The Olympics: From Ancient Greece to the World

The Olympic Games were the most characteristic expression of the competitive spirit of the ancient Greeks, who could never have imagined that they were making a unique mark on human civilization.


Whenever we speak of ancient Greece and the achievements of their civilization, we inevitably find ourselves asking the question “Why the Greeks?” What was it that led this numerically small people of the Mediterranean to emerge first from the Archaic stage, in which all other ancient peoples were at a standstill, and strive towards the accomplishments of the Classical period?

To explain the singularity of ancient Greek civilization, Greek-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis identifies something that no other people had at the time as the baseline value of the ancient Greeks: the capacity to question. That is to say, while the predominant values of other peoples could be summed up in the view that “we must hand down to our children the world we inherited from our forefathers,” the ancient Greeks were the first to challenge this perception, by submitting to judgment those ideologies and convictions that had been passed on to them. According to Castoriadis, this is the common starting point for philosophy and democracy.

But such questioning at the time, unlike today, was far from the norm; it could not have appeared on its own, as it presupposes an inner tendency of people to wish to surpass certain limits. And this disposition for transcendence goes hand-in-hand with the element of competition: the desire to be tested, to confront, change, overturn and improve. In such a context, extrapolating the thoughts of Castoriadis, one could say that a key concept for understanding and explaining ancient Greek civilization is the idea of agon (struggle, contest, competition).

Thus, questioning and agon were part of a single viewpoint, an overall life stance, which pervaded all manifestations of ancient Greek life, permeated all activities and was the driving force behind all expression of culture. In ancient Greek society, the concept of agon underlay the view that anything can be achieved as the result of effort, healthy rivalry and noble competition.

The most characteristic expression of this competitive spirit was athletics and the Olympic Games, which for the first time in history assumed such dimensions. For athletics, of course, had not first been conceived by the Greeks. Sport had existed in all early societies as an unconscious drive for competition with nature – as expressed, for example, by hunters running to keep up with fast-moving animals, hitting them with weapons from a distance, or fighting them with their bare hands to capture them.

“One of the key concepts for understanding and explaining ancient Greek civilization is the idea of agon: it means struggle, contest, competition.”

“All prehistoric peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean had athletic interests and activities, but the Greeks were the first to elevate them to a way of life and invest them with more substantial parameters.”

As societies developed and early politico-economic systems emerged in Egypt and the Near East, athletics was placed at the service of royal powers. All the prehistoric peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean had athletic interests and activities, but the Greeks were the first to elevate them to a way of life and invest them with more substantial parameters.

Below, we shall consider how the concept of athletic competition developed; the forms it took in parallel with the development of the ancient world; and how agon constituted a key component in the ideology and practices of ancient Greek society, adopting from time to time a different ideological mantle.

In Minoan Crete and mainland Mycenaean Greece of the 2nd millennium BC, when evidence first exists for athletic activity in Greek territory, athletics served the recreational needs of the elite of the centralized palace system. It is believed that bull leaping, wrestling and chariot racing events took place in the palace courtyards or somewhere nearby, in the framework of celebrations to mark some important exceptional occurrence, such as a military victory or the birth of an heir to the throne. 

Modern researchers suggest that many of these competitive events can be categorized as rites of passage, i.e. tasks that young males had to successfully complete in order to prove to their community that they had become men and were fit to join its higher ranks of mature members. In early societies, a person’s development was not just a matter of biological age; it also involved the need to demonstrate physical, and very often mental, maturation.

In the following period, so-called early historic times (roughly from the 10th to the 8th c. BC), one can discern two new parameters of athletic contests in the main Helladic region. The first, seen for the first time in Homer, is the holding of games in honor of a recently deceased dignitary, as a complement to the elaborate burial ceremonies. The most characteristic example is the games organized by Achilles in honor of his dear dead friend, Patroclus, which Homer describes in detail in 640 verses in Book XXIII of The Iliad (vs. 257-897).

 In the same period, specifically in 776 BC according to ancient tradition, games were held for the first time at the sanctuary of Olympia, namely athletic activities in the framework of divine worship. Both of these phenomena, which mark the beginning of athletic contests in ancient Greece, involve respect for and paying homage to the gods and the deceased, which are basic components of ancient Greek ideology.

At the sanctuary of Olympia, we see for the first time the staging of the Games at regular periods, with a specific organization, a clearly defined program and elements that gave the activity an institutional character. The institutionalization of the Games was the most important development in the history of athletics, for this is how the Olympics were first established.

During this still-early period, members of the ruling class from the larger region would congregate at Olympia at regular intervals, not only to perform their religious duties, but also to use the games as an opportunity to make a show of force and engage in social and political competition. From very early on, it could be said that one’s presence at Olympia, participation in the religious and votive practices, and victory in the Games, were means of gaining prestige and constituted prerequisites for exercising any kind of authority.

As the influence of the sanctuary gradually grew, this aspect became even more important. The emergence of the city-state and the spread of the Greeks through colonization were accompanied by the corresponding growth and greater organization of athletic activities at Olympia, with the sanctuary and its Games eventually transcending their local, Peloponnesian identity and becoming a center for the entire Greek-speaking world.

“The institutionalization of the Games was the most important development in the history of athletics, for this is how the Olympics were first established.”

“One’s presence at Olympia, participation in the religious and votive practices, and victory in the games, were means of gaining prestige and constituted prerequisites for exercising any kind of authority.”

 The great flourishing of the Games during the Archaic period (7th-6th century BC) was due, to a large extent, to the intensely competitive perceptions of that era; first of all, to the aristocratic ideology of the ruling class, as summed up by the exhortation “always strive for excellence and prevail over others.” This competitive spirit is also evident in the intense rivalry that existed among the various city-states, each striving to prevail over the other through constant clashes. It was also reflected in the organization and development of great panhellenic festivals at three other sanctuaries: Delphi, Isthmia and Nemea. Now, Olympia and its games were being used to strengthen the ethnic identity of the new city-states while also contributing to the consolidation of their social hierarchy and socio-political structures.

At the same time, the panhellenic games were a means of reinforcing the Greeks’ collective ethnic identity. A prerequisite for participation, according to Herodotus, was an athlete’s ability to prove his Greek descent. Consequently, anyone competing underlined and substantiated his Greek origins. As it has been said most aptly in this respect, “going to Olympia meant in one sense that you were Greek.” Thus, the Games were used as a basic means of distinguishing Greeks from barbarians; and for stressing the “Greekness” of the former, particularly by colonists, who often lived in a more culturally diverse environment, threatened by foreign neighbors.

In the Classical period (5th-4th century BC) athletic contests became more democratic, mirroring political and social developments of the time. Not only were ordinary citizens given the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of athletics, but it also served as the basis for military and political training of young men in most city-states. Nothing expresses more vividly the democratic ideology of athletics and the Games than the words of a prominent aristocrat, Solon: “We oblige them to exercise the body, not only with a view to the games, that they might take the prizes – for this is something only very few will achieve – but because we anticipate much greater benefit for the city and for the young people themselves.” 

The aim of becoming a fine man, i.e. a physically attractive, brave and virtuous citizen, characterized the era and its achievements. The spirit of competition and healthy rivalry went hand-in-hand with another conviction of the Classical-period Greeks, namely that the purpose of every action should be the improvement and progress of society as a whole.

Victories at the Olympic Games also played an important political and social role. A victory and the glory it brought – sufficient for a member of society to gain social recognition and become a leading figure – served as a springboard for a political career. In addition, the pride felt by the victor’s fellow citizens helped consolidate their unity and reinforced their political and social identity. This was particularly important given the sharp antagonism that persisted among Greek city-states, exemplified by the rivalry between Athens and Sparta.

Even after the Greek city-states had lost their autonomy and become part of great empires, the Games were so deeply embedded in the Greek psyche that they constituted a powerful political weapon. Alexander the Great encouraged athletic events in all the regions he conquered, making athletics one of the main vehicles for the spread of Greek culture. He took 3,000 athletes on his campaign and in many places organized games with rich prizes, at the same time constructing the necessary infrastructure. These games served as a point of contact and unity for all peoples. Moreover, the gymnasia disseminated Greek culture throughout the East, while giving the Greeks living there the opportunity to bolster their Greek identity.

“Even after the Greek city-states had lost their autonomy and become part of great empires, the Games were so deeply embedded in the Greek psyche that they constituted a powerful political weapon.”

The Hellenistic gymnasium discovered by French archaeologists in the 1960s at Ai-Khanoum in present-day Afghanistan – identified as the ancient city of “Alexandria on the Oxus,” on the banks of Oxus River (today’s Amu Darya) – was undoubtedly a result of Alexander’s impact. Unfortunately, the remains of this particular gymnasium were destroyed during the constant conflicts of recent years in the region, resulting in the loss of an important testament to the role and effects of Alexander’s policy in the East.

The Games, as well as Olympia’s role as a political center of Greece, did not change even after the Roman conquest. The old institutions were strengthened to once again become political tools. A number of emperors promoted the Games, realizing that one of the best ways to control the various peoples of their vast empire was to preserve and develop preexisting institutions of a unifying nature.

A decisive moment for the Games and their political role came in AD 212, when all freemen in the empire became entitled to Roman citizenship. This enabled all the great athletes of the Mediterranean to compete at Olympia and at the other panhellenic games, resulting in victors who were not only Greek and Roman, but also from Spain, Africa, Armenia and Galatia. So, the first post-Christian centuries were the period with the greatest growth of the Olympic Games in terms of geographical reach, as they took on another important characteristic – universality.

But the Greeks of Greece proper at the time also preserved the Olympic Games as a link with their glorious past and ancestral values. They were fully aware that both they themselves and their history had been shaped by the competitive spirit. They could never have imagined, however, what we know today: that through athletics and the competitive spirit that pervaded every aspect of their life, both public and private, they succeeded with their ideas and accomplishments in putting their unique stamp on the history of mankind.

“A number of Rome’s emperors promoted the Games, realizing that one of the best ways to control the various peoples of their vast empire was to preserve and develop preexisting institutions of a unifying nature.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Panos Valavanis is a professor at the Department of History and Archaeology at Athens University. He has participated in numerous excavations and is the author of 12 books, including Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece (Getty Publications, 2004), Great Moments in Greek Archaeology (Ed., Getty Publications, 2007) and Τhe Acropolis through its Museum (Athens, 2013).



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