The tittering schoolboy version of the history of the Olympic Games would have us believe the Ancient Greeks used to strip naked, oil themselves up and then fight to the death in a stadium at Olympia. And believe them we should, because there’s an element of truth to all of that. London’s Olympic Games in 2012 might have billions of spectators (if only thanks to television), but the Ancient Olympic Games of 776BC onwards make Seb Coe’s pet project look decidedly staid.
The Ancient Olympics was originally established as a religious festival to worship the mightiest of Greek gods, Zeus. A colossal statue of him, built to preside over the stadium, was later designated one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Only Greeks were allowed to participate. After all, everyone else was a barbarian. This didn’t change for 500 years, until the Roman Empire conquered Greece, stomped its collective feet and demanded their own supermen be allowed to join in.
Naturally only men could compete. Some women were allowed into the stadium to watch, but only if they weren’t married or betrothed (which was probably for the best, given the Team Greece kit – see below).
Originally the Games only lasted for a single day, but then, they only consisted of a single event – the stadion race. This was a short sprint of about 700ft, which was the length of the stadium (the word ‘stadium’ actually having come from the name of the race). Eventually the Ancient Olympics were extended to five days and incorporated multiple events. Most fell by the wayside in the intervening 1,500 years between the Ancient and Modern Olympic Games (most lamentably chariot racing), but the javelin and discus have both remained staple events, whilst others have evolved.
In case modern boxing isn’t brutal enough, the boxers of the Ancient Olympics could weight their hard leather hand coverings with metal for extra pain infliction. There weren’t any rules against hitting a competitor when he was down either. Matches had no rest periods and no time limits – they went on until one of the men gave up, or died. Killing your opponent was not advised, however, because the dead guy automatically won the contest.
Pankration is another event that has disappeared from the schedules. Worryingly there would probably be plenty who would relish the chance to bring this fighting sport back, but health and safety officials would never allow it. The rules of pankration were quite simple. No eye gouging. No biting. And that was it. Spleen-rupturing kicks to the belly were allowed. Choke holds were recommended. Digging thumbs into your opponent’s trachea was an acceptable winning move. Elements of pankration have made it into mixed martial arts, but that pales in comparison on the violence front.
The more cynical amongst us might take a bemused look at Stella McCartney’s kit for British competitors and suggest the Ancient Greeks did it better when they competed in their birthday suits. However, nudity was not in fact the official uniform of the Ancient Olympics for the first 50 years, only being introduced by decree in 720BC. The Games were partly about celebrating the human body, after all. Competitors would rub olive oil over their bodies, both for cleaning and aesthetic purposes. Only in one event was anyone allowed to wear clothes – the armoured race. But even then, the only armour they could wear was a helmet and shin guards. There was still plenty of flesh flapping around in the sun. Interestingly, the word ‘gynasium’ comes from ‘gymnos’ – the Greek word for ‘nude’.
There were no gold, silver or bronze medals for the winners in the Ancient Olympics, just a crown made from an olive wreath, along with an olive branch and supplies of more olive oil. Bertolli, sponsors of the original 776BC Olympic Games, continue to prosper to this day, apparently.
Unfortunately it all came to an end in AD393 (or AD435, depending upon whose version of history you would shed blood over) when the Roman Emperor Theodosius I (or II, depending upon – etc, etc) embraced Christianity and banned the whole thing for being just a little too pagan for Jesus. It wasn’t until 1896 that the ancient ideal of an international celebration of sporting prowess was born again, but that’s another story altogether.