Ancient Olympic Games In Greece

We owe our modern day Olympic games to ancient Greece. Here's a brief look at how it all began.

Every four years the great international Olympic games, which were revived in 1896, serve as a reminder of an important side of Greek life. The ancient Greeks believed in physical and intellectual excellence and thought a person should have both a strong mind in a strong body.

Athletics turn up everywhere in Greek literature and art, partly because the aristocratic way of life placed heavy stress on physical ability. The group of sporting activities called "athletics" is considered the oldest form of organized sports.

The great Greek contests occurred every four years at Olympia and Delphi (the Pythian games) and every two years at the isthmus of Corinth (Isthmian games) and Nemea. The most famous, the Olympic games, started with one day of racing and wrestling. According to tradition, they were first celebrated in the year 776 B.C. In the 7th century B.C., chariot-racing and single-horse races were added and by the 5th century the religious ceremonies and contests for young boys and men spread over five days.

Before the games, messengers would be sent to all parts of Greece to proclaim a "sacred truce" that halted all war for approximately three months.

International and local contests were almost always connected with religious festivals. Like today, such contests took place in stadiums. Many Greek cities developed gymnasiums, where men of leisure could engage in less formal athletics. A gymnasium was a plot of ground on the edge of town, partly open land, partly a grove of trees. Usually it had baths, so the men could scrub themselves and then oil their bodies to protect them against the hot Greek sun.

The winners received only crowns of wild olive leaves, and promises of immortality. When they returned home they were often escorted into their town with great splendor and celebrations. Sometimes a hole was pierced in the city wall for their special entry. A victor might even be given meals at state expense for the remainder of his lifetime.

One legend says in an early Olympic race, a runner's shorts fell off, but he went on to win the competition, so thereafter all competitors raced in the nude. Painters and sculptors of that time became well acquainted with the nude male body in action and in rest.

Although simple ball games existed, most Greek athletics involved individual competition, such as wrestling, disc-throwing, boxing, javelin-hurling, broad-jumping and running. Races were run either in armor or in the nude. Some races were short, others long. Boys competed with boys and men with men of the same age. Only at Sparta, however, did girls take part in the contest. The aristocratic ideal in the gymnasium was to show good form, but the drive to win sometimes produced scandals of bribery and cheating in ancient Olympic games, just as it has in modern times.

Only once, historically speaking, can it be suspected that the results were rigged: Emperor Nero won both events he entered, first a chariot race, in which he fell twice and singing contest, added especially to the program for him.

The 293rd Olympiad in 393 A.D., a total of 1,169 years after the first, was destined to be the last. The following year the games were banned by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosios I because he believed the games had become too wild and carnival-like. Thirty-three years later Theodosios II order the destruction of the temples. Today, only scattered stones remain from the once magnificent buildings. For centuries even the exact location of Olympia was forgotten, and it was not until 1723 that a French monk found the site. Excavations were carried out by French archaeologists soon after Greece secured it independence. However, the serious and systematic work which gave Olympia it present appearance has been done by German teams since 1875.

Today, you can visit the Archaeological Museum at Olympia. It was constructed in 1975 and eventually opened in 1982. It contains collections related to the games and other artifacts from ancient Greece.

The first modern Olympic games were held in Athens in April of 1896, with 13 nations included. They sent nearly 300 representatives to take part in 42 events. Unlike the ancient games, the modern Olympic games have been cancelled three times due to war in 1916, 1940 and 1944.

In 1900, women competed in the games for the first time. By 1928, the famous Olympic flame was introduced. It makes its way, via a runners relay, from Olympia in Greece to wherever the games are being held.

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