Download a free eBook on the history of the games to learn the ancient context for the London 2012 games
Every two years, the summer and winter Olympics draw global attention as people follow the modern version of the world’s most ancient and venerable competition. What are the origins of this 2700-year-old event? Tracing the enigmatic, mystical genesis of the Greek Olympiad, this free eBook takes you on a journey to ancient Greece with some of the finest scholars of the ancient world. Discover the original religious significance of the games and the brutality of the athletic competitions themselves. For any fan of the Olympic Games, this is an entertaining and educational must-read.
The heavily-marketed concept of the Games as a peaceful, clean, harmonious, amateur sporting event is a fictitious reflection of the games in ancient times. As scholar Jenifer Neils explains in her review essay, the ancient Games were characterized by strife, violence, cheating, highly specialized professional training and high stakes political agendas. Sound familiar? Her review continues, discussing books that explain the world of ancient athleticism and demonstrate its similarities with our own modern sports culture. For example, the elevation of accomplished athletes to demi-god status in society is not a new phenomenon; ancient athletes had tremendous financial and cultural motivations to succeed and could often great achieve personal wealth and fame if they did so. Topics such as diet, training, sports medicine and drugs were all of major concern to athletes and their trainers in the ancient Olympic Games – the very subjects that dominate the media coverage of sports competition today.
In contrast to the works reviewed by Neils, Michael B. Poliakoff strives to put some distance between the brutality of the ancient games and the gentler, more sportsmanlike competition of the modern Olympic Games. He points out that while modern boxing regulations provide for a controlled environment and safety measures for athletes, ancient Greeks, he wryly notes, “recognized a number of ways to make the sport safer—and ignored all of them.” In fact, he goes on to reveal that boxers often used equipment that enabled them to cause more damage to their opponent, rather than less. The lack of weight classes in boxing and wrestling would pit smaller athletes against much larger ones, and choking an opponent was perfectly acceptable method of subduing an adversary. Adding to an athlete’s vulnerability was the fact that he competed in the nude. Framing the Games as a ritual designed to emulate battlefield heroism rather than friendly competition, Poliakoff emphasizes that the modern Olympic Games are far more benign and controlled than their brutal predecessors in the ancient world.
David Gilman Romano offers an overview of the ancient Olympiads, discussing in detail the site of Olympia itself and the mythic origins of the original games. The first known Olympic festival is thought to have taken place in 776 B.C. in honor of Zeus, though archaeological evidence suggests that Olympia had been the site of athletic contests from as early as the 11th century B.C. By 457 B.C., a massive temple had been constructed at Olympia, dedicated to Zeus, the patriarch of Greek deities. Romano goes on to discuss the construction of other large structures dedicated to the Olympiads as the Games took their place firmly within the religious and cultural traditions of the Greek world. He tells us of the enigmatic Olympic Register—a fragmentary record of Olympic victors thought to have first been compiled by Hippias of Elis in the 5th century B.C. Though incomplete, the register lists victorious athletes by name and accomplishment, and offers us the opportunity to view the ancient Olympiads through a more personal, human lens.
While most authors focus on the games themselves and the athletes who competed in them, Tony Perrottet takes up the question of why regular Greeks would make a long journey to an overcrowded and blazingly hot venue. The journey itself was usually made on foot over 200 miles and took approximately two weeks. Conditions upon arrival were often poor at best, and deadly at worst. Perrottet describes poor or non-existent sanitation, a lack of fresh drinking water, an unrelenting sun, and hordes of disease-carrying black flies. So how does one explain the nearly 70,000 spectators that journeyed to Olympia every fourth year for the better part of 12 centuries? Because, explains Perrottet, a journey to Olympia was a religious pilgrimage, and the Games themselves were one of the most important sacred festivals in the ancient Mediterranean. Spectators who made the journey were not just fanatical sports enthusiasts but also dedicated devotees of Zeus, who believed that making such a journey was to participate fully in the religious life of their society.
While the Olympic Games and the site that gave them their name loom large in our modern sports culture, Stephen Miller reminds us that the competitions held in Olympia were not the only panhellenic sports events of the ancient world. He describes a site in the Arcadian mountains called Nemea, where athletes would compete in games called the Nemeads. As the archaeologist responsible for the excavation of the site over a 20-year period, Professor Miller is an ideal tour guide as he leads us through a descriptive tour of the ancient sports facilities. An amusing sidebar explains the modern fascination with the ancient competition: the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games has reinstituted the games of old, and participants compete in the same competitions as the ancient athletes once did. One exception has been made for modern sensibilities, however. In the modern Nemean Games, participants have the option of wearing clothing.
As the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic Games approach with pageantry and fanfare, spectators and sports enthusiasts will flock to London and significantly more will tune in on their televisions. Airplanes and modern media technology make being an Olympic fan a much easier endeavor today than it was 2500 years ago, and the circumstances in which the Games take place are both safer and more comfortable. However, the Games’ popularity today demonstrate that competitive spirit and passionate fandom are nothing new. Let the Games begin!
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