August 24, 2000
It's been 104 years since the first of the modern Olympics were held. As the Olympic Games moves into Y2K, it will no doubt be one of the most spectacular ever staged, if news from Sydney is anything to go by. But, it is interesting to go back in time and look at the first Olympics, which were quite a different type of competition altogether.
Although historians and archeologists are not totally in agreement, they do believe that the Games were first held between 1253 and 884 BCE and ran for about 1200 years. The origin of the Games too is unclear and there are several competing legends. However, it takes its name from Olympia in Elis, Greece.
Greek mythology gives the Games' origin in a religious tinge. It started around 1370 BCE with men racing for the honour of lighting the sacrificial fire at the altar of Rhea, the mother of the Gods. This was a race of about 185 meters. Another legend has it that Heracles instituted the Olympics around 1253 BCE as a celebration of his victory over Augeus, King of Elis.
There are several similar legends and none of them are verifiable. However, the first recorded Olympics were in 776 BCE. The first ever winner was Elian Koreobos of Elis, who won the stadium race of 170 metres. For the next 52 years, this race was the only official event.
The next two races were the 'diaulus' (370 metres) and the 'dolichus' (4400 metres). Wrestling and the pentathlon were added in 700 BCE. Boxing and chariot races were added in 688 BCE. All of this increased the appeal of the Games and it soon increased from one morning to five days, two of which were set aside for religious ceremonies. It gained a more global appeal as well with participants arriving from Italy, Spain, France, Africa and Asia Minor. In those early days, athletes competed naked, women were not allowed to watch and the prizes were olive branches.
The trials occurred in a gymnasium known as the 'palaestra', which was about 250 square feet with a sand floor. Here, the athletes practiced for a month preceding the Games and were supervised by trainers and judges. The judges would then select only those whom they felt had the potential to perform in accordance with the tradition and standards of an Olympiad.
Huge crowds would gather for the Games and some of the distinguished guests included Plato, Socrates and Chilon of Sparta. The tremendous physiques and abilities of the competitors aroused the imaginations and creative talents of artists, poets, sculptors and writers. With the Games losing their religious significance around 490-420 BCE, they became a wonderful celebration of athleticism and the arts.
Though the Olympics were amateur competitions, the participants had their expenses paid for and winners were rewarded handsomely, often for life. Glory too was a big force of motivation. The standing that came with being a victor was such that towns would often offer huge sums of money to have Olympiad winners visit their local games.
With such a lot of money in circulation, it was inevitable that corruption would become rampant. However, there are no records of any practices such as the fixing of events at the actual Games themselves. It was money that eventually caused the decline of the Games with the amateur vs. professional dispute getting so heated that it led to the suspension of the Olympics.
The Macedonians, a warlike people, gained ascendancy and they weren't interested in the peaceful nature of the games. Then the Romans came onto the scene and they converted the stadium into an amphitheater, where slaves were pitted against wild animals and gladiators dueled to the death.
However, it was not these that caused the declining success and popularity of the Games so much as the austere habits of the early Christians. In 393 CE, Thedosius the Great, a Christian Emperor, prohibited the continuance of the Olympics. At that point, the Games had been conducted 320 times.
After that, the village of Olympia was plundered looted several times. Following this, it suffered natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, all of which served to totally destroy the place and spirit it contained. This was revived finally in 1896 with the staging of the first Modern Olympics in Athens.
Mail Sports Editor
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