Olympics that will blow your mind – so you have something to delve into while waiting for the next athletic record to be broken (or for the pizza delivery to arrive).
1. The first Olympic Games took place in the 8th century B.C. in Olympia, Greece. They were held every four years for 12 centuries. Then, in the 4th century A.D., all pagan festivals were banned by Emperor Theodosius I and the Olympics were no more.
2. However, the athletic tradition was resurrected about 1500 years later: The first modern Olympics were held in 1896 in Greece.
3. In ancient Greece, athletes didn’t worry about sponsorship, protection, or fashion – they competed naked.
4. Back then, the games lasted five or six months.
5. Women have been allowed to compete in the Olympics since 1900.
6. From 1924-1992, the Winter and the Summer Olympics took place in the same year. Now, they’re on separate cycles and alternate every two years.
7. Only four athletes have won medals in both the Winter and the Summer Olympics. Only one of them, Christa Ludinger-Rothenburger, won medals in the same year.
8. During the 2012 London Games, the Olympic Village required 165,000 towels for a bit more than two weeks of activity.
9. The official languages of the games are English and French, complemented by the official language of the host country.
10. Tarzan competed in the Olympics: Johnny Weissmuller, an athlete-turned-actor who played Tarzan in 12 movies, won five gold medals in swimming in the 1920s.
11. From 1912-1948, artists participated in the Olympics: Painters, sculptors, architects, writers, and musicians competed for medals in their respective fields.
12. During the 1936 Berlin Games, two Japanese pole-vaulters tied for second place. Instead of competing again, they cut the silver and bronze medals in half and fused the two different halves together so that each of them had a half-silver and half-bronze medal.
13. The Olympic torch is lit the old-fashioned way in an ancient ceremony at the temple of Hera, in Greece: Actresses, wearing costumes of Greek priestesses, use a parabolic mirror and sun rays to kindle the torch.
14. From there, the torch starts its relay to the host city: It is usually carried by runners, but it has traveled on a boat, on an airplane (and the Concorde), on horseback, on the back of a camel, via radio signal, underwater, and in a canoe.
15. The unlit Olympic torch has also been taken to space several times.
16. The relay torch and the Olympic flame are supposed to burn during the whole event. In case the flame goes out, it can only be reignited with a backup flame, which has been lit in Greece as well, and with never a regular lighter!
17. The 2012 London Games were the first Olympics in which all participating countries sent female athletes.
18. The following sports are (sadly) not part of the Olympics anymore: solo synchronized swimming, tug of war, rope climbing, hot air ballooning, dueling pistol, tandem bicycle, swimming obstacle race, and plunge for distance. Luckily, live pigeon shooting was a one-shot and only part of the 1900 Olympics in Paris.
19. The five rings of the Olympic symbol – designed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, co-founder of the modern Olympic Games – represent the five inhabited continents of the world.
20. The six colors – blue, yellow, black, green, red, and the white background – were chosen because every nation’s flag contains at least one of them.
21. The Olympic Games have been hosted by 23 different countries.
22. The first official Olympic mascot was Waldi, the dachshund, at the 1972 Games in Munich.
23. The 2016 Games in Rio will mark the first time the Olympics are held in South America.
24. During the 17 days of the 2016 Summer Olympics, 10,500 athletes from 205 countries will represent 42 different sports and participate in 306 competitions in Rio.
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Olympic Games Timeline
First recorded evidence of the ancient Olympic games. The games were held at Olympia. There was only one event – the men’s 200m sprint.
The messenger Pheidippedes ran 42km from Sparta to Athens to bring the news of the Greek victory at the battle of Marathon.
With large numbers of young men having to go to fight against the Spartans there were fewer athletes able to train and compete in the games and so they began to fall into decline.
The Roman Emperor, Theodosius I, abolished the games claiming they were a pagan event.
Robert Dover, a barrister, founded the Cotswold Olympick Games. The games featured horse racing, fencing, shin-kicking and throwing the hammer.
Englishman Richard Chandler discovered the site of ancient Olympia.
L’Olympiade de la République was an olympic-style yearly competition held between 1796 and 1798 in France.
An Olympic-style yearly sports festival was established in Much Wenlock, Shropshire, UK by Dr William Penny Brookes. It continues to this day.
Every fourth year between 776 B.C.E. and 395 C.E., the Olympic Games, held in honor of the god Zeus, the supreme god of Greek mythology, attracted people from across Greece. Crowds watched sports such as running, discus-throwing and the long-jump.
The sporting events at Olympia were the oldest and most important of the four national Greek athletic festivals. The games were held on an official basis every four years from 776 B.C.E., but they probably originated much earlier. Greek myth credited the hero Herakles with devising the running races at Olympia to celebrate the completion of one of his twelve labors.
Olympia was the most important sanctuary of the god Zeus, and the Games were held in his honor. Sacrifices and gifts were offered, and athletes took oaths to obey the rules before a statue of Zeus. The games were announced by heralds traveling to all the major Greek cities around the Mediterranean, and hostilities were banned during the period around the Games to safeguard those traveling to and from Olympia.
The games at Olympia continued with minor interruptions into early Christian times and were the inspiration for the modern Olympic Games, first staged in Athens in 1896.
Chariot racing was the most popular spectator sport in ancient times. Up to 40 chariots could compete in a race and crashes were common.
￼In ancient Greece only the wealthy could afford to maintain a chariot and horses. Chariots had been used to carry warriors into battle, and chariot races, along with other sports events, were originally held at the funeral games of heroes, as described in Homer’s Iliad.
Wealthy citizens and Greek statesmen were anxious to win such a prestigious event. They sometimes drove their own chariot, but usually employed a charioteer. The races took place in an arena called the hippodrome. The most dangerous place was at the turning post, where chariot wheels could lock together and there were many crashes.
Charioteer and horses (detail), Panathenaic amphora, c. 410-400 B.C.E., 67.5 x 38 cm, Attica © Trustees of the British Museum. This vase belongs to a distinctive type given as a prize to the winner of the chariot race in the ancient games held at Athens during the yearly festival known as the Panathenaia that honoured Athena, the city’s patron deity. The vase would have been one of 140, each containing 40 liters of olive oil, given to the winner.
The painter of this vase has been highly successful in creating the illusion of speed as the chariot careers along. A quadriga chariot drawn by four horses is shown, the hair and tunic of the charioteer are blown back, and the manes and tails of the horses fly in the rush of air. The chariot is coming up to a post which may represent the turn or the finish of the race. Both moments would be climaxes.
After the dangers and excitement of the chariot race came the horse- racing. This was hazardous because the track was already churned up, and the jockeys rode without stirrups or saddles, which were not yet invented. The winning horse and its owner were given an enthusiastic reception, and riderless horses that came first past the post were also honored.
Panathenaic prize amphora of a chariot race, 490-80 B.C.E., red-figured cup, attributed to the Foundry Painter, Attica, Greece © Trustees of the British Museum
A big attraction at all the Greek games were the “heavy” events—wrestling, boxing, and the pankration, a type of all-in wrestling. Specialists in the sports could win large sums of money all over the Greek world, once they had proved themselves at Olympia.
Exterior side A (detail), Panathenaic prize amphora of a chariot race, 490-80 B.C.E., red-figured cup, attributed to the Foundry Painter, Attica, Greece © The Trustees of the British Museum.
The pankration was a mixture of boxing and wrestling, where almost any tactic was permitted. Only biting and going for an opponent’s eyes were illegal. On the cup above, on the left is a pair of boxers in a bout. In the center is a pair of pancratiasts down on the ground. Above them hangs a discus in a bag. In the center, one pankratiast tries to gouge his opponent’s eye. A bearded trainer steps forward, his forked stick raised over his head to stop the fouls and the fight.
Boxing was considered the most violent sport. There were no separate rounds in a match and the contestants fought until one of them gave in. In ancient Greece thin strips of leather were bound around the boxers’ fists to protect their hands. Boxing gloves were eventually developed, and in the Roman period they were weighted with lead or iron to inflict greater damage.
A pair of boxers in a bout, exterior side A (detail), Panathenaic prize amphora of a chariot race, 490-80 B.C.E., red-figured cup, attributed to the Foundry Painter, Attica, Greece © Trustees of the British Museum.
￼The boxer on the left has his left arm bent up in front, his right arm back, and there is a dilute line on his cheek. His opponent, facing to the left, is seen in three-quarter back view, his left arm out in front, his right drawn back for a blow. His cheek is heavily marked with relief lines, under the eye and along the cheekbone, to denote swelling.
Wrestling was a sport of great skill which used many of the throws still seen today. It also featured as part of the pentathlon (“pente” means five in Greek while “athlos” means contest, so the ancient pentathlon included five events: discus, javelin, long jump, running and wrestling).
Fikellura style amphora with a running man, 6th century B.C.E., Greek, , made in Miletos, Asia Minor from Rhodes © Trustees of the British Museum
The most ancient and prestigious event at Olympia was the running race along the length of the stadium, a distance of 600 Olympic feet (192.28 meters). The Olympiad (the four-year period up to the next Games) was named after the winner, and dates were recorded by reference to the list of victors. Besides this equivalent of our “two-hundred meter” event, there was a race along two lengths of the track, and a long-distance race of twenty or twenty-four lengths. There was no “marathon,” this was the invention of Baron de Coubertin who revived the Olympic Games in 1896. In all these races the runners made a standing start, from a row of stone slabs set in the track that had grooves cut in them to provide a grip for the toes.
Here, a runner is painted in silhouette, with the few inner markings reserved in the natural colour of the clay. His pose, with arms and legs fully extended and chest thrust out, suggests that he is running at full speed. Most sixth-century vase painters would have surrounded this isolated figure with ornamental friezes or panels, but this artist wisely resisted the temptation.
Black-figured “Tyrrhenian” amphora showing athletes and a combat scene, 540 B.C.E., Greek, but made for the Etruscan market, 42.15 cm, found near Rome © Trustees of the British Museum
This vase has one of the best surviving depictions of the long-jump event at the ancient Olympic Games. There was only the long jump, not the high jump, in Greek athletics. You can see that the athlete in the picture is holding heavy lead or stone jumping weights called halteres. These were swung to increase the length of the jump. You can also see three pegs in the ground which mark the previous jumps.
The athlete is shown on the shoulder of the vase, and is captured in mid-jump, while to the right a trainer urges him on. Beneath the jumper are pegs, which may record his previous jumps or those of other athletes.
In the ancient long jump athletes carried weights that were swung forward on take-off and back just before landing. It’s often said that the weights increased the length of the jump, but it is more likely that they were there for use as a deliberate handicap. Most ancient sport developed as a means of training for warfare, and this exercise would simulate a jump carrying kit. Skill in this sport would be useful for crossing a stream or ravine.
Athlete jumping (detail), Black-figured “Tyrrhenian” amphora showing athletes and a combat scene, 540 B.C.E.,Greek, but made for the Etruscan market, 42.15 cm, found near Rome © Trustees of the British Museum.
The vase has other scenes related to ancient sporting events, including a discus thrower. To the jumper’s left there is an athlete holding what are possibly javelins and two wrestlers are also shown.
The pentathlon was made up of five events (discus, jumping, javelin, running and wrestling) which all took place in one afternoon. Running and wrestling also existed as separate events.
Discus-thrower (The Townley Discobolus), Roman copy of a bronze original of the 5th century B.C.E., attributed to Myron, from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy © Trustees of the British Museum
There are differences between the ancient and the modern contests. Greek discus-throwers did not spin round on the spot: they rarely managed throws of more than 30 meters, less than half the modern Olympic record.
In the ancient long-jump, contestants used jumping-weights. These where swung forward on take-off then backward just before landing, to add thrust and gain extra length. Some kind of multiple jump may have been involved.
Javelin-throwing was similar to today’s event, except that a thong was attached to the javelin shaft to add spin and secure a steadier flight.
The head on this figure of a discus thrower has been wrongly restored, and should be turned to look towards the discus. The popularity of the sculpture in antiquity was no doubt due to its representation of the athletic ideal. Discus-throwing was the first element in the pentathlon, and while pentathletes were in some ways considered inferior to those athletes who excelled at a particular sport, their physical appearance was much admired.
The Olympic victors
Valuable prizes could be won in athletic contests all over the Greek world, but victory at Olympia brought the greatest prestige. Winning contestants were allowed to put up statues of themselves inside the sanctuary of Zeus to commemorate their victory many bases for these statues survive. Statues of athletes and statesmen were a prominent feature of Greek cities and sanctuaries. If they won three times they could set up specially commissioned portrait statues which could cost up to ten times the average yearly wage.
Sealstone with the goddess Nike crowning an athlete , 4th century BCE, 2.3 x 1.6 cm, Temple of Artemis, Ephesus © Trustees of the British Museum.
Athletes tied a woolen band around their forehead, and sometimes around their arms and legs, as sign of victory. Winners at Olympia received crowns of wild olive, just as Herakles was said to have done when he had run the first races at Olympia with his brothers.
This small engraved sealstone, perhaps originally from a finger ring, shows the winged goddess Nike placing a crown of leaves on the head of a winning athlete. In Greek mythology, the goddess Nike was a messenger of the gods and, more generally, the personification of victory. She was also closely associated with Zeus, god of the Olympic Games, and is often shown in flight, bearing a wreath or a victory ribbon, to crown victorious athletes. The athlete holds a small branch, also symbolic of victory. Whether this sealstone belonged to an athlete or simply a sports enthusiast we shall probably never know.
Statues of Nike featured prominently at Olympia in connection with both sporting and military victories. The victors wreaths associated with Nike were usually made of foliage that could be dried and kept for a long time to preserve the memory of a victory. At Olympia they were made of twigs of olive, sacred to Zeus. Winning athletes were showered with flowers and leaves. This mark of celebration is called phyllobolia and is echoed today in the throwing of confetti and “ticker tape.”
Marble figure of a victorious athlete (Daidoumenos) , Roman version of a Greek bronze original, c. 440–430 BCE, 183 cm, found at Vaison, France © Trustees of the British Museum
Known as the Daidoumenos (ribbon wearer) this statue shows a triumphant athlete tying a ribbon round his head immediately after a victory. At ancient Greek sports festivals it was the custom to give ribbons to winning athletes. Later, at the awards’ ceremony, the athlete received a wreath of leaves such as olive, laurel or wild celery leaves, depending on the festival. The identity of the athlete and the event he won are not known. He may represent athletic victories in general.
Victor statues were intended to immortalize successful athletes. Sculptors favored bronze for athletic statues, perhaps because it better represented tanned, oiled skin, but many were carved from marble. They were set on bases inscribed with a dedication to a god, the athlete’s name, father’s name, home town and contest.
Archeology at Olympia
Over the centuries the river Alpheios, to the south of the sanctuary, folded and swept away the hippodrome, and the river Kladeios to the west destroyed part of the gymnasium. Following earthquakes and storms, a layer of silt was deposited over the entire site. Olympia lay unnoticed until modern times when an Englishman, Richard Chandler, rediscovered it in 1766.
The German government sponsored full-scale excavations from 1875. The excellent local museum displays many of the remarkable finds, and the German Archaeological Institute in liaison with the Greek Archaeological Service continues to investigate the site to the present day.
J. Boardman, Early Greek vase painting (London, Thames and Hudson, 1998).
J. Swaddling, The ancient Olympic Games , 3rd edition (London, The British Museum Press, 2004)
Richard Woff, The Ancient Greek Olympics (Oxford University Press, 2000).
Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, 1936
Held in a Bavarian resort, the fourth Winter Olympics were opened by Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Although not as politically charged as the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, the event was manipulated by the Nazi regime, which suppressed unfavourable press coverage and staged lavish celebrations to mark the openings of new facilities. The IOC had forbidden Germany to exclude Jews from its Olympic team, but only one Jewish athlete represented the country—Rudi Ball, who was invited to participate on the ice hockey team after having fled Germany months before.
For the first time female athletes were allowed to compete in a sport other than figure skating with the inclusion of the Alpine combined, an event held over several days, which featured the downhill and two slalom runs. Over Swiss and Austrian protests, the IOC ruled that hotel ski instructors were professional athletes and thus ineligible. Germany collected the gold and silver in both the men’s and the women’s competition.
The biggest upset of the Games occurred in the ice hockey competition, Great Britain defeating Canada to win its only gold medal in the event. Controversy over the eligibility of several British players, however, clouded Britain’s victory. The 1936 Games marked the end of two stellar careers. In his final Olympic appearance, speed skater Ivar Ballangrud (Norway) turned in the most successful performance at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, winning three gold medals and one silver. After narrowly winning her third women’s figure skating title, Sonja Henie (Norway) turned professional and pursued a career in film. Another Norwegian, Birger Ruud, made a great impression at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, winning his second gold medal in the ski jump and placing first in the Alpine downhill race, then a demonstration event.