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The Olympics

The Olympics. For many sports the pinnacle of achievement, with many athletes aspiring and working their whole careers just to qualify and participate. Being held every four years does not always make that easy, especially in sports where athletic peaks are short-lived. This was made even more complicated when the Covid Pandemic caused the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games and it must have been mentally and physically very challenging for many aspiring Olympians to adjust training and refocus mentally for another year.

The first Olympic games were recorded to be held in 776BC by the Greek philosopher and historian Aristotle. To the Hellenic states these games were part athletic, part political contests and there was also a religious component as the games were originally held to honour Zeus.

The ancient Olympics were always held in the city of Olympus and not moved around from venue to venue as they are in modern times. All participants, athletes and judges, swore an oath in the Temple of Zeus before the massive statue of the god, which was one of the ancient wonders of the World. That oath influences our concept of fair-play and honourable competition to this day. Athletes who were caught cheating in whatever way had their names, transgression and punishment inscribed on a small bronze statue which was erected in their ‘honour’.

All free Greek citizens were allowed to enter the ancient games. Clearly women were not considered as such as the participants were only men though. Married women were not even allowed to watch the games. It was deemed improper because the men competed naked. Interestingly unmarried women and girls were allowed to attend.

During the games a truce was called throughout the Hellenic States. It was illegal to hinder the passage of athletes and spectators travelling to Olympus. Ongoing conflicts did not pause however but any attack on participants would be deemed a transgression of the truce.

The athletes would arrive four weeks before the games got underway. They were housed at a training facility and were observed by judges and officials. This was something of a qualifying period as athletes who were just not good enough or, who were caught cheating, would not be allowed to compete at the main event. So although anyone could enter (as long as you were a man and Greek), you couldn’t be completely incompetent or out of shape.

The ancient Greeks did not differentiate between professional and amateur athletes but events such as chariot races, which were hugely expensive, often saw sponsors come on board to finance all the requirements. Most often cities themselves would enter the event and hire a professional driver, who didn’t have to be from their city. The winners were the sponsors not the driver.

The first Olympiad only had one event called the Stade. In future games, as more and more events were added, this remained as the most prestigious. It was a foot race of one lap of the track and is where the name ‘stadium’ originates from and was approximately 200m. The ancient stadium was not a circular track as we are not accustomed to. The runners had to do a dead-turn at each end instead of a gentle arc as in more modern stadiums.

Later, the Diaulos was added and this consisted of two laps or 400m and the Dolichos, 12.5 laps or around 5km which was the longest running race of the ancient games until the Hoplitodromos was added. This was the last event added to the ancient games and was 15 laps of the stadium. Unlike other events, participants were not completely naked but wore a helmet and greaves whilst carrying a shield and spear. It is estimated that the total weight of equipment was about 10kg.

Over the centuries more events were added but they all had a very martial orientation. So javelin, discus and wrestling became big drawcards. Boxing and wrestling had very strict rules such as no eye-gouging or blows in the… sensitive areas but Pankration had pretty much just one, no biting. It was an almost no-holds-barred, hand to hand combat which became one of the main drawcards for spectators. There was no weight or age divisions and there often quiet large miss-matches and many serious injuries and fatalities were recorded in the annuls of the game’s history.

Although winners at the ancient games only received an olive wreath for their troubles and nothing for second or third places, they could expect to make a very good life as a result of their prowess. Success at the games was considered a matter of pride for the athlete’s city and they were well taken care of as a result. It was not uncommon for statues to be erected in their honour and successful athletes were often used as envoys or diplomats when conducting negotiations with neighbours or rival states.

So, although much has changed since ancient times, a lot remains the same. Modern athletes, who are used to competing for large cash incentives at smaller events, put everything on the line for a medal at the Olympics, but that title will secure them massive sponsorship and incentives and invites to lucrative events for the rest of their careers. One thing that I am sure athletes at Tokyo 2021 are pleased about is that they do not have to strip down to their birthday suits to compete but I am sure if it was discovered that this would provide an edge over the competition, some would consider it.

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