One summer afternoon in the fifth century B.C. a naked youth stood reverently in the temple of Zeus at Olympia and received on his head an olive wreath in token of his victory in the ancient Olympic Games. Among scores of young athletes who had convened from all the Greek world to compete in the five-day festival, he was one of a mere handful who had emerged triumphant. Now his whole life had been changed. His name would be listed forever in the annals of Olympic winners which the Greeks had preserved for 300 years and would maintain for 800 years more. His exploit would be celebrated in poetry and song. His lithe body would be perpetuated in marble by a state sculptor. He would return to his native city over flower-strewn roads and there be honored as long as he lived.
No people anywhere, any time, ever glorified their athletic champions so ecstatically as the ancient Greeks. When an Olympic victor named Diagoras of Rhodes received his olive wreath a friend said to him, "Die, Diagoras, for thou hast nothing short of divinity to desire." The historian Thucydides, in describing a reception given a homecoming general, wrote that crowds flocked about him and decked him with garlands "as though he were an athlete."
The Greek adulation of physical prowess had a practical, underlying basis. For in warfare, which flared frequently among the jealous city states of that age, the survival of the individual soldier depended on his strength, skill and endurance in hand-to-hand combat. Where the commanders of modern, mechanized armies attain rank through mental ability, the military leaders of antiquity were necessarily athletes as well. Yet the exigencies of war did not provide the whole rationale of the Greek attitude toward sports. There was also an esthetic element involved. The Greeks greatly admired the human body, and the exquisite precision with which their painters and sculptors portrayed athletes in competition (like the Discobolus, see cover) reflected not only knowledge of anatomy but a profound appreciation of grace and style in action. Finally, within their philosophy they cherished a concept called arete, meaning excellence—in every department of life: moral, intellectual and physical. They believed in cultivating the whole man, and arete was the undergirding ideal and thesis of the ancient Olympic Games.
The origins of the Games are lost in a web of conflicting myths. One account, set forth by the poet Pindar, relates that the mighty hero, Herakles, after conquering the Peloponnesian state of Elis, erected a temple to Zeus in the nearby vale of Olympia and instituted the first Games as a thank offering to his divine benefactor. According to the legend he marked out the length of the original Olympic stadium—210 yards—by placing heel to toe 600 times. (Herakles' foot thus spanned 12.77 inches, a unit of length which remained the Olympian foot measure ever after.) In any event, athletic contests were held regularly at Olympia from the very dawn of Hellenic civilization. Although no one knows precisely when they started, passages in both the Iliad and the Odyssey reveal that such sports as foot racing, discus throwing and boxing and wrestling were features of Greek life prior to the ninth century B.C.
The actual history of the Olympic Games begins in 776 B.C., when the names of individual victors were first systematically inscribed. The initial name in the long line of Olympic champions was that of an Eleian named Coroebos who won the 200-yard dash. For nearly 12 centuries thereafter the records continue virtually unbroken, revealing how the Olympiad grew from a local festival with local contestants into a great Panhellenic national and religious celebration drawing athletes from the farthest reaches of the Greek world, from Gibraltar to the Black Sea and from the Dardanelles to the Nile. Surviving the Roman conquest, the Games continued until 394 A.D. when, at the start of the 293rd Olympiad, they were abolished by the decree of the Christian Emperor Theodosius. The last champion cited in the ancient lists was Varastades, an Armenian boxer; his name terminated the Olympic records for 15 centuries—until 1896 when the Games were revived.
Although they stand today as a symbol of international competition, in ancient times the Olympiads were open only to freeborn Greeks. Weeks before the Games began the contestants were required to arrive at Elis for a preliminary screening by the Hellanodikai—a 10-man panel of judges—who examined them with respect to their parentage, their character and their physical endowments and skills. Those who qualified then had to undergo a final month of rigorous training under the Hellanodikai's critical surveillance.
During this time the landscape of Olympia became transformed. One of the loveliest valleys in Greece, engirded with wooded hills and watered by the Alpheus and Kladeos rivers, it had been embellished over the centuries with temples, shrines, altars, monuments and a forest of statues in gold, marble and bronze, some dedicated to the gods, some to former Olympic champions. As the opening of the Games approached, spectators began converging by river and road—the elite of Hellas, city kings and envoys, appareled in purple and gold, riding in gilded chariots; philosophers, horse traders, merchants and peddlers; and humble fisherfolk and peasants. From a tranquil, bucolic shrine Olympia expanded swiftly into a teeming temporary metropolis with something of the aspect of a state fair, dotted with tents, stalls and booths from which vendors dispensed art objects, votive offerings and food and wine. Acrobats and conjurors performed. Poets wrote odes on order. Artists executed swift sketches. Every facet of the Greek population was represented, with one exception. There were no women for, save for a single priestess of Demeter, women were excluded from the Olympic spectacle.
On the opening morning of a typical Olympiad in the golden age of Pericles—for example, the LXXXII Olympiad in 452 B.C. during the era following the Persian Wars—the festival began with a splendid procession down the sacred road from Elis to Olympia, led by the 10 Hellanodikai wearing golden wreaths, followed by the local officials of Elis, the athletes and their relatives and special partisans and, in the rear, great herds of sheep and oxen allocated for sacrifice to the gods. The first day was traditionally one of religious rites. As many as 100 oxen, sheep, bulls and swine died on the altars of Zeus and other deities. Then, with their hands in the consecrated blood, the Hellanodikai took an oath to judge the Games impartially and the athletes swore that they had trained faithfully and would compete without fraud or guile.
The second day was devoted to contests for boys—the "beardless ones"—providing a preview, as it were, of future talent. It was on the morning of the third day, however, that the Games truly began. By dawn the stadium was filled with a capacity crowd of perhaps 40,000. It consisted simply of a rectangular enclosure formed by four grass-covered, tiered embankments on which the spectators squatted or reclined as they chose. The running track was also rectangular, 210 yards long, 30 yards across, and delineated by a low, stone sill. Marble and gold pylons marked the finish line at either end. Soon after sunrise the Hellanodikai entered the stadium through a tunnel in the northeast corner and took their places on wooden stools. Behind them came the first athletes: foot racers, slender, muscular and stark naked—devoid even of loincloths—for the Greeks valued the whole body and regarded aversion to nudity as a barbarian trait.
They proceeded to anoint themselves with oil to impart a sense of flexibility to their skin and muscles. Then, glistening in the early morning sunlight, they drew lots from a helmet for the first heat of the first race—the stade, a 200-yard dash down the straightaway to the far end of the stadium. After the drawing four runners walked toward the starting line, which was divided into four lanes, each four feet wide. A herald bellowed: "Let the runners put their feet to the line." The judges, each with a forked stick in his hand, watched closely for a faulty start. The runners crouched. Then the trumpet sounded and they were off.