Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Ancient Olympic games

I've long been a fan of the classical world. History, myth, religious cults, and on and on. In reading a few books on the ancient games there were tidbits that I found too good to not share.

The first 13 Olympiads had as their only event a short foot race which dictated the length of the stadium. Later the diaulos was added which was two lengths of the stadium and then the dolichos (roughly equivalent to today's 5,000 meters), which was the long distance race at 20 or 24 lengths of the stadium.

Leonidas of Rhodes did what today would be unheard of. He, "with the speed of a god," won all three events at four successive Olympiads between 164 to 152 BC. Accordingly so, he was worshipped as a deity in some towns.

Much later came the pentathlon which consisted of discus, jumping, javelin, running and wrestling. Even later, chariot racing and boxing.

As for nutrition and conditioning, different 'trainers' and doctors of the time each contributed their own advice. Vigorous dancing was held as an excellent training activity which is of course, perfect. Ancient father of medicine, Galen, contended that 'natural' activities such as rowing and digging could properly prepare an athlete. He also recommended a diet rich in beans, boiled of course to reduce, ahem, flatulence.

Others said a diet with plenty of dried figs, wheat and cheese was key. Later a trainer Pythagoras, held that meat was the way to go. This of course, at the time, was an extravagance that many athletes could indulge in. Most of the commoners were stuck with their bread, olives and oil.

Women, of course, were excluded from the Olympiad but they had their own festival, the Heraia, in honor of Hera. It had only one event, a foot race of approximately 160. Runners were divided by age groups. As the men, the victors were allowed to set up statues of themselves in the temple of Hera. Many ancient male figures did actually advocate a certain amount of athletic ability in women. This sometimes could include sword fighting!

My favorite thing about the ancient Olympic games has to be the commonly respected truce that allowed the games to take place. Myth holds that King Iphitos of Elis from around the 9th century BC asked the oracle how to end the civil wars and plagues which ravaged the Greek city-states. The oracle told him to reinstate the Olympic games which apparently had been held unofficially for a long time before. During the games, a truce should be announced between all the Greek territories.

Before the games could begin, three heralds were charged with going out and carrying the message of the games and of the truce. Ultimately the truce ended up lasting for two to three months to allow for the travel of spectators. As you might imagine, this did contribute quite a bit in reaffirming common Greek identity.

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