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Olympic Games were held throughout Ancient Greece, but the most famous games were the games held in Olympia. They were held between August and September in honor of Zeus. Some claim that Zeus and Kronos the mightiest of the gods, wrestled for possession of the earth on the high peaks in Greece, and the games were in commemoration of the victory of Zeus. People all throughout Greece would come to Olympia to watch and take place in the festival.
The entrance to the stadium in which the Olympic games were held had a row of statues. The statues, called Zanes were made in the likeness of the “ Zeus of Oaths” statue. On the first day of the games the athletes stood before this heroic- sized statue of Zeus poised to throw a thunderbolt, and promised to obey “the laws of Zeus”. The money to create such human like statues was collected from the fines from athletes who violated the Olympic code of honor in competition. The “Zanes” were erected so that they were almost the last things the athletes saw as they marched into the stadium to take part in the games. The temple of Zeus was constructed as a meeting point for the athletes of the Olympic games. They all gathered to worship Zeus before the games. On the middle day of the Olympics, 100 oxen were sacrificed and burned outside the temple. Now a day we offer no sacrifices to Zeus.
The stadium was built to accommodate 45,000 spectators. All women were excluded from the early Olympic Games, even as on lookers. The punishment for any woman caught in Olympia during the festival was death by being thrown from a cliff. However, Pausanius wrote about a story of one incident that transpired when a mother ran out of the stadium to congratulate her son on winning.
Kallipateira, an exile from Rhodes, broke the law and went unpunished. After the death of her husband, she trained her son to compete in the Olympics of 404 B.C. On the day of his contest, she entered the stadium disguised as a trainer. As the story goes, she ran out to congratulate him on winning the boxing event, it was discovered she was a woman. Because her father, bother, and now son acquired a total of six Olympic victories, she was not punished. Thereafter, however, the trainers, as well as the athletes, were required to participate in the nude.
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The Olympic Games grew from a local festival to a Greek wide event. Olympic winners received a wreath of wild olive; nothing was given to the person who came in second. The winners were bathed in olive oil and celebrated. The losers emerged physically and mentally beaten if they survived. “The Olympic victors were more than athletic heroes; they were local and even national idols. The town in which an Olympic victor lived was considered in high favor with the gods. The city walls were opened to welcome home the athlete bearing the wreath of wild olive from the sacred tree. In some cases they had been worshiped as a god after their death”. (Kieran, John) p.13
“ Apollo beat Hermes in a foot race and Ares at wrestling. Sculptures in the east pedimen of the Temple of Zeus illustrated the myth that the first Olympics were held by pelops to celebrate his victory over King Oinamaos in a chariot race for the hand of the King’s daughter Hippodameia. There are many legends describing the first Olympic contests, but tradition recognizes that the first Olympiad was held in 776 B.C.” (Anderson, Dave.) p. 40
It consisted of one event, a 200-yard foot race, which was won, not by a hero, but by a simple cook named Koroibus from the city of Elis. The Olympiads were named after the winner of the 200-yard foot race; therefore the first Olympiad was called “Olympiad of Koroibus”. Koroibus did not receive a wreath for winning though. It was only after the seventh Olympiad, did the Greeks introduce the olive wreath. Once you won you were given the right to build a statue of yourself in the sanctuary.
“Ancient athletes were required to register to compete, and rumors of Herculean opponents sometimes prompted competitors to withdraw”. (Anderson, Dave) p. 4. To qualify as a contestant the men had to past three tests: First you had to be a free Greek, no one could be a felon, athletes had to train for at least ten months immediately proceeding the Games, and spend the last month at Olympia. Later on it wasn’t uncommon for an athlete to receive money for participate in sports. They could declare any city as their sponsor.
The events in the Olympics had not originated at Olympia. They were raised to Olympic status only after achieving popularity elsewhere. There was a contest that was in honor of one of the greatest events in Greek history. After Athens defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, Militiades called for Pheidippides, a famous Athenian runner, and asked him to carry the good news of victory to the city fathers of Athens. Although he fought as a soldier and survived the hardships of the day, Pheidippides set out toward the city.
He was exhausted by the time he arrived at Athens his feet were cut and bleeding. He announced the victory and collapsed to the ground and died.
Foot races were the most popular, and in the first Olympic games foot races were the only games to compete in. There was the 200-Yard Foot, 400- Yard Foot Race, and the 4,800- Yard Foot Race. These events were not time so we don’t know how fast they ran back then but, from the stories that were told men could run a race and then run home many miles away.
Some of the contests in the ancient games were brutal. The pancratium, a combination of boxing and wrestling, resulted in several deaths. The injuries received by boxers were due to the way the knuckles were covered. Early on the hands and knuckles were wrapped with long strips of leather called “soft thongs”. There were no weight classes, rounds or rest periods. Those who clinched the other opponent were whipped with a long stick. The first and most obvious way to defeat an opponent was to knock him out. Next, a boxer won the match when his opponent signaled defeat by a raised index finger. Because of this rule, Spartans did not participate in Olympic boxing; for fear that people might find Spartans as being cowards.
“For centuries the Olympic Games were the great peaceful events of the civilization that centered around the Mediterranean Sea. Then the glory of Greece began to disappear before the grandeur that was Rome. As Greece lost power, the games lost their ancient significance. They lost the spirit of the older days. They lost the religious atmosphere”. (p.16) Winners were no longer content with a simple olive wreath as a prize. They sought gifts and money. Aliens entered the lists. “The Emperor Nero appeared as a swaggering competitor, and built himself a house by the Olympic hippodrome. The games dragged on intermittently to a lingering death”. (Kieran,John) p.17. Emperor Theodosius I of Rome in 394 A.D. had the Olympics stopped. Invaders destroyed the temples, and later it was completely destroyed by earthquakes. The games reached their height in the fifth and fourth century BC, later fell into disfavor because, of professionalism were they were discontinued at the end of the fourth century AD.