The Olympics Two and a half years ago, 1996 A.D., the world watched as the city of Atlanta, Georgia hosted the modern Olympics over a span of twenty-one days. The first modern Olympics were held 103 years earlier in 1886 at Athens, Greece. Many people don’t know that there was an actual Ancient Greek Olympics that started over 2,500 years ago. These Olympics were also held in Greece, but not in Athens. They were held at Olympia a now archaeological site/town in the part of western Greece called Peloponnese. As stated above the Ancient Olympics were held in Olympia, Greece.
In pre-historic times though, Olympia was home to temples of Cronus and Rhea (parents of Zeus) and Gaia, Mother Earth. A low cone shaped hill called the Hill of Cronus dominates the area. Dorian invaders who came from Thessaly, ruled the land sometime before 1000 B.C. They worshiped Zeus and brought a new mythology to the area. They even named a pair of neighboring mountains Ossa and Olympus in memory of their native region. Olympia was not just the site of the games; it was also a place of worship.
The sacred site was known as Altis, which occupies a meadow where the two rivers Apheios and Kladeos meet. It is here where two important temples lay, the temple to Zeus, the king of gods, and the temple of Hera, his wife. The foundation of the temple of Hera was laid in the mid-seventh century B.C., and is among the oldest remaining examples of Classical Greek architecture. The temple stood for over 1,000 years and contained a statue of Hera enthroned with Zeus standing at her side. It is here, on a sacrificial altar, in front of her temple that the sun lights the torch for the modern Olympics with the aid of mirrors. The building of the temple of Zeus from 470 B.C.
to 456 B.C. at the height of Classic Greek Architecture, coincided the successful defense of Greece against Persia. The temple had six enormous columns front and back and thirteen on each side. Each of the columns were made with the local conchiferate stone which was covered with a fine coat of lime. The temple itself is 210 feet long and over 90 feet wide and was the largest temple in the Peloponnese.
The temple contained a huge statue depicting Zeus enthroned, made of gold, ivory, and chryselephantine. It was built by Phidias one of the best sculptor of the times, and is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It is said to have stood forty feet high, but no one is sure because it was removed, in the fourth century A.D., by Christian Byzantine conquerors, to Constantinople. Soon afterward it was destroyed in a fire. The Olympics, according to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, were started in 776 B.C. when Iphitus, king of the city-state of Elis, and Lycaurgus, king of Sparta, signed a peace treaty. The games were open to all Greeks.
The pact is inscribed in a bronze disk that hung in the temple of Hera. Elis that was rich in cattle and philosophers, never achieved the power of Sparta and its only claim to fame was the Olympics which it held inside its borders. Pausanis in the Descriptions of Greece wrote a more mythological approach to how the games started in the second century A.D. It is said that Cronus first reigned in heaven, and that a temple was made for him in Olympia by the men of that age, called the Golden race. When Zeus was born Rhea gave him to the Idaean Dactyls, named Herakles, Paesonaes, Epimedes, Iasius and Idas, for his safekeeping. Then Herakles as the oldest made his brothers run a race and the winner was crowned with a wreath of wild olive branch.
So in turn the Idaean Herakles is credited to have first arranged the games, and to have given them the name Olympic. He also is said to have made the rule that they should be celebrated every four years. There are even more stories as to why the Olympics started. Some say that Zeus himself wrestled Cronus, his father, for the kingdom of heaven, and that they are held in honor of his victory. A more down-to-earth but still mythological approach to the story is that the Olympics were memorial rites for Pelops, for whom the Peloponnese and Pelop’s Island are named for, in his race against King Oenomaus.
The story says that King Oenomaus had a beautiful daughter named Princess Hippodamia. Thirteen suitors had begged King Oenomaus for her hand in marriage. In each case the king offered them a sporting challenge saying that they were to take her, on a chariot, on the road to Corinth where he would chase after them, in his chariot, after sacrificing a ram to Zeus. If the suitor crossed the border before King Oenomaus caught up with them Hippodamia was theirs, but if he caught them he got to kill the suitor. The catch was that King Oenomaus had the fastest horses in the land. Thirteen suitors later Pelops showed up and Hippodamia, getting tired of being taken back home by her father after each race, helped Pelops win by tampering with King Oenomaus’ chariot wheels. In mid-pursuit, after Pelops took Hippodamia, King Oenomaus’ chariot’s wheels fell off and he was dragged to death.
The first Ancient Olympics on record were in 776 B.C. and the last took place 1,169 years later in 393 A.D. when the Roman Emperor Theodosius I abolished all pagan festivals. Athletes of the classical age were as fiercely competitive as the athletes of modern times, as they had everything to gain. Along with their victory wreaths of wild olive, the winners were showered with civic honors, songs of victory, free meals, monuments, tax breaks, hero worship, and enduring fame.
The losers on the other hand received nothing. Unlike modern games, all the competitors were naked to show off the beauty of the human body. Women were excluded from both participating and viewing the games. Those women that broke the rule were executed. Individual male excellence was promoted; therefore team play was excluded.
Every four years Elis would send out “Truce-Bearers of Zeus the Thunder God,” to issue invitations all the way from southern Epirus to Northern Africa and from Massilia (Marseille) in the west to Trebzoid in the east. On average over 1,000 athletes and their trainers showed up to compete in the games along with some 45,000 spectators. For this special occasion a one-month “Truce of Greece,” was proclaimed, and any that attacked travelers or made war with other states was subjected to heavy fines to be paid to Olympia. The Olympics were actually part sport, part religion, and part World’s Fair. They took place over a five-day span during the first or second full moon after the summer solstice.
The schedule varied over the centuries but this is the general pattern: The first day of the Olympics was given over to greetings, meetings, and oath-takings, plus a special sacrific …