Greek athletics: 8th century BC
The ancient Greeks, whose admiration for the healthy human body is revealed in their sculpture, make almost a religion of competitive athletics. It is their custom on solemn occasions, including even funerals, to engage in races. This passion results in the world’s first athletic fixture – the games at Olympia, established according to tradition in the year 776 BC and held every four years.
At first this is just a one-day athletic meeting with a single competitive event. The entire day is taken up with heats for a running race – a sprint the length of the stadium, the equivalent of about 200 metres. In later years more events are added.
The extended games: 7th century BC
The competitive events added to the Olympic games include throwing the discus and the javelin, the long jump, boxing, wrestling, chariot and horse racing and a challenge to test all-round ability – the pentathlon. The ancient pentathlon begins with competition in four disciplines – running, jumping, throwing the discus and the javelin. The winners emerging from these encounters then meet in a fifth and decisive contest, wrestling.
The champions receive a simple token of their victory, a garland of fresh olive to wear on the head. This is essentially a religious festival, in honour of the greatest of the Greek gods, Zeus, whose sanctuary is at Olympia.
The Olympic games bind together the widespread and frequently cantakerous Greek communities. Such is their importance that events are dated in Greek chronology according to the olympiad (the period of four years between games) in which they fall.
When the time comes for the games, a truce is automatically imposed on any warfare in Greece or its colonies so that athletes can travel safely to Olympia. The recorded list of winners includes contestants from Sicily and southern Italy, from the coastal areas of Turkey and the Aegean islands, as well as the whole of mainland Greece. The fame of a great athlete spreads through the entire Greek world.
A five-day event: from 472 BC
After 472 BC, when the games are extended to five days, the pattern of the festival becomes established. The first day is spent in the necessary sacrifices to Zeus and other gods. The athletes and the judges swear on oath that they will play fair, and there is much general festivity.
Only men and boys may enter the games and women may not even be among the spectators (the contestants compete entirely naked). An exception is made for priestesses of the corn goddess Demeter.
The second day is taken up with chariot and horse racing and with the pentathlon. The third day is reserved for the boys’ events. The fourth is the climax of the athletics, with the classic field events for men; there is also a terrifying form of all-in wrestling, the pankration. The day ends with races for men in armour (much of Greek athleticism is connected with preparation for war).
The fifth and last day is taken up, like the first, with sacrifices. In the evening there is a banquet for the victors. There will be further elaborate festivities for each when he gets back to his home town.
The other Greek games: 5th century BC
The success of the Olympic games prompts the founding of several others. By the 5th century BC there are Pythian games every four years at Delphi, Isthmian games every two years near Corinth and Nemean games, also every two years and also in the Peloponnese.
All these events are purely for honour’s sake. Only Greeks may compete. But gradually professionalism enters the games, leading to valuable prizes and accusations of corruption. Under the Roman empire the games are opened to foreigners. The emperor Nero, never one to miss a chance of showing off, tries his luck as a competitor in the 1st century AD.
The end of a tradition: AD 393
The ancient Olympic games survive as an athletic fixture until AD 393, when they are abolished by a decree of the Christian emperor Theodosius. By then they have been in continuous existence for well over 1000 years – an astonishing record for any sporting event.
Centuries later their example is enough to inspire a revival.