The Ancient Olympic Games
In the twentieth century, the Olympic Games became one of the many cash shows and means of national propaganda. They bring the desired rate of adrenaline into the stagnant life of oversaturated spectators featuring doping scandals, as well as unfair rewards and penalties cases. However, at the dawn of its existence, the Olympic Games were fundamentally different in their meaning and values. They were a complex ritual and sports event aimed at the religious and cultural unification of Greece.
The paper focuses on the analysis and review of the book The Ancient Olympic Games by Judith Swaddling. It explores the origin, rules and regulations, political, religious, socio-cultural implications, and the death and rebirth of the ancient sports competition.
The Origin of the Olympic Games
The Olympic Games were the oldest and most popular sporting events in ancient Greece. The first historical fact related to the Olympics was their organization by the king Aphid of Elis and legislator of Sparta, Lycurgus. The two invented a reasonable way out of the endless wars and contributed to the unification through a sound contest. The names of the rulers were inscribed on the disk kept in the temple of Hera in Olympia at the times of Pausanias. Since then, the interval between successive games was four years or Olympiad. The chronological era in the history of Greece was adopted in 776 BC (Swaddling 7).
The games were part of the festivities dedicated to Zeus. However, some evidence traces the origin of the Olympics to another cult of sports games in honor of Pelops. He was the son of the notorious Tantalus, who burned in Hell. The childhood of Pelops was marked with his horrible death and miraculous revival. Many legends praise the labors of Heracles. They all adhered to the idea of a peaceful contest, fair competition, and withdrawal from the war (Swaddling 8).
During the Olympic Games, it was impossible to wage war not only in Elis but also in other parts of Greece. Today, there are doubts on the kinds of sports, in which the athletes competed. The most common version states that, at the beginning, the only sport was running, but with time, chariot racing and wrestling were added.
Starting from 660 BC, in 30 games, all inhabitants of mainland Greece were admitted to the competitions. Moreover, in 10 games (40 years), athletes from all Greek colonies were allowed to compete in the Olympics. The Games won wide popularity; therefore, the winners could count on the generous prize, honor, and national fame. (Swaddling 27)
Prize-Giving and Celebrations
At that time, sports were aristocratic entertainment, because mainly representatives of the nobility attended the competitions. The contests took place occasionally; there was no special place for the competition, and there was neither a system of rules nor institutions of judges. All competitors received prizes even if they did not win (Swaddling 92).
In the Homeric period, the contests were held at the behest of a king or a nobleman. Later on, people started organizing competitions to praise gods, in areas associated with miracles. For example, the Pythian Games held in Delphi, were dedicated to Apollo. According to a legend, after his victory over the giant dragon Python, he established a musical competition and added poetic, athletic, and equestrian contests with time (Swaddling 92).
Each year, the large-scale religious events took place in Greece. Most of them were considered public holidays. They were meetings in certain places of worship dedicated to a god, which were accompanied by sacrifices and games. “They were called panegyric games. Olympic Games were considered the main and most important of all panegyrics since Olympia were a sanctuary of Zeus, and consequently all the other religious centers of Hellas tacitly obeyed it” (Swaddling 92). The participation in the Olympic Games guaranteed a lifelong fame and celebrity.
Records and Regulations
It is obvious that the contest enjoying so much popularity could not do without some specially designed rules and conditions for their implementation. The long history of the Games certainly contributed to the creation of many regulations.
The Olympics took place every four years under the first full moon after the summer sun turn. It usually happened in late July or early August. At the end of spring, the messengers, who were appointed by a special committee, went to all the accessible lands to announce the upcoming Olympics. “The citizens of the area of Elis elected ten people to be administrators and judges of games since 572 BC” (Swaddling 39). There were harsh conditions of the Olympics, which implied no fighting and no death penalty. The truce had lasted for two months; its violation was punished with a large fine. For example, in 420 BC, the independent Spartans were in Elis hostilities involving thousands of hoplites, for which they were fined with up to 200 drachmas for each soldier. If they refused to pay, they were banned from participating in the Games (Swaddling 39).
Before participating and performing at the Olympic Games, all who wanted to take part in the competition had to prove to the agonothetes by giving an oath in front of the statue of Zeus that they had been training for 10 months prior to the contest. All the participants and coaches who wanted to compete had to swear that they were not guilty of any crime. 30 days before the beginning of the contest, everyone had to show a pre-match of his art before judges in the Olympic Gymnasium.
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The coached athletes came to Olympia over a year for a month; they participated in the qualifying events and continued training in a special gymnasium. They had access to colonnaded courtyard surrounded with paths to God, the platforms for throwing, wrestling; they lived in special apartments for participants.
The application for taking part and watching the games were also regulated by special rules. “From 776 to 632 years BC the right to compete at the Olympics had only free citizens of Greek city-states, no older than a certain age and not suspected of having committed a crime or sacrilege” (Swaddling 52). Later on, the Romans started participating in the contest under the condition they could confirm via cleverly compiled genealogies that they were purebred descendants of the Greeks. The 37th Olympics of 632 BC introduced the competition between boys. The barbarians and slaves could participate only as spectators and only under the supervision of their masters. Women had no right to attend the competition, and those, who violated the rule, were thrown from the mountain (Swaddling 53).
The Value of the Olympic Games
The Olympic Games were the unifying center of the Hellenic world. The Olympics helped those, who came from distant places of Greece, maintain the contact with the mother country. Many Greek cities participated at the Olympic Games or constructed Temples for Olympian Zeus (Athens, Chalcedon, Syracuse, and others).
“Olympia gathered artists and poets of the 50th Olympiad and established custom to read literary works and recite poems during the days of celebration” (Swaddling 66). After the return from the East, Herodotus read the chapter of his History. Olympia was the place where Socrates held his conversation. He went there by foot from Athens. Plato, Empedocles, Sophocles, Isocrates, Demosthenes, and others presented their creative philosophic works at the time of that popular sports event (Swaddling 67). During the Olympics, the Greek state announced signing of important contracts. State officials fastened their vows at the altars of the gods and notified all Greece about some important changes.
The Olympic Games developed a code of rules, a clear scale of values that created the image of kalos kagathos, literally a perfectly good man (Swaddling 67). It was the ideal of a fully developed human being with beautiful body and soul. This man could compete with the gods. The image of a perfect man inspired sculptors and writers of antiquity. In the fine art, an example of such perfection is Polycleitus statue depicting a young spear bearer.
Politics, Scandals, and Propaganda
When in the IV century BC, the endless internal wars, feuds, and betrayals began, the Greeks started applying to religion as the strongest means of influencing the opponent. “Delphic oracle worked almost to order, faith lost purity, clarity and meaning, it could not affect on the games” (Swaddling 96). Now, only professional wrestlers, who no longer believed in the help of the gods, but relied on their strength and cunning, participated in the Olympics. Money prizes were introduced; whereas, in the classical age a laurel wreath symbolized the highest honor and advantage, which an athlete could gain with the victory. Perpetual scandals and propaganda led to deep disappointment and disbelief in the peacemaking power of the Olympic Games (Swaddling 97)
Death and Rebirth
By the end of the millennium, it happened that the games had no funds and lost their prior cultural and religious significance. King Herod, who visited Olympia in 12-8 years BC, admired the very idea of such competitions. Learning that the sanctuary had not enough money, he established a special cash fund for the games. Despite frequent handouts from the flighty nobles, Olympia languished.
In several centuries, the Christians came there, plundered the treasury, and destroyed all that they could not carry out. The famous statue of Zeus by Phidias, one of the world wonders, was among the destroyed. Then, barbarians invaded the land. Numerous floods and earthquakes added to the damage.
The Olympics were banned as a pagan event in the 1st year of 293rd Olympics (394AD) by the Christian Emperor Theodosius. The Games again revived only in April 1896 at the initiative of Pierre de Coubertin; Athens hosted the first Olympic Games, which marked the beginning of the modern Olympic movement (Swaddling 100).
The book impressed me with the description of preparations to the Olympic Games at ancient times and location of sports establishments close to the places of sacrilege. It was instructive to read about the site and the sports complex of the gymnasium, and to trace the witnesses of the Olympic Games glory on the numerous pictures of the items of Ancient Greek art. Judith Swaddling studies both the religious and cult origin of the contest and underlines the importance of the ceremony rituals for the noble and ordinary people. The glory of the games had attracted people of Greece for more than a millennium; its death symbolized the decay of the Empire and highly developed cult of perfection. The Olympics have demonstrated and proved the saying that the sound mind in a sound body and sport can greatly contribute to both physiological and spiritual development and growth of a human civilization.