.. e to “Zeus, Averter of Flies.” No one knows what the sacrifice was, but the writer Aelian assures us that the flies either perished or buzzed off. The chief oath taking occurred under a frightening bronze statue of Zeus with thunderbolts clutched in each hand. It was customary for all the athletes and their trainers to swear upon a boar that had been sacrificed, that they would not be guilty of any foul play. The athletes also took an additional oath that for ten successive months they had strictly observed the rules of training. If caught lying, cheating, bribe taking, or arriving late for the games they were compelled to erect expensive statues to Zeus that carried inscriptions of their sins. Apparently much of this did happen as archaeologists found over a hundred statues to Zeus.
Competitors were also publicly beaten for false starts or conspiracy. The second morning opened with a procession to the Hippodrome where the chariot and horse races were held. The Hippodrome was a track shaped like the outside of a paper clip. The starting gates, which held no fewer than 44 chariots, were in the shape of a V. An eagle representing Zeus and a dolphin representing either Poseidon or Apollo where atop this much-admired structure. When the trumpets sounded for the race to begin the eagle ascended on a long piston and the dolphin dived down from its height.
At the same time the starting ropes were reeled in back to front so the teams at the back of the V started first, and the front last, and everyone got a fair start. The race was 12 double laps long or about 9 miles that contained 23 sharp turns. The charioteers leaned forward like ski jumpers and held on to reigns while cracking their whips. The chariots were flimsy and the charioteers only touched the handrails in emergencies. The races were very dangerous and it was reported that in a field of 40 charioteers only one finished.
Trotting and mule-cart pulling used to follow the chariot race, but were soon discontinued in favor of the flat racing. The third morning began with a procession to the temple of Zeus, where on the altar in front of it, a whole herd of oxen was sacrificed. After the ceremony, athletic events resumed with the smell of burning fat and oxen bones filling the air. The meat of the oxen was saved for victory banquets. That afternoon the games were given over to the boys’ events: footraces, wrestling, and boxing. Many times it occurred that fathers and sons won championships at the same Olympics but only Diagoras and his son’s of Rhodes won the Triple Crown. In 464 B.C.
Diagoras won the boxing crown his eldest the pancration (a contest involving both boxing and wrestling) and his youngest outboxed all the other boys. They say that when Diagoras’ sons carried him around the stadium on their shoulders, many of the spectators cried. The fourth day began just after sunrise with a “long” race of slightly under three miles. The marathon is actually a modern invention, although inspired by an incident when Athens defeated the invading Persians at Marathon Beach. The famous runner Pheidippides ran 26 miles to tell the people of the victory.
When he got to Athens’ gates he cried out “Rejoice!” and fell happily dead. After the “long” race came sprints down the length of the stadium and back, some 400 yards. Instead of squatting at the start, the competitors stood upright with their feet planted in a shallow-grooved limestone blocks. Vase paintings show that their running form was much the same as our own. After the 400-yard dash came the climatic 200-yard sprint.
This meant bursting off the starting line to reach the far end of the stadium in an all-out explosive effort. The Greeks honored runners above all else and named the winner of the 200-yard sprint the fastest man there. The so-called heavy sports were held in the afternoon of the fourth day. In ascending order of violence, these comprised of wrestling, boxing, and pancration. Classical wrestling was clean-cut and elegant.
The object was to throw your opponent to the mat three out of five times while keeping your feet on the ground. The games permitted no torture holds but included moves like the cross-hip, headlock, body press, heave, and flying mare. The referee carried a large knobby stick, and used it to punish the competitors for infractions. Boxing followed wrestling. Vase painting shows large men facing each other with their fists clenched in front of their face.
Greek boxing was much rougher than prizefighting is today, but Greek rules did not permit hitting below the neck. There were no boxing gloves and their hands were wrapped with 12 foot strips of rawhide which not only added lethal weight but great cutting power as well. The boxing matches had no rounds, rest periods, or points scored. The matches concluded with either a knockout or surrender. Pancration the most violent of all came last where eye gouging, ear biting, and finger breaking were standard moves.
The actual word pancration means “all powers.” Mutilating one’s opponent was honorable, while surrendering was an act of cowardice. The cool of the evening brought the last event of the Olympics. This is where athletes/soldiers ran 400 feet fully clad in armor and shields. Classic battle tactics of the time called for a good deal of running, so this event gave a chance for the warriors to shine. The fifth and last day brought the end of the Olympics.
It included ceremonies and celebrations of which almost nothing is known. With the emergence of the mighty Roman Empire the sun began to set on Greece. The Olympics lost their glory and the rewards became more important than the original goal to strive to be perfect. The low point of the Olympics was reached in 67 A.D. when Nero, the Roman Emperor, appeared at the Olympics with a following of 5,000 people whose primary job was to applaud him. No one dared face him in the chariot race and when he fell from his chariot, which was supposed to disqualify you, the officials put him back, but he could not finish the race. Yet the jury declared him winner anyway. The Olympics ended in 393 A.D.
when the Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned all pagan festivals. Olympia today is a gentle ruin and a small town, centered around tourism. Not far from the site there is a museum where bronze statuary and sculptures are found from the site. The temples of Zeus and Hera are still there but all the columns have been knocked down from major earthquakes and numerous floods. The site is open to the public, where tourists can run a race in the stadium, arm wrestle in the temple of Hera, or just rest among the stones of the workshop of Phidias. They can even read inscriptions that seem to reveal a millennium of sports out before them.