Athletics was one of the most distinctive and long-lasting features of ancient Greek culture. From the beginning of recorded history until the late A.D. 300s, athletics flourished throughout the Greek world. Athletic excellence contributed to the Greek concept of the ideal man, who was muscular, strong, and fit.
“Athletics” comes from the Greek word athlos, meaning contest or competition for a prize. For the Greeks, the concept of athletics did not include team sports or games played for fun or recreation. An athletic event was a serious matter—a contest in which individuals struggled against their opponents, each hoping to prove himself the best at a given activity.
The fullest display of athletics was at the Greek games, great festivals held at regular intervals in various parts of Greece. Both athletes and musicians competed for prizes. The games had considerable economic, political, and cultural importance. They brought together large groups of people, both competitors and spectators, who purchased housing, food, and entertainment during the festival. The games often involved much rivalry between city-states*, and states whose athletes won at the games gained status. Finally, the games helped to unify the widely scattered Greek communities, strengthening shared beliefs and interests.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
Origins of the Greek Games. The origins of the Greek games are lost in prehistory. One source was probably the funeral games, ancient traditional events in which warriors honored a dead hero or leader by performing athletic feats, such as footraces and wrestling matches. Homer described funeral games in the epic poem the Iliad, and descriptions of athletic competitions—at funerals and on other occasions—appear in many other works of early Greek literature and history.
The Greeks prized physical prowess and athletics. The Olympic Games—a Greek creation—and other competitions fostered a spirit of competition while bringing together the separate Greek city-states in celebration of their common culture. The discus throw shown here was part of track-and-field competitions, just as it is today.
By the 700s B.C., games had become linked with religious festivals. In competing to demonstrate their excellence, the athletes honored the gods. The earliest known festival games were held to honor Zeus, father of the gods. They took place at Olympia and were called the Olympic Games.Most ancient Greek historians claim that the Olympic Games first occurred in 776 B.C., after which they took place every four years.
Between 582 and 566 B.C., the Greeks launched three other large games: the Pythian Games held at Delphi in honor of Apollo; the Isthmian Games held at Corinth, near the crossroads between Attica and the Peloponnese, in honor of Poseidon; and the Nemean Games held at Nemea, in the northern Peloponnese, in honor of Zeus. Each of these games occurred every two or four years. Athletes who were victorious at all four of the major games in a four-year period won special titles and honors. In addition, beginning in the early 500s B.C., Athens and many other communities held smaller, less prominent games.
Events of the Games. Runners competed in short, middle-distance, and long footraces. The length of the courses varied from place to place. At Olympia, the short race covered 210 yards, and the long races were probably no more than several miles long. Some games included an event borrowed from military training: a race for runners wearing armor. Wrestling came close to being a universal sport for the men of ancient Greece. Many who never competed in the games wrestled in their local gymnasia. Greek wrestling was a system of holds and throws in which wrestlers used balance and strength to throw their opponents to the ground. Wrestling was a major spectator event at the games.
The games also included boxing matches, events in which fighters wearing leather gloves threw punches at one another’s heads. There was also the pancration, an event whose name means “any form of power.” It was a fight that combined elements of wrestling, boxing, and all-out brawling. All moves, except eye-gouging and biting, were allowed. Tough, crafty fighters sometimes defeated much larger and stronger men in the pancration.
Field events at the Greek games included the long jump, the discus throw, and the javelin throw. Discus throwers competed to see who could throw a bronze or stone disk the greatest distance. Javelin throwers hurled a spear, also competing for distance. Throughout most of Greek history, the long jump, the discus throw, and the javelin throw were combined with special short footraces and wrestling matches to form a five-part event called the pentathlon.
Horse races were part of most games. Jockeys rode horses in mounted races. In the chariot race, one of the most spectacular events of the ancient world, teams of four horses pulled chariots. The winners of these events were the horses’ owners, not the riders or charioteers.
Several ancient meets, including the Pythian Games, also featured musical competitions. Individuals competed for prizes in flute playing or in singing to the music of the kithara, a stringed instrument. Poets who composed odes* to honor the games’ victors made a significant contribution to Greek literature. Victory odes written by Pindar reflect how the Greeks viewed the games as opportunities for humans to achieve brief moments of glory with the help and favor of the gods.
The Competitors. For the first century of the Olympic Games, most competitors were from Sparta and other city-states near Olympia. By 600 B.C., athletes came to the games from Athens and other more distant city-states, as well as from Greek colonies in Italy, Sicily, and western Asia Minor. The Olympics had become panhellenic, meaning that they belonged to the entire Greek-speaking world. During many centuries, athletes from Greek settlements in Italy, Egypt, and Asia Minor dominated the Olympic Games.
For most of ancient Greek history, the major games were limited to male contestants. At some games, men and boys competed in separate divisions. Other games had three divisions for boys, young men, and mature men. Girls or women may have competed in local footraces early in Greek history, but not until sometime around A.D. 50 did the major games include women’s short-distance footraces. There is no evidence that women competed in the other events, although women owned some of the winning horses and chariot teams.
The Olympics and the other major festivals rewarded winners with wreaths and honor but not with money. Other festivals, however, showered winning athletes with large cash prizes. In addition, many cities rewarded their athletes for winning events at the major games. In the early 500s B.C.,for example, the city of Athens gave winning Athenian athletes at Olympia cash prizes equal to 14 years’ wages for a laborer. A successful athlete could become wealthy in ancient Greece.
Outstanding athletes were honored across the Greek world. Poets praised their triumphs; sculptors made statues of them. Some athletes even became the objects of long-lasting worship by religious groups in their hometowns. The games remained a central, well-organized part of Greek life and culture for more than a thousand years, but they ended once Christianity came to dominate the Mediterranean. Pagan* festivals and athletics had no place in the Christian scheme of things. In A.D. 393, Theodosius I banned the Olympic Games. (See also Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Games, Roman.)
* ode lyric poem often addressed to a person or an object
* pagan referring to a belief in more than one god; non-Christian
STRONG MAN OF CROTON
No athlete impressed the Greek public more than Milo, a wrestler from Croton in southern Italy, who lived in the late 500s B.C. Milo won all four of the major games five or six times. Greeks told stories about Milo's strength for centuries after his death—stories that became more and more exaggerated. It was said that he could stand on a greased discus and that no one could push him off, that he could snap headbands with his forehead muscles, and that his appetite was so huge that he ate a whole bull in one meal. Legends aside, Milo's victories at so many games, and over such a long period of time, are enough to have earned him a place of honor in the history of athletics.