THE STORY OF
The History of Resurrection
It has been universally accepted that it was Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France who set the stage for modern Olympics. But many are unaware to the fact that the very idea of the revival was germinated in England, where the Baron toyed with the idea.
It was as early as in 1612 that Robert Dover envisaged an English version of the Olympics in Gloucestershire's Cotswold Hills. There was an impressive array of games including card games, chess, running, the hammer throw, jumping, horse racing, pitching the bar, wrestling, and no less, dancing.
The idea was very much there in 19th-century England. An Olympic Festival was held at Chelsea Stadium in London as early as in 1832. Another festival, in 1838, commemorated Queen Victoria's coronation. The events included archery, cricket, gymnastics, rowing, fencing, sailing, and target shooting.
Of all the earlier events, the one at Much Wenlock in Shropshire was the most reputed. William "Penny" Brookes, a campaigner for physical education, organized the games. Cricket, jumping, hurdling, quoits, running and soccer featured as events.
This festival was primarily aimed at youngsters. The events lured participants from Europe and the German Gymnastics Society was soon sending a team to the venue.
Brooke organized the Shropshire Olympian Association in 1861. This later led to forming the National Olympian Association four years later. Brooke pitched at organising an international Olympics, which he never could.
However, in 1890, Coubertin paid a visit to Brooke. The Baron was keen to know more about the Much Wenlock games and the Olympian Society. Brooke struck a rapport with him and the dream of international Olympics was getting there.
Coubertin had witnessed the pain of living in a war-torn France after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. He believed that it was the physical and spiritual flabbiness which failed his country on the warfront.
Coubertin decided to spend the rest of his life on physical education. His ideas gelled with the Muscular Christianity movement of England, which dealt with moral and intellectual development based on physical fitness.
Coubertin visited England several times to have a close look at the way sport was treated in public schools. In 1890, he visited Much Wenlock to discuss the Olympian Society with Brooke.
It was this meeting which ignited the idea of reviving Olympics as a true international festival. The idea was lapped up initially by most. But he persisted with it. On June 23, 1894, he presided over a meeting of 79 delegates from 12 countries, who unanimously voted for the restoration.
Thus the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was organized to stage the first modern Olympics in Paris in 1900. On Coubertin's insistence, the IOC settled for 1896, with Athens as the venue.
The government of Greece was against the idea until Georgios Averoff of Alexandria donated 920,000 gold drachmas to build an Olympic stadium in Athens. It was the King of Greece who opened the first modern Olympic Games on April 5, 1896.
A total of 311 athletes registered for the Games, 230 being Greek. Along with 81 other athletes from a dozen countries, they took part in the 43 events. Some of the competitors were tourists who decided to register on the spur of the moment!
Germany and France had the largest representation coming up with 19 athletes apiece, while the United States had 14. Though the winners were called gold medalists, there were no gold medals in 1896 and prizes were reserved only for those who finished first and second - a silver medal and a crown of olive branches for first place and a bronze medal and crown of laurel for the second.
James Connolly was the first champion of the modern Olympics, winning the triple jump. While Paul Masson of France won three of the six cycling events and Hungary's Alfred Hajos won two swimming races, the US won nine of the 12 track and field events.
The marathon was run through the legendary 25 miles covered by Pheidippides in 490 BC to tell Athenians that the invading Persians had been beaten at Marathon.
Spyridon Loues, a Greek shepherd, became a national hero by winning the race. Loues, among other things, won free shaves for the rest of his life from a patriotic barber and had free meals at any time at any Athens restaurant. Though the competition was not of the highest quality, the 1896 event was a resounding success. At the closing banquet, King George of Greece suggested Athens be made the permanent Olympic venue, but both Coubertin and IOC stuck to Paris for the 1900 games.
Athletic Events in Prehistory
Hippias of Elis, a sophist of the fifth century BC, was the first to compile the initial victor list of the Olympic games. From him we learn that the first athletic contest, the foot race, was held at the sacred place of Olympia, in western Peloponnese, for the first time in 776 BC, in honor of the Olympian Zeus. Later ancient sources inform us that the Olympic festival gained considerable importance, ranked among the largest and most famous Panhellenic festivals by the time of early 5th century.
Was the athletic competition always organized?
And what did athletic competition mean to the earlier cultures of the Mediterranean?
Ancient Egyptians and the people of Mesopotamia had a long tradition in athletic activities, as shown by the reliefs depicting athletic scenes carved on the tombs of their kings and their nobles. They did not hold regular festivals, however, and when they did, it seems that these were only attended by kings and the higher class.
The Minoans showed special concern in gymnastics. Bull-leaping and tumbling became their favorite sports, as indicated by the frescoes decorating their palaces. Other Minoan sports included track-contests, wrestling and boxing. From what we can tell, such activities were practiced in places near the palace, probably by members of the noble class.
The Myceneans adopted all Minoan games, and introduced chariot-racing and more track contests. The Myceneans used the chariot not only for hunting and war purposes, but for religious and funerary ceremonies too.
The Homeric poems comprise the first written evidence of athletic contests in the Greek world. In his great poems, Homer gives vivid descriptions of the athletic contests held as part of the funerary ceremonies in honor of the dead hero, Patroclus, or in other occasions.
The emergence of the first city-states caused a rapid development in athletism: a number of local contests were set up in these cities, held in festivals of religious character. Athletism became an institution, providing vehicles for recurring competition among the members of the polis.
Olympia soon became an important religious place, where a series of athletic contests were held. Modern research focuses on understanding the origins of this great religious celebration that became the symbol of political and cultural unity of Greeks in the historical period. Were the Olympics always a big festival, and was Olympia always a sacred place? Why did the games develop as a Panhellenic institution at this particular part of the western Peloponnese, and how did this institution change throughout the course of the years? Ancient Greeks and later writers describe their myths for the origins of the first games at Olympia, whereas archaeologists spend great efforts in reconstructing the history of the festival through finds in excavations.
Despite the considerable amount of academic work devoted to the investigation of the above issues, the modern reader would be surprised by the number of different opinions, rooted often in the contradictory nature of the available archaeological and literary evidence. The following text, a full index of athletism and its origins, is dedicated to the anonymous reader who wants to explore further the origins of athletism and understand its various meanings in different times.
Note: Click on the images to see a brief description.
Line drawing showing a reconstruction of the Sacred Altis, Olympia. Photo from German Archaeological Institute.
EGYPT & MESOPOTAMIA
"That was a deed that had never been done before and which man had never heard of...except in the case of the King who is rich in glory" Engraved on a stone from Giza.
Athletics and the spirit of competition in contests sprang in the Mediterranean long before the Olympic games became an institution in Greece of the 8th century BC.
A number of literary and iconographic sources from Egypt and Mesopotamia, starting approximately about 3000 BC and on, indicate the existence of athletic activities.
Egypt and Mesopotamia did have regular sport meetings, in some even food was granted to the athletes. Although the competitive spirit was not unknown in such events, there is hardly any evidence that the aim of these contests was the recognition of outstanding individuals.
The pharaohs of Egypt and the kings of Mesopotamia have recorded their interest in athletic activities on the walls of their temples and tombs. Sports in Egypt included wrestling, stick fighting, boxing, acrobatics, archery, equestrian events, boating and ball games.
The oldest reliefs with wrestling scenes, dated from 2400 BC, decorated the tombs of Ptahotep and Akhethotep. There, the wrestlers are depicted naked.
At Beni Hasan more than 4000 wrestling scenes were found, dated from 2000 BC. There, we attend a number of athletic movements and postures of athletes in pairs. The wrestlers, wearing belts, attempt to turn their opponents to their back by back or shoulder movements.
In a relief in the temple of Ramses III at Madinet Habu, dating from the 12th century BC, Egyptians and foreigners are seen competing in wrestling and stick-fighting in front of the pharaoh. Whenever a score in falls is achieved, the Egyptian is proclaimed the successful competitor. In one case, there is evidence of interference by an official. In another scene, the Egyptian wrestler applies a choking neck hold to his opponent, possibly a foreigner. An inscription below refers to him warning: "Take care! You are in the presence of pharaoh". The defeated lays on the ground, whereas another raises his hands in victory.
Most likely, athletic festivals were limited to the court and athletic activities were mainly the concern of the members of the higher class. Egyptian texts reveal the importance of physical training for the pharaoh and the members of the court. In one case, we are told that the king of Mesopotamia demonstrated his hunting abilities in front of his nobles. An inscription about pharaoh Amenophis II describes how he challenged other nobles to excel in bow shooting. A stone from Giza boasts: "that was a deed that had never been done before and which man had never heard of...except in the case of the King who is rich in glory". We are also told that Thutmoses' III achievements in bow shooting "fulfil the wish of his followers for success in might and victory".
Wrestling scenes were also common in Mesopotamia. Wrestling scenes, carved on seals and reliefs of all periods, show wrestlers wearing belts and grasping their opponents by them. Cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia refer to different postures and holds on the limbs and belt. According to one view, belt wrestling was an essential part of a warrior's or hero's life. In the known epic of Gilgamesh, the divine hero meets Enkidu in a wrestling match, whereby "they seized each other, they bent down like expert [wrestlers]". On a seal, dated from 1800 BC, a hero and a bull man fight wearing belts.
Minoan Crete is the first culture in the Aegean to provide us with ample iconographic evidence of sporting activity held in the Bronze Age.
Evidence is mainly iconographic, since textual evidence from the earlier periods still remains undeciphered. Minoan sports are portrayed in stone vases, frescoes and sealstones.
The Minoans practiced a number of sports, such as boxing, wrestling, bull-leaping and acrobatics.
The famous relief on the rhyton from Hagia Triada, dated from the 16th century BC, is divided in registers with depictions of different sports such as wrestling, bull-leaping, and boxing. The actual rules of boxing and wrestling are unknown, but the postures are suggestive of the following practices: competitions were probably always held in pairs. Noteworthy is the absence of interference by a judge, a fact probably attributed to iconographic needs.
In both sports the athletes had elaborate coiffures, wore sandals and necklaces. Wrestlers wore a special kind of helmet with cheekpieces, whereas boxers had their heads uncovered. The winner is portrayed with raised left hand, a possible posture to demonstrate his triumph. The defeated is shown in various postures, either on his knees or while trying to avoid the opponent's blows.
In all available scenes, high-quality performance conveys long periods of practice and well-developed athletic ability and training. The famous frescoe from Thera (ca. 1550 BC), depicting two young boys boxing, proves that training was a main concern from an early age. Each of the boys is wearing a girdle and a boxing glove on their right hand only. Bull-leaping scenes imply absolute precision in action and highly developed acquaintance with the dangers encountered by the physical contact with the animal. Acrobatic exercises and wrestling scenes show exercised bodies with narrow waists and well-trained bodies with strong muscles. The consistency and precision of movement shows that athletic activities were organized activities of repetitive nature in Minoan times.
On the basis of these observations, we tend to assign a rather religious character to athletic activities of Minoan Crete.
Perhaps they formed part of a ceremonial initiation rite (rite of passage) of noble youths.
Alternatively, they formed a type of a religious spectacle, organized by the palace, as implied by the sacred nature of the bull and their close association with the palace. Such spectacles would entertain large crowds of people in the vicinity of the palace.
The young boxers, a fresco from Thera, ca. 1550 BC. Athens, National Archaeological Museum. Ministry of Culture, Archaeological Resources Fund.
In Mycenean Greece (1600-1100 BC), as in Minoan Crete, athletic contests formed an important component of religious ceremonies and fertility rites. The Myceneans adopted all Minoan games, but they were mostly interested in combat sports, such as boxing and wrestling. Unfortunately, unlike Minoan Crete, the Mycenean evidence is scarce and quite heterogeneous.
Bull-leaping scenes also exist in Mycenean times. The Myceneans, like the Minoans, continued to hold several games such as bull-leaping as parts of religious festivals in honor of a god. Boxing and wrestling became the most popular games among the Myceneans, who passed them over to Cyprus in the late Mycenean periods. A Mycenean vase from Cyprus shows boxing scenes along with the earliest representation of a running contest. The runners are nude and wear ornaments on their heads.
The Myceneans introduced a new game, chariot racing. As indicated by a number of Mycenean vases and stelai, the chariot, the horse and the charioteers appear now for the first time. The chariot was used by Myceneans not only for war needs, but for hunting and athletic purposes. Interestingly, although none of these scenes really presents a chariot race, most of these monuments were recovered from funerary contexts, mainly tombs and graves.
If seen in the light of the later Homeric evidence, this observation gains a special meaning: in the Iliad, the famous Homeric poem of the late 8th century BC, organized games are an important component of funerary ceremonies, as indicated by descriptions of a wide range of athletic contests held in commemoration of the dead Patroclus. Given the fact that the Homeric poems reflect traditions of the Mycenean period, it seems plausible to accept a historical link between these two periods and assume that chariot racing was held as a funeral practice already by the Mycenean era.
"Always excel, and be preeminent above others, and not bring shame on the line of my ancestors..." Iliad 6.207-11
The two great Homeric poems, composed in the Geometric period (8th and early 7th century BC), give a full description of all athletic contests, as these are known in the historical period: chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, running, armed combat, discus, archery and javelin. Although reflecting customs of the Mycenean period which had been been preserved by tradition, these poems also describe the practices and the values of the elites of the following Geometric era.
In the Iliad, we are given long descriptions of the funeral games, organized by Achilles in honor of his beloved dead friend, Patroclus. In the Odyssey, the games are practiced in a totally different atmosphere: they form part of an entertaining spectacle organized by the Phaiakians in honor of their guest, Odysseus, upon his arrival on their island.
In the Homeric society, athletic competition is the means for a hero to demonstrate his virtue (arete) and gain communal recognition. By exercising and competing, the athlete demonstrates not only his physical strength, but his bravity and intelligence, therefore, his virtue. "I say that you know nothing of games, stranger", says Eyryalos to Odysseus, "you are not an athlete", and Odysseus, receiving his word as a great insult and dishonor against his arete, demonstrates his excellence in discus throwing. In many ways, the athletic spirit is equivalent to heroic spirit. "Athlos" means the great achievement. Every hero is like an athlete who tries to surpass the others and win.
The heroic society of Homer places high esteem on athletes who practice for superiority, and thus, the Phaiakians award Odysseus for his excellence, by acknowledging in public his superiority. The athlete's virtue (arete) and the communal acknowledgement of the athlete's status comprise two inextricably linked aspects of the athletic identity in the Homeric era.
ATHLETISM & POLIS
"But who in contests or in war achieves the delicate glory is magnified to be given the supreme prize, splendor of speech from citizen and stranger" Pindar, 5th century BC
From the 8th century onwards, the emergence of the first city-states (poleis) caused rapid developments in athletism. Various systems of gymnastics were set up in each city-state, including gymnastic exercises, musical training, reading and writing. As long as aristocrats were in power, training aimed at the supremacy of the young members of the noble families, by enhancing their physical strength and intellectual virtues. The education of the young people aimed at helping them to develop both their body and mind and achieve harmony. Physical exercise was accompanied by music. Music, dance and ahtletics, all helped to achieve the harmonious balance of the body and the mind.
A plethora of local festivals were organized by the emergent city-states in the 8th century BC. They provided a variety of competitive contexts in which most of the citizens of the city-states had the opportunity to demonstrate openly their virtues and fight for excellence. Gradually, music and athletic contests evolved into organized regional festivals of a repetitive nature. Such contests were directly connected to the cults of the gods or heroes and had religious character.
In these religious festivals, athletic competition became a formal vehicle for the members of the community to demonstrate their abilities.
Athletes from various places gathered to demonstrate their physical and moral virtues in honor of the local deity or hero. By demonstrating the strength of his body, an athlete pleased the gathered crowd, won recognition and made his city-state famous henceforth.
Such gatherings pleased the local god and were thus held in his honor. The athlete's victory was celebrated by making offerings to the local god. Various types of offerings, such as tripods and figurines indicate how significant this victory was for the athlete and his homeland.
For centuries, the Olympic Games were considered the most important and prestigious celebration of all Panhellenic festivals. But how did Olympia become a sanctuary of such importance in the Greek world? When were the first games introduced to the site? How did they develop into an institution of such significance? The various myths associated with the first Olympic games create a difficult effort in identifying any historical evidence. Archaeology's role is crucial in clarifying these issues.
Combining the different mythological, historical and archaeological strings, it seems probable to assume that already by the 10th century BC Olympia was a cult place, known to the elites of the western Peloponnese, who dedicated a lot of offerings in honor of its cult(s). The original character of the earlier dedications (animal figurines) reveal agricultural and pastoral interests, whereas horse and chariot figurines reflect the pursuits of more wealthy people. Obviously, Olympia came to be a regional cult place for people of different interests and status. In a region divided into small-scale local territorial units, neutral religious centers functioned as meeting places of local elites.
A broadening of the cult activities held in Olympia came by late 8th century BC, when participation was expanded to include a larger number of city-states. The region of Elis, where Olympia lies, was resettled again (ca. 750-700 BC) and several dispersed settlements were formed in the area. From this period and on, Olympia becomes a site that attracted a lot of visitors from different areas of Greece.
Surely, definite answers cannot be given to the questions above, as these are mantled with different traditions and myths of various sources and contradictory character. What is certain is that Olympia developed gradually to a major festival site that came to be respected and continued to attract visitors from all places of Greece throughout antiquity.
IMPORTANCE OF THE OLYMPIC GAMES
"And we compel men to exercise their bodies not only for the games, so that they can win the prizes-for very few of them go to them-but to gain a greater good from it for the whole city, and for the men themselves" Lucian, Anacharsis, ca. AD 170
The emergence of city-states in the Greek world was paralleled by an expansion of organized athletic activities. Greeks organized special festivals in order to hold athletic events: these ranged from small-scale contests to national-wide games. Among the latter, Olympic and Pythian festivals were in the top rank, attracting people from almost all Greek cities. Hostilities were suspended during the Olympic festival which added glory to the games and ensured its fame throughout the Greek world. Every city-state was ambitious to claim as many Olympic victors as it could and this resulted in issuing several laws to encourage athletism. Above all, the Olympiad was a sacred festival, and not simply a series of athletic performances, as it is today.
Why did the Olympic festival and being victorious in the games become the symbol of spirit and unity in Antiquity?
Firstly, to gain victory became a major achievement that gave credits not only to the athlete but to his city as well. Not long after Homer's times, personal achievement could not be envisaged without the contribution and acknowledgment of the athlete's city. Athletic victory became inextricably linked to the victory of his city and the city became the only collective body with rights to assign glory and awards.
Secondly, it was the credit to the personal achievement and the wide recognition of the athlete's physical and moral virtues. "Kartereia", or the degree of endurance an athlete demonstrated during the long training period and performance became a major virtue. The athlete's ability to suffer in silence and exhibit patience in training and practicing was one of the most important virtues that an athlete could gain and develop in his athletic years of life. "I won at boxing thrice by my skill and the endurance of my hands" says an ancient boxer in his inscription, being excessively proud of his accomplishment. Cicero notes that often eager but not well-trained boxers could bear the blows more than the heat at Olympia! The main concern of those competing, however, was not to develop one specific physical ability at the expense of others, but to succeed a balanced development of all physical and moral values.
Then, it was the moral reward that made the victory worthy of all efforts and physical pain. The Olympic victors shared in the divine splendor and imperishable fame of the first mythical heroes. Victory was the highest honor for a mortal to attain, for his fame became immortal thanks to the gods who preferred him and helped him to win. The favor of the gods and the wide recognition the victor gained by his city was the highest prize that made the obsessive passion of Greeks for contest ("agon") worthy of all efforts.
Lastly, it was the challenge for the Greek world to promote cooperation and exhibit political unity. Thanks to the truce, all Greek cities could send their official missions ("the theoriai") to attend the games. All cities attached great importance to the sanctuary as shown in the missions they sent and the treasuries they erected at the site. It is here that the famous Greek philosophers, poets and historians read their works in front of the public. These national gatherings became famous Panhellenic festivals, that promoted cultural consciousness and strengthened Greek identity.
Changes in the Athletic Spirit
The spread of the Hellenistic culture and the new economic, political, and social conditions following the campaign of Alexander the Great, led to important changes of the athletic spirit and the ideological content of the games.
The number of athletic festivals and institutions increased at the new Greek centers. New games were established in different city-states of the Hellenistic world: the Ptolemaea at Alexandria, the Nicephoria at Pergamum, the Heracleia at Chalkis. The number of professional athletes coming from Alexandria and the east increased and monetary prizes became a common rule.
Athletism became an important component in social life and education. The Greeks who lived in Asia and Egypt, in an effort to hold on to their culture, built athletic facilities and continued their athletic traditions. The gymnasium was not only the physical place for training, but a place where Greeks could meet, thus preserving their language and customs throughout Asia.
The bond between religion and the athletic ideal ceased to exist and the games now turned into secular events. Victory was more linked to the athlete's personal effort and less to the assistance of gods.
In the Roman period, the athletic ideal changed once more. For the Romans, the contests were spectacles, performances (ludi) and not competitions among all citizens. Usually the athletes were slaves or gladiators. The higher class Romans were unwilling to display themselves publicly which displayed a negative attitude towards athletism.
Olympia ceased to be the center of the ancient world and the games were now instituted in honor of the Roman emperor.
SITE IN TIME
Olympia is located 10km inland in the territory of Elis in the northwestern Peloponnese, just near the confluence of Alpheios with the river Kladeos. Peloponnese, where Olympia lies, was considered to be the island of Pelops, the mythical figure whose life was traditionally linked to the site of Olympia.
Near the point where the two rivers meet, there rises a low hill covered with pines. This bears the name of Kronos, the father of Zeus, and surrounds the flat area of the shrine, the name of which was "Altis", meaning grove (alsos) in the Elian dialect.
The ancient writers tell us that Altis used to be shaded with olive-trees. Greeks honored Zeus and other deities at altars located in the Altis. The cults of Kronos, Rhea, Gaia, Eileithyia, Themis and Idaian Herakles were also worshiped at Olympia since the earlier times. From the sixth century and on, the Altis was adorned with temples, elaborate shrines, and statues. The Altis was the center of all religious activities during the Olympic festival.