A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Note: The full text of each of these articles is now included in our exclusive online guide to the ancient Olympics.
New studies challenge traditional notions about Greek Athletes and why they competed.
Many of those watching the Olympics in Atlanta this summer will assume that the modern games are a true reflection of the ancient ones, that the events and ceremonies and the ideology of universal brotherhood and amateurism recall the Olympics of Greece's golden age. A generation ago scholars simply accepted such idealistic notions about who these athletes were and why they competed. Now, we are demythologizing the ancient Olympics, testing and revising ancient literary accounts of how athletes trained, worshiped, competed, won, and celebrated, and how they were motivated, rewarded, and honored.
Held in late summer, the ancient Olympics included various footraces and even a race in armor, but there was no ancient marathon. In chariot races the owners of the horses, not the hired drivers, were declared the victors. Alcibiades, the Athenian politician and general, entered seven chariots in the games of 416 B.C. We do not know if he personally drove any of them but he "won" first, second, and third or fourth place. In A.D. 67 the Roman emperor Nero made a travesty of the games by competing personally in a ten-horse chariot race held in his honor. Even though he fell from his chariot and did not finish the race, Nero was declared the victor. There was a pentathlon--discus throw, javelin throw, long jump, footrace, and wrestling--but no decathlon. Wrestling, boxing, and the pankration, a combination of the two, were known as "heavy" events because, without weight classes or time limits, bigger athletes dominated. In the pankration punching, kicking, choking, finger breaking, and blows to the genitals were allowed; only biting and eye gouging were prohibited.
By the sixth century athletes were specializing in particular events and hiring coaches. Training was intensive and there were experiments and fads concerning diet, exercise, and sex. Athletes from Kroton in southern Italy believed in the value of a meat diet and saw the consumption of beans as taboo. Milo of Kroton, the greatest Olympic wrestler, reputedly ate 40 pounds of meat and bread at one sitting, washing it down with eight quarts of wine. The basic equipment of an athlete consisted only of an unguent jar (aryballos) of oil and a scraping instrument (strigil) for anointing and cleaning himself, though for various events a competitor might need boxing thongs, jumping weights, discus, or javelin. He had no shoes, no jockstrap, no uniform, and no endorsements.
The prize wreath at Olympia was symbolic, but home cities rewarded Olympic victors substantially with cash bonuses, free meals, and more. In the sixth century Solon legislated rewards equal to more than $300,000 for Athenian Olympic victors. Athletes usually represented their native cities, but Astylos of Kroton, the first known free agent, won races in 488 and 484 for Kroton, then in 480 for Syracuse.
Although they swore a sacred oath to abide by the rules, ancient Olympians sought unfair advantages and sometimes crossed the line. False starting in a race brought whipping. As early as the sixth century the judges at Olympia were establishing rules against cheating in wrestling. By the fourth century bronze statues of Zeus, paid for from fines for lying, bribery and cheating, lined the route to the Olympic stadium. In 388 B.C. the boxer Eupolos of Thessaly bribed his opponents. In A.D. 93 an Alexandrian athlete who arrived late was expelled and fined for lying about being delayed by weather, when in fact he had been delayed by competing in prize games in Ionia.
Many aspects of our Olympic Games have been justified by specious ancient antecedents. Until recently we believed competitors had to be amateurs because we believed ancient Greek Olympians were amateurs, but the ancient Olympics had no such rule. A beguiling myth is that the five interlocked Olympic rings were an ancient Greek symbol, but the five rings were invented in 1913 by Pierre de Coubertin, president of the International Olympic Committee. The custom of lighting the flame at ancient Olympia and relaying the torch to the modern Olympic stadium is a legacy of the 1936 Berlin games, whose organizer, seeking to glamorize them with an ancient aura, staged the first lighting of the Olympic flame, now a hallowed ritual. The first Olympic torches were made by the Krupp Company, better known for providing weapons for two world wars.
Tantalizing evidence suggests that Greek girls engaged in athletic competitions at religious festivals marking their progress toward womanhood.
In 776 B.C. a runner named Koroibos sprinted toward the altar of Zeus and crossed the finish line, becoming the first Olympic victor in history.