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Winning at Olympia "Ancient Olympics Guide"
April 6, 2004
by Donald G. Kyle
You say, "I want to win at Olympia." ...If you do, you will have to obey instructions, eat according to regulations, keep away from desserts, exercise on a fixed schedule at definite hours, in both heat and cold; you must not drink cold water nor can you have a drink of wine whenever you want. You must hand yourself over to your coach exactly as you would to a doctor. Then in the contest itself you must gouge and be gouged, there will be times when you will sprain a wrist, turn your ankle, swallow mouthfuls of sand, and be flogged. And after all that there are times when you lose.

Epictetus, Discourses 15.2-5, trans. W.E. Sweet

This summer in Athens athletes, officials, spectators, promoters, and reporters will once again witness the spectacle of the modern Olympics. Many 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. They would be surprised to learn that the ancient contests were quite different from our own, and that Greek athletes were not amateurs.

A generation ago the study of ancient sport focused on antiquarian concerns--how Greeks threw the discus or how far they could jump. Glossing over the violent, erotic, and materialistic aspects of Greek sport, and downplaying abuses and opportunism, scholars simply accepted idealistic notions about who these athletes were and why they competed. Now, using a variety of evidence, we are demythologizing the ancient Olympics. Excavations at Olympia and at the sites of other games have led to a new understanding of athletic participation and the role of spectators in ancient sport. Archaeology and art history, especially epigraphy and the reexamination of vase paintings, have allowed us to test and revise ancient literary accounts of how athletes trained, worshiped, competed, won, and celebrated, and how they were motivated, rewarded, and honored.

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Ancient Olympia, where it all began (©ATHOC) [LARGER IMAGE]

Every four years heralds traveled throughout the ancient Greek world proclaiming a sacred truce, affording safe passage through any state for all travelers to and from the games. All Greeks were invited to attend or compete in the great festival and games at the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia. And come they did, from 776 B.C. (the traditional date of the first Olympiad) to at least the late fourth century A.D., making the games the most enduring of Greek institutions. These panhellenic gatherings were vital to Greek ethnicity. They were multinational, but only free, male Greeks could compete. At Olympia visitors and participants from Greek city-states throughout the Mediterranean shared a common culture in which religious piety and enthusiasm for sport were of pivotal importance. By the mid-sixth century Olympia had emerged as the pinnacle of a circuit of four great panhellenic sacred "crown" games with wreaths awarded to the victors. The others, at the sanctuaries of Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea, were held sequentially, with at least one festival each year culminating in the finale at Olympia. Named after the winner in the men's sprint race, the Olympiads provided a common chronology at a time when each city-state had its own calendar.

Athletics were only part of a religious festival at Olympia that honored Zeus with processions and sacrifices. One end of the original racecourse may have extended close to the Altar of Zeus, where athletes swore oaths on slices of boar's flesh that they would abide by the rules of the games. Athletes competed for the glory of Zeus, and the ancient Greeks felt that victors were divinely favored. The sole prize was a crown of olive leaves cut from Zeus' sacred grove. Over time the competitions became a larger part of the festival, with more events and expanded facilities, but the games never became fully secular.

Excavations have taken place at Olympia for more than a century, but interpretations of the early history of the site have recently been revised. Archaeologists now suggest that major athletic events were not part of the earliest festivals at Olympia. Scholars have claimed variously that the original contests served as sacred rituals, funeral games, offerings to gods, initiations, or reenactments of myths. The second-century A.D. traveler Pausanias and others recount myths that Herakles founded the games to honor Zeus or that they were established by King Pelops after winning a chariot race against King Oinomaos of Pisa. Traditions also speak of a refounding or reorganization of the games during the Greek Dark Age (ca. the ninth century B.C.). The earliest literary account of athletic competition, Patroklos' funeral games in Homer's Iliad, reflects the athletic world of the eighth century or earlier. Homer mentions valuable prizes (bronze cauldrons and tripods; horses, cattle, and women; armor and iron) and contests (chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, running, armed combat, discus, archery, and javelin), but his poems contain no specific reference to games at Olympia. Although archaeologists have found evidence of funeral games in the Late Bronze Age (thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C.) elsewhere in Greece (a funerary coffer from Boeotia with scenes of mourning and various contests; vases with scenes of boxers and chariot races), there is no evidence for them at Olympia.

German archaeologists Alfred Mallwitz and Klaus Herrmann reject the idea of Mycenaean games associated with Pelops and argue that cult activities preceded athletics at Olympia. They note that there are earlier remains in the area but those suggesting a sanctuary (e.g. votives) are not older than the Geometric period (from about the tenth century to 750 B.C.), and that the Pelopeion, the shrine of Pelops at Olympia, is later than a stratum of black ash, animal bones, and votive figurines dated to about 700. Recent studies by Catherine Morgan, a Cambridge University archaeologist, and others suggest that the numerous metal figurines and tripods found at Olympia are dedications rather than prizes for athletic competitions. Morgan's study characterizes early Olympia (from the late tenth until the eighth century) as a rural shrine for a rustic cult of Zeus. According to Mallwitz, the oldest wells near the stadium date to the early seventh century. It would appear from the archaeological evidence that the first games, traditionally dated from 776, were humble and local, and that major athletic competitions did not emerge until ca. 700 or even 680, when the addition of equestrian contests allowed more conspicuous displays of the status and resources of competitors. Owning horses in poor and rocky Greece was a sign of great wealth, and Isocrates and Aristotle both wrote that "the breeding of racehorses is possible only for the very rich." Rivalries among emerging city-states contributed to increased participation and intensification of competition.

For centuries the events and facilities at Olympia were spartan for both athletes and spectators. Sources such as Epictetus' Discourses mention the heat, the crowds, the makeshift accommodations, and the poor sanitation. In striking contrast to the grandeur of the temples of Zeus and Hera, the classical stadium was a simple running track outside the sacred precinct. Only judges and diplomatic representatives had permanent stone seats in a small area on the southern embankment. Spectators camped out nearby or came early, standing or sitting on the grassy embankments to watch the competitions.

There were no women's events, and adult women were barred from attending the games on pain of death.

Held in late summer, the ancient Olympics had no winter events, no water or ball sports, and no oval tracks. There were no women's events, and adult women were barred from attending the games on pain of death. Age classes for men and boys (perhaps from 12 to 17 years old) developed, but there were no team sports and no second prizes. The games included various footraces (of about 200, 400, and at most 4,800 meters) and even a race in armor, but there was no ancient marathon. Olympia also had equestrian events, horse and chariot races for which the owners, not the drivers, were declared the victors. Owners did not even need to be present, and often hired drivers or jockeys, a circumstance allowing monarchs, tyrants, and even women to become Olympic 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. Kyniska, daughter of a Spartan king, won the four-horse chariot race in 396 and 392 B.C. According to Suetonius, in A.D. 67 the Roman emperor Nero made a travesty of the games by competing personally in a ten-horse chariot race held for his benefit. Even though he fell from his chariot and did not finish the race, Nero was declared the victor. The Greeks later rejected those games and his victory as unofficial.

There was a pentathlon--discus throw, javelin throw (using a throwing thong), long jump (using hand-held weights), footrace (probably 200 meters), and wrestling--but no decathlon. A debate on the system of choosing the winner in the ancient pentathlon has now gone on longer than the modern Olympics. There are theories about elaborate point systems, lots, byes, rematches, and comparative victories or relative placements, but most scholars favor some system of progressive elimination of competitors down to two opponents who wrestled each other in the final event.

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 these events byes were allotted if there was an odd number of entrants, and a competitor might have to face an opponent who had just sat out a round. In the pankration punching, kicking, choking, finger breaking, and blows to the genitals were allowed; only biting and eye gouging were prohibited. A recent study by Michael Poliakoff, a leading authority on ancient combat sports, has shown that pankratiasts could wear light boxing "gloves" made of strips of leather and designed, like all Greek boxing gloves, to protect the hands of the puncher, not the face of the opponent. The bronze boxer at the Terme Museum in Rome and a fragment of a relief on a tombstone at the Kerameikos Museum in Athens show scarred faces, broken noses, and cauliflower ears. Vase paintings of boxing matches show bloody noses. Satirical epigrams claim that boxers became so disfigured their dogs did not recognize them and they could not claim inheritances:

When Odysseus returned safely to his home after 20 years, only his dog Argos recognized him when he saw him. But you, Stratophon, after you have boxed for four hours, neither dogs nor your fellow citizens can recognize. If you will be so kind as to view your face in a mirror, you will affirm with an oath, "I am not Stratophon." (Lucillius, Greek Anthology 11.77, trans. W.E. Sweet)
O Augustus, this man Olympikos, as he now appears, used to have nose, chin, forehead, ears, and eyelids. But then he enrolled in the guild of boxers, with the result that he did not receive his share of his inheritance in a will. For in the lawsuit about the will his brother shows the judge a portrait of Olympikos, who was judged to be an imposter, bearing no resemblance to his own picture. (Lucillius, Greek Anthology 11.75, trans. W.E. Sweet)

Wrestling matches were decided by falls, but boxing and pankration bouts continued until one athlete gave up or was incapacitated. Stories tell of deaths and even a posthumous victory: before he died in a stranglehold, the pankratiast Arrhichion is said to have dislocated his opponent's ankle, forcing him to give up. Athletes had legal immunity in cases of unintentional homicide, but the Olympic judges denied victory to one Kleomedes of Astypalaia, apparently for intentionally killing his opponent in boxing.

Although the number of events at Olympia remained limited, local athletic festivals offered a vast array of competitions in male beauty, dancing in armor, chariot dismounting, torch racing, team events, and more. Epigraphic studies, such as the publication of new victor lists from the Panathenaic Games at Athens and numerous inscriptions recording contests in Hellenistic and Roman times from Alexandria to Aphrodisias, continue to reveal more about games beyond Olympia. The inscriptions reflect the proliferation of prizes, honors, and festivals throughout the Mediterranean. Some new games were modeled on Olympia, but Olympia and the other panhellenic games remained the most revered. Finally historians and inscriptions record gifts of money and buildings and the patronage of Olympia and athletes by such famous figures as Herod, king of Judaea, and Roman emperors including Hadrian.

Historians debate whether "sport" as we know it is a modern phenomenon--the word has no classical equivalent--or a continuation of ancient traditions. Some see modern sport as distinctive in its secularism and its concern with quantification and records, but others see ancient and modern sport as part of a continuum, an enduring heritage. Whether sport is modern or timeless, great athletes have always understood effort and agony. On occasion the media undermine our sense of athletic awe by bringing us too close, showing anorexic beauties and anabolic beasts. Who were the athletes of Greece, and how different were they? How were they prepared and rewarded? What motivated them to risk shame and injury? How did they react to victory and sudden fame? How did they see themselves, and what was their place in society?

Ancient competitors went to Olympia on their own initiative and at their own expense; they were not screened at home by athletic trials or officially supported by local committees. Access to state gymnasiums was usually open and free, but training required time, money, and instruction. Although there were a few state entries in chariot races, for centuries after the games began there is no certain evidence of state subsidies for athletes, so family resources were an important advantage. The first evidence for government subsidies is an inscription from Ephesos, dated to about 300 B.C., that records a trainer's request for funds for an athlete. Other inscriptions show both the continuing involvement of the urban elite, who sometimes referred to themselves as the "gymnasium class" and who received physical training as youths (epheboi) in young men's organizations, as well as the rise, from the first century B.C. on, of guilds of full-time vocational athletes (with membership certificates, officers, and pensions). Olympians had to swear that they had been in training for ten months, and for one month prior to the games they had to train at Elis, the city that hosted the festival and games at nearby Olympia. At Elis they were scrutinized, sometimes punished for fouls or disobedience, and possibly removed from competition if determined to be unworthy athletically by priestly judges equipped with unchallenged authority and whipping sticks.

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.

By roughly the sixth century athletes were specializing in particular events and hiring expert coaches to hone their skills. Training was intensive and there were experiments and fads concerning diet, exercise, and sex. Fads led some athletes to favor cheese, figs, or grain, others to distrust fish or pork. Possibly influenced by the sixth-century philosopher Pythagoras or the medical school at Kroton, 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. In the Laws Plato notes that Ikkos of Tarentum, a victor in the Olympic pentathlon (perhaps in 444 B.C.), was said never to have touched a woman, or a boy, while in training. Weight lifting was not an event nor was it a major part of training, for which shadow boxing, punching bags, and even dancing were recommended. Flute music often accompanied training, and many festivals included contests for musicians, dancers, and heralds.

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 other gear: a pick to soften the ground, boxing thongs, jumping weights, discus, or javelin. He had no shoes, no jockstrap, no uniform, and no endorsements. As Plato said in the Republic, classical Greeks, unlike barbarians, were not ashamed to appear in the nude. This custom may have been introduced in the eighth century, and by the sixth it was the norm. Ancient explanations for the nudity of competitors at Olympia (only chariot drivers were clothed) included safety or improved performance: speculative anecdotes recorded by Pausanias and Isidore suggest that one early runner dropped his loincloth intentionally and ran better without it, and that another was killed when his loincloth slipped down and tripped him. In contrast, modern theories of athletic nudity and even of the practice of infibulation (tying up the foreskin) favor cultic explanations: nudity was a costume, a state of ritual purity as in rites of passage; nudity and wreaths were remnants of hunters' rituals; or athletes were proclaiming their sexual abstinence. Only recently have we begun to admit that ancient athletics had an erotic dimension. Kalos inscriptions or love-names appear on many drinking vessels with athletic scenes, and the entrance tunnel to the stadium at Nemea bears a graffito in which one athlete applauds the beauty of Akrotatos, probably the Spartan prince and king from 265 to 252 B.C. Vase paintings show handsome young athletes pursued by mature men with gifts of hares and gaming cocks, and in literature wrestling was a metaphor for sex. Gymnasium hours were regulated and boys were carefully supervised, because, as Mark Golden, a scholar of Greek childhood, puts it, gymnasiums were "prime pick-up points."

The historian Herodotus tells how the Persian king Xerxes, on hearing that Olympia awarded only wreath prizes, marveled that Greeks competed not for material reward but "only for honor." Then as now, however, Olympic victory brought more than its own rewards. Until the 1970s it was said that early Olympic athletes were idealistic, noble amateurs but that over time specialization, material rewards, and lower-class professionals corrupted athletics. Rejecting this scenario, revisionist scholars led by classicist David C. Young have concluded that the notion of amateurism in Greek sport is anachronistic, that the Greeks had neither the concept of nor a word for amateur athletics, and that ancient victors, whatever their background, accepted valuable prizes and benefits eagerly and with impunity. 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 of 500 drachmas (more than $300,000) for Athenian Olympic victors. Athletes usually represented their native cities, but they could compete for another state. Astylos of Kroton, the first known free agent, won races at Olympia in 488 and 484 for Kroton, but then won races in 480 for Syracuse. States such as Athens, Kos, Macedon, and Syracuse realized that games were good publicity and good business, and they promoted their games and athletes through prizes, coins, and monuments. Beyond the "crown" games, there were many local games offering valuable material prizes and sometimes even appearance money for stars. Victory in the men's sprint at the Panathenaic Games brought a prize of 100 amphoras of olive oil (the equivalent of $67,000).

Debate continues on the class origins and social status and mobility of athletes. Competitors from lower classes were not excluded but, even with the proliferation of material rewards, they were at a disadvantage concerning leisure time and finances for training and travel. Aristocrats certainly did compete, and later tales of rustics becoming early victors may be romantic fabrications. One epigram, attributed to the poet Simonides, speaks of a victor who used to be a fish porter, but Aristotle comments that the man's accomplishment was exceptional. Some famous athletes, such as Milo and the renowned pentathlete Phayllos, went on to be leaders in war and politics. Often, however, it is impossible to tell if an ancient athlete had status and resources before or because of his victory.

We have no autobiographies or diaries that describe what went through the minds of ancient athletes. At best, commissioned victory odes, epigrams, and statues tell us how athletes wanted to be regarded. From whatever class and however mixed their motives, athletes embraced and espoused a traditional, aristocratic athletic value system with themes of piety, endurance (ponos), and humility (aidos). Although they accepted material prizes and rewards, ancient athletes referred to them as gifts (dora) not wages (misthos), matters of glory (kleos) not greedful gain (kerdos). Artistic scenes of victorious athletes being crowned usually depict them with downcast eyes and a modest posture. Ancient athletes, however, cheated earlier and more often than purists would like to believe. Even Homer mentions foul play and the dangers of excessive competitiveness in the games honoring Patroklos: While spectators wagered and bickered at the finish line, Antilochos nearly caused an accident in the chariot race by driving dangerously and refusing to yield; afterward he and Menelaos nearly came to blows in a dispute over placements and prizes.

Although they swore a sacred oath to abide by the rules, ancient Olympians sought unfair advantages. False starting in a race brought whipping, as did infractions in combat sports. Inscriptions show that as early as the sixth century the judges at Olympia had established rules against cheating in wrestling. An inscription of the last quarter of the sixth century from Olympia declares: "The wrestler shall not break any finger...the judge shall punish by striking except on the head..." (trans. J. Ebert).

Bronze statues of Zeus, known as Zanes and paid for from fines for lying, bribery, and cheating, lined the route to the Olympic stadium.

By the fourth century, bronze statues of Zeus, known as Zanes and paid for from fines for lying, bribery, and cheating, lined the route to the Olympic stadium. Pausanias says the first six statues were established in the 98th Olympiad (388 B.C.) when the boxer Eupolos of Thessaly bribed his opponents. An inscription on the base of one of the first statues declares that "an Olympic victory is to be won not by money but by swiftness of foot or strength of body" (trans. S.G. Miller). Inscriptions on other bases similarly urge piety and warn against violations. In A.D. 93 an Alexandrian athlete who arrived late was expelled and fined for lying. He had claimed being delayed by weather when in fact he had been delayed by competing in prize games in Ionia. A fellow Alexandrian exposed his lie and was declared the victor without a fight. Lead curse tablets show that athletes even tried to hex rivals at Isthmia and elsewhere with pleas to underworld deities such as "let them not prevail in running."

Greek athletes also knew stress and pressure. Competing individually, they nonetheless represented their families, communities, and city-states. Carrying the heavy burden of a great investment of effort and emotion onto the track, Olympians gave their all for god and country. Participation was not enough; winning was the only thing. Pindar (518-438 B.C.), the greatest poet of victory odes, says that athletic victory was the greatest height to which mortals can aspire; he also writes of defeated athletes slinking home by back streets.

Victors were feasted and feted at Olympia by relatives and countrymen. Sometimes things got out of hand: Alcibiades, to his discredit, used sacred vessels for a party celebrating his chariot victory. Most ancient Olympians, however, probably would have said that their feelings could not be expressed in words, that their victories were neither won by themselves alone, nor for themselves alone, and that it was all worth it. As ancient Greeks they would have felt an obligation to thank the gods, and as victors they would have felt the urge to celebrate the moment and commemorate the achievement. Most athletes apparently followed traditional customs: a party followed by a dedication of the wreath or a votive to an appropriate deity. Among the many exciting finds at Nemea was a votive pit containing a pentathlete's equipment--an iron discus and javelin points, a lead jumping weight, and a strigil--and drinking cups from 550-525 B.C.

More celebrations, songs, and commemorations awaited victors returning home. Sometimes a city would put up a statue of a local victor, and local veneration over time could reach the level of a hero cult. Theagenes of Thasos, who won the boxing (480 B.C.) and pankration (476 B.C.) at Olympia, claimed some 1,400 wins in his long career. After his death his city commissioned a statue of him that became the focus of a hero cult. Supposedly an enemy of Theagenes flogged the statue, whereupon it fell on him and killed him. When thrown into the sea, the statue brought famine to Thasos until it was restored. Major victories brought privileges, including free meals and seats of honor at civic gatherings for life. Years later one might still be known as "the athlete" or "the stadion-runner." Athletic fame sometimes even brought wartime clemency. During the Peloponnesian War Athens freed without ransom Doreius of Rhodes, a thrice victorious Olympic pankratiast. Alexander the Great, who supposedly disliked athletics, spared the home of Pindar while destroying Thebes in 335, and later freed the Theban Olympic victor Dionysiodoros captured after the Battle of Issus in 333 B.C.

The Greek athlete's world was not without its critics. Protests against the inappropriateness of honors for athletes rather than intellectuals reverberated, with no effect. Aristophanes' Clouds laments the passage of the "good old days" of proper and proficient gymnastic education, and the writings of Euripides and Plato contain criticisms and caricatures of athletes as unnatural, overdeveloped, socially burdensome, and unsophisticated louts: "the worst of the thousand ills of Greece." However, the archaeological record--stadiums and gymnasiums, dedications, prizes, and artworks--shows that society at large, then as now, heralded games and athletes as cultural treasures. Even Plato admitted that the majority of Greeks deemed the life of Olympic victors "most happy," and, in his Myth of Er, Atalanta chooses the life of an athlete because of its great honors. Ancient Greeks would have agreed with the sentiment expressed in Homer's Odyssey that, "There is no greater fame for a man than that which he wins with his footwork or the skills of his hands" (trans. S.G. Miller).

Donald G. Kyle, associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington, has published extensively on the history of Greek athletics, including, Athletics in Ancient Athens (Leiden: E.J. Brill, rev. ed., 1993). His research, reviews, and teaching have contributed to the emerging field of ancient sport studies.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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