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The ancient Olympics

The Ancient Olympics

The London Olympics of 2012 formed the backdrop for an exciting series of lectures, debates and exhibitions, involving some of the most distinguished experts worldwide, which explored the ancient origins and evolution and modern receptions of the games. This site gathers together some of the themes and ideas which emerged from this programme, together with ancient texts, links to artefacts, and extracts from the conference on Sport and Competition in Ancient Greece and Rome held at the British Museum in June 2012. The full lectures from this event can be viewed here.

  • The athletic explosion

    Athletics must always have been an important part of Greek life. Regardless of the view we take of the historical value of the Homeric poems (and scholars are divided), the accounts we have of the competition of Tydeus at Thebes in the Iliad and of Odysseus in Phaeacia in the Odyssey are unintelligible unless we suppose that there were as early as the Greek geometric period frequent opportunities for competitive sport. And Homer, Hesiod the epic cycle attest the opportunities presented by funeral games, as do narrative cycles such as the funeral games for Pelias. But nothing suggests any high of formal organization and (as scholars have stressed) in some cases the impromptu nature of event and locale are emphasized. And nothing prepares us for the quantum leap which sport takes in the archaic period. It is in the sixth century BC that Greek athletics becomes fully institutionalized, when there is - almost literally - an explosion of athletic festivals. There is a seismic shift in Greek culture. The traditional dating for the foundation of the Olympic games is 776 BC. Nothing then seems to happen (except perhaps for occasional funeral games) for 200 years. And suddenly within about a decade in the first quarter of the sixth century BC three more festivals appear. The musical festival at Delphi is reorganized as the four-yearly Pythian games (586 or 582). The games at the Isthmus of Corinth in honour of Poseidon (582) and those at Nemea in honour of Zeus (573) are added as two-yearly festivals. Though the games are suddenly thrust into (our sense of) history, in reality there must have been a steady growth behind their emergence. What we are seeing looks like the product of a shift from local to regional to panhellenic competitions, and an increase in the degree of institutionalization of Greek contests. But even so the evolution must have been rapid.

    These four festivals formed what the Greeks called the periodos, the circuit, and it was the goal of every serious athlete to win at all four and become what they called a 'circuit-winner', periodonikes. The word is late but the concept is there from the beginning, since our earliest athletic texts in listing victories place the greatest emphasis on the big four. From the sixth century onwards there is a steady increase in the number of festivals across the Greek world which claim international status (i.e. which were open to citizens from any state). By the middle of the fifth century there are dozens, by the Roman period probably hundreds. Inevitably they vary enormously in importance. Some like the Great Panathenaia of Athens try hard (but ultimately without success) to claim the same status as the big four. But none breaks into the circuit. Together however these games offer an enormous number of opportunities for an athlete to notch up victories. And for the aspiring athlete there were also always local exclusive to citizens and regional games which could be used as a training ground before attempting the big games.

    Homer Iliad 4.387-90

    "Then, although he was a stranger, the horseman Tydeus did not fear at all, even though he was alone among many Cadmeians. He challenged them to an athletic contest, and he easily won all prizes; such an aid was Athena to him."

    Homer Iliad 6.207-8

    "[My father] gave me many other commands and among them this, to always excel and distinguish myself among other men..."

    Homer Iliad 9.410-16

    "For my mother, the silver-footed goddess, Thetis, told me that twofold fates bring me to my doom of death. If I stay and fight against the city of the Trojans, my return home is lost, but my glory will be eternal. If I go home to my beloved fatherland, my good fame is lost, but I will live for a long time, and my doom of death will not come soon upon me."

    Homer Iliad 12.322-8

    "My good man, if, when we escaped from this battle, we were destined to live forever young and immortal, I would not be fighting among the first ranks nor would I be sending you to fight a battle that brings glory to men. But now, for in any case countless fates of death are waiting for us, from which a mortal man cannot escape nor run away, let's go and bring glory to someone else, or he to us."

    Homer Odyssey 8.158-64

    To Odysseus Euryalos answered and quarrelled with him: "Truly, stranger, I do not compare you to a man experienced in contests, such as those taking place among men, but to a man who is accustomed to get on and off a benched ship, a captain of sailors who are also merchants, a man who is mindful of his cargo and is successful in exchanging his merchandise, a man devouring his profits. You do not seem to me like an athlete."

    Hesiod Works and Days 654-657

    Then I crossed to Chalcis, for the games of warlike Amphidamas. His great-hearted sons appointed many prizes that had been stated publicly. There I say that I won with my song and took away a tripod with handles.

  • Athletic motivation / victory

    Ancient sport was highly competitive. It was focused on individual success and did not promote team spirit. There were no team sports (unlike modern athletic events). In martial sports, there could only be one winner - no second or third prize were allowed. Our sources make no explicit mention of enjoying oneself at the Games; glory was key and winning was the only goal.

    For the major Panhellenic games the reward was a simple crown of leaves, at the Olympics an olive-branch; and of course fame and honour, both for the athlete and his host city, but also material rewards once the athlete returned home, including a large supply of olive oil and free meals; money rewards are also attested.

    Greek sport has been idealised and the notion that the Greeks competed for glory has been promoted both by ancient and modern sources, but the reality is that the athletes could use their success as the basis for influence in their polis; they also received generous rewards when victorious - and major loss of face when they were not.

    Pindar Isthmian 4.45-49

    For he is similar to the spirit of loud-roaring lions in boldness as he labours, and in skill he is like a fox who, stretching out, restrains the eagle's swoop. One must do anything to render the opponent powerless.

    Antiphon Tetralogy 2.3.6

    He believed that the danger from the indictment was not less but greater than this one here, as I will prove to you. Let us accept that he had the same expectations of being convicted or acquitted in both lawsuits. He had no hope of the indictment being brought before the court while his opponent was still alive. For the latter would not have obeyed him. But he did not expect to get to the present trial either; for he thought he could kill his opponent without being found out.

    Pausanias 6.9.6-8 on violence

    During the Olympic Games prior to the current ones, they say that Kleomedes of Astpalaia killed Ikkos, a man from Epidaurus, in a boxing match. And as the Judges decided that he had played unfairly and he was stripped from his victory, maddened because of his grief he returned to Astypalaia. There he attacked a school of about sixty children and overturned the pillar which held the roof. When the roof fell upon the children, he was chased with stones by the citizens and he fled to the sanctuary of Athena. He got into a chest that was placed in the sanctuary and he dragged the lid over him, and the people of Astypalaia were labouring in vain trying to open the chest. Finally, when they broke down the boards of the chest, because they did not find Kleomedes dead or alive, they sent envoys to Delphi to ask what happened to Kleomedes. And the say that Pythia said the following: "Kleomedes of Astypalaia is the last of the heroes. Honour him with sacrifices as he is no longer mortal." And so from this time the people of Astypalaia pay honours to Kleomedes as a hero.

    Pindar, Isthmian 1.47-51, on rewards for the athlete

    For a different reward is sweet for men for different deeds, to the shepherd and the farmer and the bird-catcher and the man whom the sea nourishes. Everyone is anxious to keep persistent famine off his belly. He who receives splendid glory in athletic contests or in war, receives the highest gain, being praised by the citizens and foreigners, the flower of speech.

    Competitiveness, rewards, and absence of team spirit

    Mark Golden, Olympic Angles debate

    Michael Scott, Olympic Angles debate

    Chris Carey, Neuroscience debate

    Our sources mention the diet of the athletes, giving specific instructions about which foods should be preferred or avoided - including warnings against drunkenness and other excesses. The idea of asceticism and abstinence while engaged in training and competition is prominent in the sources.

    On excess by Milo of Croton:
    Athenaeus, Deipnosophists, Book 10, 412d-e

    Theagenes, the athlete from Thasos, ate an ox all by himself, as Poseidippos says in his epigrams... And Milon of Croton, as Theodoros the Hierapolitan says in his writings about the Games, ate twenty mnae of meat and the same amount of bread, and he drank three choae of wine. And in Olympia he placed a four-year-old ox onto his shoulders and carried it around the stadium and after that he cut it up himself and ate it all in one day.

    Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1106b

    If we say that ten mnae of food is a lot, and two is not enough, the trainer will not prescribe six mnae: for this portion might be much or not enough for the person receiving it. For to Milon it would not be enough, but to a person just starting his training it would be a lot.

    On Abstinence:
    Plutarch, Convivial Questions, 710d

    But Cleitomachus the athlete was wondered at because he got up and went away every time someone might bring up the issue of love.

    Chris Carey, Neuroscience debate

    The athletic diet/Abstinence

  • The Athletic Body and its depictions

    Statues of athletes became increasingly prominent from the early fifth century. In form those which survive are highly stylised. They promoted an idealised, unrealistic image of the human body at its best. Athletic bodies in statues are perfect, symmetrical, stylised, balanced, informed by ideas of aesthetics and philosophical perception of the perfect body. It is striking that they don't show the athlete engaged in physical competition, but rather they depict the victorious athlete, the athlete at rest, full of confidence and enjoying the glory of his achievement. Alternatively, as with the discobolus (discus thrower), we have the body poised in the moment before energy is released.

    The athletic body from the time of our earliest sources is the embodiment of physical beauty. There is in Greek thinking commonly a link between physical beauty and moral beauty. Although the Greeks were aware that one does not necessarily follow the other, the tendency to link physical and moral beauty was embedded in Greek attitudes, and the idealised statues of athletes both conform to and sustain this stereotype.

    Vase depictions on the other hand undergo multiple evolutions: first, we have early vases depicting athletes wearing loincloths, as opposed to the later nude figures, pointing to the fact that including nudity in iconography was a process, not an instant decision. Second, we see that in vase depictions of youths exercising in the gymnasia, we pass from figures in action (early in the fifth century BCE) to victorious figures being crowned, which means that now the focus is not only on getting fit, but also on victory. Competitiveness is still important, but there seems to be a shift towards the end of the fifth century, probably due to political changes, which encourages the idea that taking part is much more important than winning.

    On beauty of the athlete: Pindar, Olympian 9.91-94

    Having overpowered the men with the trick of turning quickly without falling, he went through the circle in great cheering, youthful and handsome, having accomplished the best deeds.

    Herodotus 5.47

    Philip the son of Boutakides from Croton, followed Dorieus and died with him. He was betrothed to the daughter of Telys from Sybaris, but he was banished from Croton and, cheated from his marriage, he sailed to Kyrene, and setting out from there he followed Dorieus with his own trireme and covering himself the expenses of his men. He was an Olympic victor and the most handsome Greek of his time. For his beauty the Egestans gave him honours that no one else had received. For on his tomb they set up a hero's shrine and they offered him sacrifices to appease him.

    Ideas behind the depiction of the human body and the athletic body in sculpture, pottery etc.

    Chris Carey, Neuroscience Debate

    Perception of the athlete:
    Chris Carey, Neuroscience Debate

    Polykleitos' Doryphoros

    The Motya Charioteer:
    Chris Carey, Neuroscience Debate

    The Motya Charioteer

    BM , the Motya Charioteer

    Myron's Discus-thrower:
    Edith Hall, Olympic Angle debate

    Myron's Discus-thrower

    BM, Myron's Discus-thrower

  • Literature and Athletics

    Song was always a major part of Greek life and sung celebrations of athletic victories probably took place from the very first emergence of athletics. One catch-all song available for all occasions which remained popular was the brief hymn to Heracles popularly attributed to Archilochus (hurrah, triumphant, hail, Lord Herakles, yourself and Iolaos, the pair of warriors!). But perhaps as early as the middle of the sixth century, that is, as early as a generation after the arrival of the big four festivals, we find specially commissioned songs written by internationally distinguished poets. Athletic victories were commemorated in Victory Odes by Simonides, Pindar and Bacchylides (and there were probably as many or more second division poets who could be hired locally to turn out a decent song of praise) and commemorative Inscriptions. We also find echoes of this kind of song throughout tragedy, comedy and prose historians, such as Herodotus and Thucydides.

    The commissioned Victory Ode praises winners mainly at the grand Panhellenic Games (in Olympia, Nemea, Isthmos and Delphi) and is rich in mythical examples functioning as warnings against excessive behaviour on behalf of the winners. The Victory Ode had a surprising short life-span (about 100 years), arising because of the need to create lasting monuments to commemorate athletic victories and disappearing (or evolving into something else?) following a series of political and cultural changes.

    Xenophanes fr. 2.1-12, Xenophanes complains about the rewards the athletes receive

    What if a man wins a victory by the swiftness of his feet or by participating in the pentathlon, in Olympia, where the temple of Zeus is near the springs of Pisa? What if he seems more glorious to the citizens either by fearful boxing, or by taking place to that horrible contest called pankration? What if he receives the privilege of sitting at the front seat in the contests, and he gets his food at public cost, and a gift that he might hold as a treasure? What if he wins at a chariot-race? If he obtains all that, he will not be as worthy as I am. For my wisdom is better than the might of men or horses.

    Herodotus 5.47, reference to Olympic Winners

    Philip the son of Boutakides from Croton, followed Dorieus and died with him. He was betrothed to the daughter of Telys from Sybaris, but he was banished from Croton and, cheated from his marriage, he sailed to Kyrene, and setting out from there he followed Dorieus with his own trireme and covering himself the expenses of his men. He was an Olympic victor and the most handsome Greek of his time. For his beauty the Egestans gave him honours that no one else had received. For on his tomb they set up a hero's shrine and they offered him sacrifices to appease him.

    Sophocles Trachiniae 503-6

    But when this bride was to be won, which rivals participated in the contest for her wedding, who came forward for a contest full of blows and dust?

    Sophocles Trachiniae 520-2

    There were intertwined wrestler's moves, there were deadly strokes on foreheads and groaning from both sides.

    Pausanias 6.7.4, reference to Olympic Winners

    Dorieus, son of Diagoras, apart from his Olympic victories, he won eight victories at the Isthmian Games, and seven at the Nemean Games. It is also said that he had won a Pythian victory without effort.

    Extracts from Victory Odes praising victorious athletes:
    Pindar, Olympian 1.8-17

    From there the excellent hymn is cast like a net over the wisdom of poeta, so that they sing of the son of Cronus when they arrive at the wealthy, blessed hearth of Hieron, who sways the sceptre of law in Sicily with many flocks, reaping the best part of every excellence, and is adorned with the flower of music, which we men often play around his hospitable table.

    Pindar Olympian 4.12-16

    May the god be kindly to his future prayers. Because I praise him who is zealous in breeding horses, who rejoices in being hospitable to all guests, and whose pure disposition is turned to city-loving peace.

    Pindar Olympian 7.77-88

    This sweet reward for his toil is established for Tlepolemus the first leader of the Tirynthians, as if for a god: a procession of flocks full of steam of burnt sacrifice and a judgement of contests. With the flowers that Diagoras was crowned twice, and four times at the famous Insthmus being in good fortune, and at Nemea more and more and at rocky Athnens. And the prize of bronze got to know him, and the works of art in Arcadia and in Thebes, and the lawful contests of the Boeotians, and Pellana and Aegina where he won six times. In Megara the decree written on stone gives no other account. But, father Zeus ruler over the ridges of Atabyrion, honour the song ordained for the Olympic winner, a man who found excellence in boxing, and give him revered grace both from the citizens and from foreigners.

    Pindar Olympian 9.1-9

    The song of Archilochus that sounds in Olympia, the triumphant hymn, thrice exulted loudly, sufficed to lead Epharmostos revelling with his friends and comrades to the hill of Cronus. But now, from the far-shooting bows of the Muses, sent the song to Zeus who hurls red lightning-bolts and on the sacred peak of Elis with these arrows, which the Lydian hero Pelops won once as the best dowry of Hippodameia.

    Pindar Olympian 10.16-21

    Let Hagesidamus, who was a victorious boxer at Olympia, offer thanks as Patroklos did to Achilles. A man can excite another man born for excellence to set out to mighty fame with the help of the god.

    Pindar, Isthmian 4.55-61

    Heracles went to Olympus, after exploring all the lands and the hollow bed of grey sea with the high cliffs, after taming the straights for sailing. Now he lives in bliss by Zeus that bears the Aegis, and is honoured as a friend by the immortals, and has taken Hebe as his wife, he is lord of a golden palace and the son-in-law of Hera.

    Pindar, Nemean 3.1-8

    Revered Muse, our mother, I beseech you, come in the Nemean sacred month to the much-visited Dorian island of Aegina. For near the waters of Asopos young men, craftsmen of melodious songs, are waiting, searching for your voice. Different deeds thirst for different things. Victory in the games loves song above everything, the most fortunate attendant of garlands and excellences.

    Pindar Nemean 5.1-5

    I am not a sculptor, to create statues that stand motionless on a base. Go on every ship and boat that leaves Aegina, o sweet song, and announce that Pytheas the mighty son of Lampon has won the garland of victory in the pankration at the Nemean games...

    Pindar Pythian 1.29-38

    May it be so, Zeus, whatever may please you, you who frequent this mountain, the forehead of the fruitful earth, whose namesake neighbouring city the renowned founder exalted, when the herald in the Pythian race called aloud the name of Aetna, when he announced the triumph of Hieron in the chariot-race. For seafaring men setting out to sail, the first kindness is a favourable wind: for then it is likely that they will also get a better return home at the end of their journey. And that saying, in these prosperous circumstances, brings the expectation that in the future the city will be renowned in garlands and horses and its name will be famous in sweetly-sung festivities.

    Pindar Pythian10.57-63

    And I hope that, when the Ephyraeans pour forth my sweet voice around Peneius, with my songs I will make Hippocleus even more admirable to the boys his age and the older ones, and beloved to the girls.

    Bacchylides 3.94-8

    Hieron, you have demonstrated to mortals the most beautiful flowers of happiness. For the man who has succeeded silence is no ornament. With the truth of beautiful deeds, a man will also sing the grace of honey-tongued Keian nightingale.

    Bacchylides 5.6-16

    Stop your righteous-judging mind from caring, reflect on this, your guest from the famous island sends to your renowned city a hymn woven together with the deep-girded Graces, the famed servant of Ourania with the gold headband. And he wishes to pour forth his hearth from his chest, to praise Hieron.

    Bacchylides 9.21-41

    From those glorious games in Nemea, the mortal men who crown their blond hair with a three-year-old garlands, are renowned. Now a god has given it to the victorious Automedon. For he distinguished himself among the pentathletes, like the bright full-moon outshines the light of the stars. Being such he demonstrated his extraordinary body among the vast circle of the Greeks, throwing the round discus, and he stirred a shout from the people, when he sent forth from his hand high up in the sky the branch of the dark-leaved elder-tree, or when he performed the quick movement at the last wrestling match. With such daring power he brought strong bodies to the earth, then he went to the dark-whirling waters of Asopos, whose renown has come to every land, even the farthest parts of the Nile.

    Euripides' Victory Ode for Alcibiades [Poetae Melici Graeci 755]

    I admire you, son of Kleinias; your victory is a beautiful thing, but the most beautiful thing, which no other Greek man has achieved, you have achieved, to be first, second and third in the chariot-race, and to go without struggle, crowned with the olive laurel of Zeus, to make the herald cry your name aloud.

    Edith Hall, Olympic angles debate

    Chris Carey, Neuroscience debate

    Literature and Athletics

  • Religion and athletics

    We should always keep in mind that athletic festivals such as the Olympics were never freestanding events, unlike modern games, but always took place within the framework of religious cult, such as that of Zeus(Olympics, Nemean Games), Poseidon (Isthmian Games) or Apollo (Pythian Games). Greek gods were anthropomorphic and could be expected to enjoy the kind of spectacle which would appeal to a mortal; but in addition the physical prowess of the competitors offered another way (like sacrifice and dedicatory offerings in temples) to offer the gods what is excellent.

    This is one of the biggest differences between the Ancient and the Modern Olympics: apart from having second and third-place prizes, and not competing in the nude, the secularisation of the modern Olympics would have been baffling for the Greeks. For them, religion was central in any athletic context.

    Chris Carey, Neuroscience debate

  • Non-athletics events at the games

    Athletic competitions were not the only events taking place at the Games. Apart from the Religious aspect, there were also intellectual events, including poetry and musical competitions.

    Michael Scott: Where eagles meet

    Chris Carey, Neuroscience debate

    Non-athletic events at the Games

  • Civic identity

    Engaging in Athletic activities and competitions was closely connected to a Greek's civic identity. It was normal for the citizen (at least those whose financial circumstances allowed them the time). to participate in athletics and exercise in the gymnasia.

    Pindar Pythian 1.29-38

    May it be so, Zeus, whatever may please you, you who frequent this mountain, the forehead of the fruitful earth, whose namesake neighbouring city the renowned founder exalted, when the herald in the Pythian race called aloud the name of Aetna, when he announced the triumph of Hieron in the chariot-race. For seafaring men setting out to sail, the first kindness is a favourable wind: for then it is likely that they will also get a better return home at the end of their journey. And that saying, in these prosperous circumstances, brings the expectation that in the future the city will be renowned in garlands and horses and its name will be famous in sweetly-sung festivities.

    Thucydides 6.16.1-2

    [Alcibiades speaks] "And it more appropriate for me to be in command than others, Athenians (for it is necessary to start with this since Nicias attacked me), and at the same time I believe I am worthy of it. For the things about which I am ill-spoken of, bring glory to my ancestors and myself, and benefit the country. For the Greeks, who were earlier hoping that our city would be exhausted by war, thought it was even greater than its current power due to the magnificence with which I represented the city at the Olympic Games. Because I entered seven chariots, and no other private citizen had entered so many in the past, and I won the first prize, and I was second, and fourth and I prepared everything else in a manner worthy of my victory. For such displays are honourable by law, and from the action power is surmised.

    Aeschines 1.138

    For our ancestors, when they were framing laws for the customs and the acts that are necessary for men by nature, declared that slaves should not do those things they thought should only be done by free men. The law says: "A slave should not train naked, nor rub himself dry with oil in wrestling-schools." It did not state furthermore: "the free man should dry himself with oil and train naked." For the legislators, seeing the good that comes from bodily exercise, declared that slaves should not participate, and they thought that, through the same law that was preventing them, they were urging the free.

    Chris Carey, Neuroscience debate

    Olympics and Civic identity

    Given the nature of athletic training, and the fact that it was time-consuming and took place in the gymnasia, it was unavoidable that athletics would be mainly an elite activity. Thus athletics and participation in the Games promoted class-division, excluding the lower classes that had neither the financial means nor the time to engage in athletic competitions.

    Chris Carey, Neuroscience debate

    Athletics as an elite activity

    The Greeks also believed that athletic exercise was a very useful training for the future warrior. The athletic body is a body trained for war, even if in fact none of the events directly mirrored the natured of Greek fighting).

    Chris Carey, Neuroscience debate

    Athletics and the preparation of the future warrior

    BM, Pankratiasts Kylix

    As well as civic identity, ethnic identity was central to the athletic ethos. The Games stressed the importance of being Greek and promoted Greekness as an absolute prerequisite for participation in the Games, thus creating a very visible division between the Greeks and the rest of the world.

    Herodotus 5.20

    When Amyntas requested this and left, Alexander said to the Persians "Strangers, you have every freedom to get these women, and you can have intercourse with all of them, or with as many as you wish. You can make a sign of your decision yourselves. But now, since it is already almost time for you to rest and I see that you are all very drunk, let these women go away and wash themselves, if it is pleasing to you. And after they have washed themselves, accept them back again." When he said these things and the Persians consented, he sent the women to the women's quarters, and Alexander dressed in women's clothes as many beardless men as there were women, gave them daggers and led them back in, and as he was bringing them in he was saying this to the Persians: "Persians, it seems to me that you have enjoyed a splendid feast. For everything we had, and everything else we could find, we have given to you, and on top of everything else this, we freely bestow on you our mothers and sisters. You should know that you are receiving from us the honours you deserve, and you should announce to your king that sent you here how his Macedonian lieutenant received you well, offering food and companions to you." After he said this, Alexander he sat next to each Persian a Macedonian man dressed like a woman; and when the Persians attempted to touch them, the Macedonians killed them.

    Herodotus 5.22.1- on the Greekness of the Macedonian kings

    That the descendants of Perdikkas are Greeks, just as they themselves claim, I happen to know it myself and I will prove in what follows that they are Greeks. Moreover, the Hellanodikai who manage the Games in Olympia judged that it was so. For when Alexander chose to compete and went to the contest for that very reason, those who were going to run against him wished to debar him, saying that it is not appropriate for barbarians to take part in the race, but only Greeks. But since Alexander proved that he was an Argive, he was deemed to be a Greek and, after he competed, he came out equal with the first.

    Herodotus 8.26.2-3 on differences between Greeks and Persians

    The Arcadians told them that the Greeks were holding the Olympic Games and were watching gymnastic contests and horse-races. And he wanted to know what was the prize set about which they were competing. They told him of the olive wreath that was given out to the winner. Then Tigranes son of Artabanos gave a very brave opinion, which brought upon him a charge of cowardice from the king. For in learning that the prize was a wreath but no money, he could not remain silent but said this to everyone: "alas, Mardonius, what kind of men have you brought us to fight against, who don't compete for money but for excellence?"

    Chris Carey, Neuroscience debate

    Olympics and Greek Identity

  • Olympics and diplomacy

    The city of Olympia during the Games was the most important centre for forging diplomatic relations. It was an event where the elite of Greece met and mingled, and where important discussions took place and agreements were struck.

    Because of the political, diplomatic and financial importance of the Games, we see rivalries between the two neighbouring regions, Elis and Pisa, to control Olympia and thus control the Olympic Games and the political game taking place there.

    Olympia as the centre for diplomacy:
    Chris Carey, Neuroscience debate

    Olympics and politics:
    Olympics and Politics

    Olympics and war/Olympic peace:
    Mark Golden, Olympic Angles debate

    Olympics and War

    Chris Carey, Neuroscience debate

    Rivalry over controlling Olympia:
    Rivalry over controlling the city of Olympia

  • The reality of the Olympic Games

    The Games have been idealised as the place for athletic excellence and gaining eternal glory for the winners. Yet the reality of attending the Games at Olympia reveals that the conditions were far from ideal. The place was small, confined, ill-equipped to receive all these people pouring in for the Games. The living conditions were very difficult for the duration of the Games, but this was also an exciting spectacle which attracted thousands of people from all over Greece. The whole area must also have been a forest of statues by the Roman period.

    Michael Scott, Olympic Angles debate

    Chris Carey, Neuroscience debate

    Mark Golden, Olympic Angles debate

    Cheating was, as is today, a very real possibility and the Greeks were acutely aware of it. A series of statues paid for with the fines imposed on cheaters in Olympia was intended as a warning for anyone thinking about doing the same. Yet the reality was that the punishment could be inflicted only if the cheating was detected, so the real numbers of people cheating (including the judges) elude us.

    Margaret Mountford, Olympic angles debate

  • Women and athletics

    Women were completely banned from competing at and even attending the Games. At the Olympic Games the only woman allowed to be present was the priestess of Demeter. The first time we hear of a woman victor in the Olympics is the Spartan Princess Kyniska in the fourth century BCE. However, she won a horse-race, which means that she didn't compete herself at the Games, but was simply the owner of the horse.

    Women did participate in athletics in Sparta and in some other parts of Greece, such as the games of Hera at Elis (the location of the Olympic Games). Again there is a strong cult connection, as with male events. Female athletic events were separate and were not attended by men.

    Plutarch Agesilaus 20

    Nevertheless, seeing that some of the citizens thinking they were important and being high-minded because they were breeding horses, he persuaded his sister Kyniska to enter a chariot and compete in Olympia. He wished to prove to the Greeks that victory is not the result of excellence, but rather of wealth and expenditure.

    Pausanias Description of Greece 5.16.1-6

    "After this, it remains for me to describe the temple of Hera and everything there is in the temple that is worthy of description... Every four years, sixteen women weave a robe for Hera. Then these same women hold games called 'Heraia'. The contest is a foot-race, run by maidens. Not all of them are of the same age. The youngest run first; after them those following in age, and last run the oldest of the maidens. And they run in the following way: their hair hangs down, their tunic reaches a little above their knee, and they reveal their right shoulder down to their breast. The Olympic stadium is assigned to them for their race, but the course of the stadium is shortened for them by a sixth. To the winners they give wreaths made of olive and a portion from the ox sacrificed to Hera, and they are even allowed to dedicate statues with their names inscribed upon them. And the women who attend to the sixteen women are, like those who preside over the games, married women. The foot-race of the maidens can be traced back to ancient times; they say that Hippodameia, showing her gratitude to Hera for her marriage to Pelops, gathered sixteen women and with them she was the first to arrange the Heraea... They also say another story about the sixteen women. They say that Damophon was the tyrant in Pisa and had deeply harmed the inhabitants of Elis. When Dapophon died - since the people of Pisa did not wish to participate publicly in their tyrant's wrongdoings, and since the Eleans somehow decided to let go of the crimes against them - thus they chose one woman from each of the sixteen cities still inhabited in Elis to put an end to their differences. The woman would be the oldest, and would be the first among all other women in honour and reputation... Later the women were allowed to organise the Heraea and weave the robe of Hera."

    Chris Carey, Neuroscience debate

    Women and Athletics

  • Receptions of the Ancient Olympic Games

    Baron de Coubertin used the ancient Olympic Games as an inspiration and a starting point for the revival of the Olympics in 1896. Yet, to argue that his intention was simply to copy the ancient Olympics is very reductive and misses the point behind de Coubertin's incentive. His real goal was to draw inspiration from the Olympics in order to achieve an educational reform in France, having failed to do so when he tried to introduce British educational ideas.

    The Ancient Olympic Games as Inspiration for De Coubertin's 1896 revival

    Chris Carey, Neuroscience debate

    De Coubertin's decision is linked, a) to the popularity of Classical tradition in Europe at that time and b) to the general tendency of staging events and calling them Olympic, especially in Britain, in an effort to achieve an indirect link with ancient ideals.

    Reasons behind de Coubertin's decision

    After the foundation of the modern Olympics, the minor, amateur Olympic events did not cease to exist, but continued to be staged alongside the modern Olympics in Britain up to 1958.

    Modern 'Olympics' in Britain

    Olympic imagery (medals, posters, opening and closing ceremonies) is often inspired by classical themes, including the back of the 2012 Olympic medals.

    Michael Scott: Where eagles meet

    Olympic Imagery

    BM, Medals for 2012 Olympics

    There is a general tendency to use Olympic imagery/Olympic name outside sports as well, in most cases where there are no athletic connotations.

    The word Olympic in non-athletic contexts

    Ancient athletic imagery has been much used for political propaganda. The most notable example is the 1936 Olympics in Munich, where classical themes, including Myron's Discus-thrower statue, were used to promote the idea of Nazi excellence and the link they wished to forge with ancient Greek ideas.

    Olympics used as political propaganda

    People have drawn inspiration from statues and vases and have attempted to reproduce ancient Greek athletic poses. In some cases the reproduction does not work, most famously in the case of the "Greek discus", i.e. disk-throwing directly replicating the pose of Myron's Discus-thrower, leading to the conclusion that the pose was fictitious and not an actual depiction of a real discus-thrower ready to thrust.

    In other cases, however, especially in vase depictions of combat, the poses have been successfully replicated by modern researchers and proven to depict real combat techniques.

    Reproducing ancient Greek athletic poses

    Edith Hall, Olympic Angles debate

  • Study questions

    1. The notion of athletic competition has changed since ancient Greece: what are the differences and how have they affected the way we view athletics today?

    2. What do the differences between ancient and modern rewards for victorious athletes tell us about the evolution of the athletic ideal?What observations can we make about the way the athletic body was presented in sculpture? Do they represent real athletic bodies?

    3. Why is the idealisation of the athletic body important for the Greeks and how does it connect with contemporary ideas about physical and moral beauty?

    4. The Victory Ode was a literary genre that praised exclusively athletic victories; what were its major components? Why did the genre disappear?

    5. How important was religion for the ancient Games? How was worship connected with the Games?

    6. How and why is participating in sport linked with Greekness and Greek civic identity?

    7. Why were the Olympic Games the ideal setting for the development of diplomatic and political relations?

    8. The Olympic Peace Movement promotes cease-fire for the entire duration of the Olympic Games. Is this an ancient concept? What did it mean for the Greeks?

    9. Ancient Games are often idealised (especially, but not exclusively when it comes to rewards and athletic motivation) but what was the reality both for the athletes and the audience for the Games? What were the conditions, the physical setting at Olympia and the way people competed at the Games?

    10. How has the role of women in the Olympics changed from antiquity to de Coubertin's age to the modern era? Was there any place for women in ancient athletics according to our sources?

    11. The popular belief is that the modern Olympics are a revival of the ancient Olympics. Is this statement correct? What do we know about De Coubertin's intentions and reasons for the creation of the modern Olympics?

    12. Baron de Coubertin's initiative led to the creation of the Modern Olympic movement. What were the historical and cultural circumstances that inspired him?

    13. How far back can we trace 'Olympic' events in Britain and why did the organisers of these events choose names directly related with the ancient Olympic Games?

    14. Why do the organisers of the modern Olympic Games feel the need to constantly create links with ancient Greece using classical imagery?

    15. Why is the word 'Olympic' and Olympic imagery used very often in non-athletic settings?

    16. Why has athleticism been thought as the ideal means for promoting political propaganda?

    17. Can we accept that representations of sporting activity and athletic achievements on vases and statues are realistic depictions of sports? What happens if we try to reproduce them?


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