According to the International Olympic Committee, the first Ancient Olympic Games were held in 776 BC on the plains of Olympia in honor of the Greek gods. Held every four years until 393 AD when Emperor Theodosius banned the Games as being a “pagan” event, the Ancient Olympic Games were to the Greeks what Mecca is to the Muslims.
From across the (often warring) Greek city-states, some 40,000 athletes, spectators, artisans and pilgrims would journey every four years to the southwestern end of Greece, some 200 miles from Athens, to take part in the glory and festivities of the Games and to revel in their common Hellenic heritage. This pilgrimage was possible due to the tradition of ekecheiria or “sacred truce.” Imposed prior to the opening day of each Olympiad, the sacred truce allowed everyone to travel in total safety to and from the Games.
Surrounded by the blue mountains of Arcadia and numerous religious temples and shrines, including the spectacular Temple of Zeus (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) which featured the 40-foot tall gold and ivory statue of Zeus created by the famous Greek sculptor Phidias, the attendees could participate in various pagan religious rites, public feasts, drinking parties and beauty contests, or visit temples, sideshow booths, palm readers and prostitutes.
Eat, drink and be merry indeed. Oh, and there were the sporting events to be had as well.
Freeborn Greek males participated (in the nude) in such events as the discus throw, wrestling, sprints, chariot races and a particularly brutal event called pankration which combined wrestling and boxing, with little in the way of rules except for one: no eye gouging. (Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, the famous Greek philosopher Plato won the pankration event twice.)
Also of note, the event many of us associate with the Greek Games, the marathon, did not exist in the Ancient Games. It was not introduced until the first modern Games were held in Athens in 1896.
Back in Athens for the first time since 1896, the current incarnation of the Olympic Games lacks the pagan revelry and, well, nakedness of the Ancient Games, but is still an event to watch and enjoy. Beginning on August 13th and ending on the 29th, the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad will last 16 days, and include 28 sporting events and over 10,000 athletes from 201 nations.
If you can’t make it to Athens this summer, then at least throw on a pair of your favorite winged goddess of Victory shoes (just do it already) and burn off all the fried chicken and ice cream from last month. Or sit back and watch history unfold before your eyes on TV.
Either way, let’s hope the ancient tradition of ekecheiria holds up in modern times, and let the Games begin.
For more information on the Ancient Olympic Games, go to www.olympic.org.
For more information on this year’s Olympic Games in Athens, go to www.athens2004.com.