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The naked truth of ancient Olympics

Published : Jul 7, 2016, 3:14 am IST
Updated : Jul 7, 2016, 3:14 am IST

We all know that Greece is the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games but nobody knows how somebody had a brainwave to stage them in the first place.

We all know that Greece is the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games but nobody knows how somebody had a brainwave to stage them in the first place. Researchers have surmised that the Games, which had religious and political connotations in their early years, were conducted to foster inter-state relations in Greece. Those days Greece wasn’t an all-powerful single unit; it comprised independent city states. The Games were useful to forge a central identity.

According to available historical records, the ancient Olympics started around 776 BC. Even though various cities such as Delphi, Isthmia and Nemea hosted sporting events, the Games at the western Greek city of Olympia were the most notable and Olympiad became a popular term for a four-year cycle.

Each city conducted Games in a different year to honour Greek gods. Zeus, the reigning deity at Olympia, was the most powerful. The Olympic Games and victory ceremonies were conducted in front of a 40-foot gold, silver and ivory statue of Zeus, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

A truce was enforced during the Olympics to ensure free movement of athletes from one city to another. Even though the Games weren’t elitist, only free Greek men were allowed to take part. Women didn’t even have the privilege of being spectators. Maybe the organisers thought it wasn’t a good idea to have women around as all the Olympians competed without a stitch of clothing on them! Some prominent spectators included great Greek philosophers, Plato and Socrates.

Running was one of the first events. A ‘stade’ race in a straight line of 190 metres was a staple. Competitions in boxing, discus and wrestling were also part of the programme. Pankra-tion, a combat sport combining the elements of boxing, kicking and wrestling, was the cruelest as it permitted anything other than biting and eye-gouging.

From a single day, the Olympics expanded to five-day events as they grew in stature. There were no team events and only winners were recognised. Champ-ions received olive crowns, kotinos in Greek, on the final day of the competition. Even though the official prize was modest, the competition was fierce because the winners were lavished with gifts until death in their hometowns. Inevitably, some athletes used corrupt practices to win.

After more than 1,000 years the Olympic Games were brought to an end on the whim of Roman emperor, Theodosius I in AD 393. The reason was religious as the Christian ruler decreed that the Games belonged to pagan culture. Vandalism, earthquakes and floods disfigured the site of Olympia. English traveller Richard Chandler discovered the ruins of Olympia in 1766 before German archaeologists’ untiring efforts brought Olympia to the fore in 1875. A little later than two decades, the modern Olympics were born.