Long before the monumental opening ceremonies that have come to mark the modern Olympic Games, replete with the spectacular performances organised by the host nation and the consequent hundreds of thousands of digital camera flashes bursting forth from the stadium stands, was the ancient Games. One could imagine that with modern luxuries like your home theatre and favourite DVD box set, games like these would provide much needed entertainment…
Although the size of, and events contained within, the modern Olympic Games set it apart from its ancient counterpart, the political significance (in terms of the stakes of national pride and national dominance) of the Games remains similar in contemporary times. Although Baron Pierre de Coubertin (the founder of the IOC in 1894) expressed that the events were to reflect individual athletes competing against one another rather than nations in competition, the overwhelming implications for national consciousness as a consequence of Olympic performances should not be underrated: as part of the Cold War effort, the United States and the USSR would use the Olympic stage to promote and, essentially, market the power that each superpower enjoyed.
The genesis of the Ancient Olympics remains shrouded in myth: the oldest tradition, recounted by the Greek historian, Pausanias, holds that three brothers raced at Olympia, and the winner was crowned by Zeus with a laurel wreath. The other gods who lived on Mount Olympus (the Olympian gods) would also engage in running races, wrestling and jumping contests. A later tradition holds that after completing his tasks, Heracles established an athletic festival to honour his father, Zeus. Pelops, the King of Olympia, through the use of trickery and the help of Poseidon, beat Heracles in a chariot race and won for himself the hand of the daughter of another local king in marriage.
Despite its unknown origin, the Games were as much an athletic festival as they were a religious festival held in honour of Zeus: the temple erected to the father of the gods in Olympia was 13 metres high, sculpted out of ivory and gold, and was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Half-way through the festival, priests would offer a sacrifice of 100 oxen to Zeus. In addition to the athletic and religious aspect of the ancient games, the festival additionally incorporated an arts and culture exhibition. This element of the games is still preserved in the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies of the modern Olympics during which the host country displays its cultural heritage in terms of music, art and dance.
Although there is scholarly dispute over the date of the first games, popular opinion, based on the recording of an eclipse by Diodorus, puts the first Olympics as an event that occurred in the year 765 BCE. The games continued in an unbroken succession as even during war time, warring parties were forced to declare a truce for the duration of the festival in order to ensure safe passage for athletes. Some scholars, however, dispute this and argue that no truce was declared, but that athletes were given leave from their military duties in order to participate. The ancient games ceased in either 393 AD or 435 AD when Theodosius I or his grandson, Theodosius II, banned the games in an attempt to suppress pagan religions in favour of Christianity.
At its inception, the games lasted only a single day, and consisted of only one race: the stadion race. The stadion race was a sprint of 180m-240m in length (roughly the length of the stadium). The second event introduced was the Diaulos, and consisted of athletes completing one lap of the stadium (approximately 400m); the third race was the Dolichos, which was a 5km race which began and finished in the stadium, but like current Olympic marathons, exited the stadium for the majority of its distance. A notable race was the “Hoplite” race which required contestants to dress in partial armour, carry a shield and wear a helmet, and complete either 1 or 2 laps around the stadium. Over time, the events expanded to include a brutal form of boxing, wrestling, pankration (a mixed form of fighting), chariot racing, and the pentathlon. The pentathlon required contestants to participate in wrestling, running, long jump, and discus and javelin throwing.