The Olympic Games of Ancient Greece

The Olympic Games of Ancient Greece

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Ancestor of the modern Olympic Games, the Ancient Greek Olympics gathered the Greek cities every four years in the stadium of Olympia during very prestigious sporting events. Despite the fratricidal rifts between the cities, these meetings ensure the cultural and community cohesion of Hellenism. This competition is indeed the occasion of a sacred truce during which no one has the right to wage war. The Greek Olympic Games had their golden age in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. J.-C, before being banned in 391 AD. AD, by order of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I.

Mythical origin of the Olympic Games

According to legend, King Oenomaos was very attached to his daughter, Hippodamia. When a suitor presented himself he challenged him in a chariot race. Either the suitor won and he became his son-in-law, or he lost and was condemned to die. He succeeded in removing a dozen of them. But there was one, Pelops, who had received from his father, Ares, two mares, Psylla and Harpina, who were exemplary couriers. In addition, Hippodamia, in love with him, contrived to replace the keys which held the axles of his father's chariot with wax keys.

Oenomaos defeated, Pelops succeeded him. He unified under his reign all the central part of Greece which one calls since the Peloponnese ("the island of Pelops"). This is the story that is told in Olympia, on the pediment of the temple of Zeus. It tells the origin and the meanings of the Olympic Games. In 884 before Jesus Christ, to put an end to the wars with Sparta, the king of Elis established the first Games in history in the city of Olympia.

Rules and conduct of the games

The Pan-Hellenic Games, celebrated in honor of Zeus at Olympia, therefore predate 776 BC. AD, date of the first Olympiad. These games, which were the biggest holiday in the Greek world, took place as part of religious solemnities that took place every four years in July. Announced all over Greece by messengers, painstakingly prepared for a whole year, they drew huge crowds. It was absolutely forbidden to appear there for married women. The competitions, which took place over three days, were chaired by the college of ten Hellanodics or judges of the Hellenes, Elean magistrates drawn by lot for each Olympiad from a small selected group of citizens.

The competitors came from all over the Hellenic world: slaves, barbarians, convicts, homicides, sacrileges were excluded from the games. The others had to be registered a year in advance on a register kept by the magistrates of Elis: in fact, given the cost of the trip, the stay, the horses, the teams, only the rich could compete in the games. Most came to prepare at the gymnasium of Elis, under the supervision of the Hellanodics. As the games approached, they moved to Olympia, where they were accommodated in special premises; those who arrived late were declared out of competition.

The different Olympic events

The Olympic Games were held for three days, at the stadium and at the racecourse. The rectangular-shaped stadium of Olympia had a track 192 m long. Since 725 BC. AD, the runners presented themselves completely naked: there was the single, double (diaulos) race, the six-fold race (six times the length of the track), the slow race (twelve times the length of the track) . These races formed the first part of the games. We then moved on to the racetrack, whose track was 770 m, for horse racing.

The oldest (dating back to 648 BC) was the four-horse chariot race, which had to circle the track eight or even twelve times. There were also mounted horse races; show jumping was not practiced, but at the end of the course the rider had to drop to the ground and lead himself, reins in hand, his horse to the goal. The prize was awarded not to the drivers but to the owners of the horses. The third and last part of the games took place at the stadium: it consisted of the struggles: simple struggle, pancrace; in the pentathlon (since 708 BC), which combined five events: jumping, discus, javelin, single run and wrestling; and finally in the armed race (from 520 BC), which consisted of traversing the stadium twice with the warrior's full gear (from the 4th century on with the shield only).

At the end of the games, the prizes were solemnly awarded in the great temple of Olympian Zeus: the precious objects originally distributed were soon replaced by simple wild olive wreaths adorned with bands. This is in 540 BC. BC that the statue (wooden) of a victor was erected for the first time in Olympia; later, marble and gold were used, and these works were performed by the greatest artists. The return of the victor to his homeland was triumphant, and it was on this occasion that some great poet, such as Pindar or Simonides, was commissioned odes, which were accompanied by music and dance.

A central element of Greek civilization

The Olympic Games, which reached their peak in the 5th century BC. become a central element of Greek civilization. It was a ceremony not only "sporting" (the word did not exist then), but political and religious. It brought together the Greeks from all the cities who for the occasion suspended the wars which opposed them. The trials represented a sort of sublimated form of confrontation, since it was not murderous. The political struggles were also expressed in the agora in oratorical contests which regulated them "democratically".

The Olympic Games are the most prestigious and famous games played by the ancient Greeks, the other three being the Isthmian games (in Corinth, in honor of Poseidon), the Pythian games (in Delphi, in honor of Apollo) and the Nemean games (in Nemea, in honor of Heracles). The Olympic Games degenerated after the conquest of Greece by the Romans: this was the age of professional athletes, and in 394, Emperor Theodosius abolished these games for good. Their modern revival is due to the efforts of Pierre de Coubertin. These new Olympic Games, inaugurated in Athens in 1896, take place, like those of Antiquity, every four years: Athens (1896). Paris (1900), Saint Louis (1904), London (1908), Stockholm (1912) ...


- Olympics and sport in ancient Greece by Sophie Padel-Imbaud. 2004.

- Competition in ancient Greece: Agon. Genealogy, evolution, interpretation of Marc Durand. L'Harmattan, 2000.

- The ancient Olympic Games: Pugilat, Orthepale, Pancrace de. Brice Lopez. Budo Editions, 2010.

For further

- The ancient Olympic games on the official Olympic Games website

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