It that time again, the Olympics are starting at Olympia. The festival was founded in 776 BC, and according to myth it was founded by the Greek hero Heracles. This festival held every four years to honor Zeus is the biggest of all the festivals. The main purpose of the Olympics was to worship Zeus even though games were also a big part. A sacrifice of 100 oxen was made to the god on the middle day of the festival (Perseus Project). This sacrifice was very important to the festival because to the ancient Greeks, honoring the gods was a way to keep the gods happy and keep the gods from hurting them. Besides worshipping Zeus, different sporting events took place. The events are broken down into foot races, pentathlon, wrestling, boxing, pankration, boy’s events, and horse events. The event descriptions follow.
The first of the races was the stade-race. A stade-race was a single stade run. At the Olympic stadium, a stade in one run the length of the stadium minus room to start and stop which is approximately 200 yards (Kieran and Daley, 8). This is a standard race much that has been around since the beginning. It is believed that at first this was the only sporting event that took place at the Olympics (Harris, 64). The second of the races was diaulos. The diaulos was two stades (Perseus Project). Too make this possible the runners had to make a 180 degree turn at the end of the first stade and run back to the start (Harris, 64). The stade was not in an oval shape like the stadiums of current days, to make it two stades the contestants turned around a pole placed in a the center of the opposite end of the stadium. The third of the races was a dolichos. The dolichos was anywhere between seven to twenty four stades long (Perseus Project). This was the longest of all the races. Raced much like the diaulos, the runners would turn at a midpoint at the end of the stade but also at the midpoint of the starting line also. For those looking for a more challenging race, there was the race in full armor. This was the same distance as the diaulos but was done while wearing armor that weighed between forty and fifty pounds (Perseus Project). This was the hardest of all the races in the Olympics. The foot races often took place on the same day of the festival.
Whatever spectators may have thought, there was little doubt that among the Greek athletes themselves wrestling was the most popular sport at the Olympics (Harris, 102). The wrestling event was popular because it was challenging test of strength that was less painful than boxing and pankration. Like modern wrestling the object was to win the most falls. Unlike boxing, wrestling matches were broken into sections after falls but not after a throw (Harris, 102). This gave the athletes completing a chance to catch their breath and to strategize on how to attack in the next section. This test of strength required very little space to take place.
This event was a difficult test of strength that placed two men against each other. There were no weight classes unlike modern boxing, but they did have different classes for different age groups (Harris, 97). This made this type of boxing more challenging than that of modern times. Harris states the Greek boxing was differed from ours in one important way; a bout was not divided into rounds and continued uninterrupted until one of the boxers was knocked out or held up his hand in acknowledgement of defeat. This process of fighting seems more brutal than modern day fighting events. The only types of glove that the boxers wore were leather straps or thongs that were mainly there to protect the boxer’s finger rather than soften the punches (Harris, 98). The idea that there were not rounds and that the bout continued until one of the boxers is knocked out leads one to believe that there was a very high risk of being injured, but with this risk means that the biggest and toughest of the men were the only ones capable of fighting and winning. Unlike wrestling, whose main goal is to take the other opponent to the ground, boxing’s main goal was to hit the opponent as much as possible until he was unconscious or admitted defeat.
The pankration was in a way a hybrid of boxing and wrestling. It was like wrestling in that holds and throws were used but it was like boxing in that punches were aloud. Harris describes the object was not to throw one’s opponent like in wrestling but rather to wrestle and hit him to a point where he would admit defeat as in boxing. This made the pankration much like the modern day mixed martial arts competitions. Like in mixed martial arts, the oppents mixed holds and throws with punches and possibly even kicks. Unlike in boxing opponents did not were boxing thongs because they would interfere with the wrestling and holds (Harris, 106). A punch was often subordinate to the main aim because the goal was to make the opponent submit not knock him out and the punch was probably only used to get an opponent to break their hold (Harris, 106). The only things that the Greeks didn’t allow was biting and gouging. These rules were enforced by umpires standing ready with rods to flog any athlete who broke these rules (Harris, 107). This was seen as the most difficult of all the fighting sports at the Olympics because it mixed both wrestling and boxing.
The chariot and horse races took place in the hippodrome that was erected just beyond the south wall of the stadium (Kieran and Daley, 8). The chariot races were broken down in to three separates types. The first type was a two horse chariot, the second was a four horse chariot, and the third was a cart race drawn by mules and all these were 12 laps which is about 9 miles (Perseus Project). There was only one type of horse race though. It was a 6 lap race that was about 4.5 miles and like modern horse races was run by a jockey hired by the owner of the horse (Perseus Project).
The pentathlon consisted of five events, javelin, long jump, discus, a foot race of one stade, and wrestling as described above (Harris, 77). The javelin, long jump, and discus were only preformed in the pentathlon. This gave the athletes a chance to prove they were the best all around. The long jump is a lot like the long jump of the modern day Olympics. The main difference between the modern long jump and the Greek long jump is that the Greeks jump while holding weights in their hands (Harris, 80). The reason for this is still unsure but it is believed that the jumper held them out in front on the accent and then thrust them behind them and dropped them to get more distance (Perseus Project). This from a physics stand point sound like a reasonable tactic if the athlete could time it right. The extra weight would give them more momentum and thrusting them behind them could give them a little extra boast at the end. The Discus is the next major event. The discus was shaped like the discus of modern days. The contestant would swing the discus forward and backward either striding forward or shifting his left foot, then he would turn his head and body as he swings but does not turn, and then he releases the discus while he pivots on his right leg and strides forward with his left (Kieran and Daley, 7). The athlete that threw the discus the furthest won that event. The next event was the javelin throw. The javelin was the athletic event that was most closely related to war because like in war the thrower hurls a long spear like piece of wood as far and accurately as possible (Harris, 92). The running and wrestling are preformed just as described in previous sections. The winner of the most events was crowned winner of the pentathlon.
Since boys were not yet strong enough or fast enough they had their only class of events. The boys competed in foot race, wrestling, and boxing (Burke, 198). The rules for the boy’s events were the same as the rules for the men’s events as listed above.
Festival Timeline and Prizes
The festival lasted for five days. The timeline of events is not fully known. According to Burke the sacrifices took place on day one, the chariot and horse races and the pentathlon took place on day two, on day three more sacrifices and in the afternoon the boys’ events happened, then on day four the foot races for men, wrestling, boxing, pankration, and race in armor took place, and on the fifth day the final sacrifices were made. The winners received a crown of olive made from the olive tree at the temple of Zeus (Burke, 201). The winners were also seen as heroes to the people of their city.
Burke, Roger K.. Greek Athletic Sports and Festivals. United States of America: Brown Reprints, 1970.
Harris, H.A.. Greek Athletes and Athletics. Great Britain: Indiana University Press, 1966.
Kieran, John, and Daley, Arthur. The Story of the Olympic Games: 776 B.C. to 1948 A.D.. New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1948.
"Perseus Project." Classics Department. 2004. Tufts University. 29 Jan. 2007 < http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Olympics/index.html>