The Olympics in the Greek Era

ne difference between the ancient and modern Olympic Games is that the ancient games were played within the context of a religious festival.

One of the more intriguing true stories about ancient Greece and the Olympics of ancient Greece would have to be that during the Olympic Games, all fighting stopped. No matter how long or how fierce a battle had raged, every soldier in the battlefield put down his weapons and travelled to Olympia, there they would compete in athletic games designed to honour Zeus and the other Greek gods. The festival and the games were held in Olympia, a rural sanctuary site in the western Peloponnesus a village in a sacred valley, approximately 500km south west of Mount Olympus. For seven days before and seven days after (and for the period of the Games, of course), no fighting was allowed. It was considered as a highly disrespectful gesture towards the beloved gods of Greece. The many soldiers whom were to compete in the games were also guaranteed safe travel to and from the battlefields to the Olympic Games without fear of being attacked by anyone. An international truce among the Greeks was declared for the month before the Olympics to allow the athletes to reach Olympia safely. The judges had the authority to fine whole cities and ban their athletes from competition for breaking this truce. This happened for several reasons one of the most important being that the Olympic Games were a religious festival. The Greeks considered it their duty to attend, and their duty to their gods was more important than duty to their city-states, where they were fighting the wars for in the first place. People who were not Greek could not compete in the Games, but Greek athletes who did compete travelled hundreds of miles, from colonies of the Greek city-states. These colonies were as far away as modern-day Spain, Italy, Libya, Egypt, the Ukraine, and Turkey. Many of the best athletes were soldiers whose commanders would not want them to leave the fighting. With the truce in place and the fighting halted, these soldier-athletes were free to compete in the Games and then return to the fighting when the Games had finished. Some of the best athletes were not skilled fighters and weren’t part of the army or navy. Since war was so much a part of life in ancient Greece, victorious soldiers came to be heroes for their city-states and role models for the young. Having the Olympic Games and showcasing the athletic talents of men who were not soldiers allowed city-states to celebrate heroes and role models who might not be the best fighters. The athletes competed for themselves, not their city-states. In this way, they could be celebrated for their own accomplishments and not honoured as only representatives of their city-states. This was another way in which the Olympic Games shifted in emphasis away from the city-state. If Demetrius of Corinth won the running race, then he was celebrated as Demetrius and not Demetrius of Corinth. This was to make sure that battlefield prejudices didn’t spill onto the Olympic athletic fields.
The ancient Olympic Games were primarily a part of a religious festival in honour of Zeus, the father of the Greek gods and goddesses. The Ancient Olympic Games were held as a religious, sporting and cultural festival. The Ancient Greeks believed that both the body and mind needed discipline and that those who practised this discipline could best honour Zeus. A sacrifice of 100 oxen was made to the god on the middle day of the festival. Athletes prayed to the gods for victory, and made gifts of animals, produce, or small cakes, in thanks for their successes. The innumerable offerings of the 7th-6th centuries B.C. were placed outside on trees, altars or in alcoves of the sanctuary. The most important of the offerings were bronze tripods and cauldrons of excellent quality, war loot (hanging on poles) and other art objects and instruments for the games. According to legend, the altar of Zeus stood on a spot struck by a thunderbolt, which had been hurled by the god from his throne high atop Mount Olympus, where the gods assembled.
Olympia was one of the oldest religious centres in the ancient Greek world. Since athletic contests were one way that the ancient Greeks honoured their gods, it was logical to hold a returning athletic competition at the site of a major temple. The Greeks that came to the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia shared the same religious beliefs and spoke the same language. The athletes were all male citizens of the city-states from every corner of the Greek world, coming from as far away as Iberia (Spain) in the west and the Black Sea (Turkey) in the east.
The sanctuary was named in antiquity after Mt. Olympus, the highest mountain in mainland Greece. In Greek mythology, Mt. Olympus was the home of the greatest of the Greek gods and goddesses.
The ancient Olympic Games began in the year 776 BC, when Koroibos, a cook from the nearby city of Elis, won the stadium race, a foot race 600 feet long. According to some literary traditions, this was the only athletic event of the games for the first 13 Olympic festivals or until 724 BC. From 776 BC, the Games were held in Olympia every four years for almost 12 centuries. Contrary evidence, both literary and archaeological, suggests that the games may have existed at Olympia much earlier than this date, perhaps as early as the 10th or 9th century BC. Preparation of a basic plan for a conservation program and for presentation of the archaeological site is also underway in view of an increasing number of tourists. The systematic publication of the excavation results is ongoing. The excavations at Olympia begun in May 1829. This took place two years after the battle of Navarino, by French archaeologists.
The finds (metopes from the opisthodomus and parts of the metopes from the pronaos of the Temple of Zeus) were transferred to the Louvre where they are still being exhibited. When the Greek government were informed of the looting of artefacts, the excavation was stopped. Excavations started again 45 years later by German archaeologists. The research is being continued to this day by the German Institute of Archaeology in Athens, and the Ephorate of Antiquities in Olympia.

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