Notwithstanding a short break (what’s a millennia and a half between friends ay?), the Olympics has been a part of humanity’s story for the last 2800 years – ish. The start of the Ancient Olympics is usually attributed to the year 776 BC -that’s when the first Olympic Games took place in the town of Olympia; situated somewhere between the city-states of Elis and Sparta on the west coast of the Peloponnese. The first Games consisted of only one event, the Stade race, in which runners had to run 280 meters (or a Stadion, the word we derive ‘stadium’ from). The race was unremarkable, should 20 competitors decide run a Stade race today it would be remarkably similar to a modern sprint – other than the fact that male competitors would all be naked of course. Which would certainly make for some unflattering media coverage, or perhaps a 21st century resurgence of the Stade race would make the Olympics more popular than ever?
There are many other ways that the Ancient Olympics differ to our modern Olympics but this list represents by far the weirdest.
Only Men Could Compete
The Ancient Olympics was both primarily a religious event and also a strictly man only affair. That’s not to say that women couldn’t take part in their own sporting events – they could compete in the Heraean Games, though many of the finder details of this event have been lost to the mists of time – but they were forbidden from entering the Olympics. In fact, if you were a married woman you were prevented from even watching the Olympics. The punishment for ogling the jiggling glutes of the male competitors for a wed woman was severe, if you were caught you’d be thrown off a mountain.
That’s not to say that a woman never won the Olympic Games however. Who achieved this seemingly impossible feat? That would be a Spartan woman called Kyniska, daughter of the Archidamos. Rather oddly, the winner of a chariot race was not the rider, rather it was the owner of the horses who received the glory – enabling Kyniska to win the event, without actually being there. The rider – despite being in command of a rickety chariot pulled by four muscle bound horses over some 12 laps and 14,000 metres – received a grand total of zilch for their efforts.
They Were Stinky. Very Stinky
Today, a country fortunate enough to hold the Olympics must invest millions into creating custom built stadiums. Not only are they perfectly constructed in every conceivable way, providing the ideal environment for the athletes competing within them, they also offer comprehensive comfort for the spectators. Offering food, drink, seating and – most importantly – lots and lots of toilets.
The spectators of the Ancient Olympics had no such luxury, Every four years (that’s an Olympiad) over 50,000 people descended on the ordinarily virtually uninhabited Olympia (a few priests kept things ticking over but that was about it). 50,000 people sat in the hot sun with only a river to poop in. Just imagine the stench. Add to that the fact that 100 oxen would be sacrificed and burnt on the Alter of Zeus in the middle of the festival. There’s one thing for certain, no candle manufacturer will ever be making an overpriced candle infused with the scent of the Ancient Olympics.
A Dead Person Won the Olympics
The Ancient Olympics were a brutal affair, boxing and wrestling were much more violent than the modern versionwe are used to seeing on our televisions today. Though both these blood soaked spectacles paled in gore levels compared to Pankration – the mixed martial arts of the Ancient world.Pankration had only two rules, no biting and no poking out anyone’s eye. Other than that, anything went!
One remarkable account details the final fight of Arrhichionof Phigalia. Arrhichion was trapped in the vice like grip of his formidable opponent. Arms like steely vein covered greasy oil coated pythons were wrapped around his neck, and try as he might Arrhichion could not free himself. As his vision began to fade Arrhichion stamped as hard as he could on his opponent’s foot. The pain was so intense that this unknown fighter released Arrhichion and submitted. The crowd went wild, Arrhichion had overcame the odds and won. But while the crowd went bananas Arrhichion remained unmoving on the sand and dirt. He was dead.
That didn’t dampen the celebration however. Despite being very deceased, Arrhichion was crowned the victor and returned to Phigalia a hero.
More Gore than Ever Before
Arrhichion’s final victory was not the goriest event to take place in the Ancient Olympics, instead that honour would fall to the boxing match between Damoxenos and Creugas. In Ancient Boxing there were no weight classes and the matches were randomly picked. So you could end up with a bout in which one fighter had a significant size and weight advantage over the other. Which reportedly was the case when these Damoxenos and Creugas, two undefeated champions, went up against each other.
Damoxenos was a massive slab of humanity, whilst Creugaswas smaller but incredibly nimble. And a good thing too, with no boxing gloves fighters instead just wrapped their fists in leather; one punch from the giant Damoxenos would have levelled Creugas, and with no rules stating otherwise, the bigger man could keep on punching Creugas in the head – regardless of whether or not if he could defend himself. Either way power vs agility had led to a draw, meaning a ‘klimax’ was enforced. Here each man takes it in turns to hit the other with full force; this is an unprotected blow taking at their liberty. Like some sort of blood soaked penalty shootout the fight ends when only one man is left standing.
Creugas went first, he punched the bigger man in the head as hard as he could. But to little avail, Damoxenos just shrugged off the assault. Then it was Damoxenos’ turn, Creugus braced himself as this terrifying beast punched him with full force with straight fingers into the bread basket. Damoxenos clearly needed a manicure as his sharp nails ripped at Creugas’ skin. Damoxenos then ripped his fingers once more along Creugas’ abdomen, gutting the fighter like a pig and causing his innards to come tumbling out like meat and potato from a freshly bitten pie.
It was all over, Creugus had won. That’s right, Creugus. Damoxenos had been disqualified as the rules of the ‘Klimax’ state one punch at a time only. Sure, Creugas’ guts were getting a sun tan but it was all worth it for that laurel wreath.
The World’s Greatest
These days, in every Olympic event, multiple world records are smashed. Athletes are lucky to hold on to their world record for a decade but it would be unheard of for a competitor to hold a record for fifty years, let alone a hundred. Yet there was one ancient athlete who held his record for over two thousand years. Yes, TWO THOASAND YEARS. This phenomenal specimen of a Homo Sapien was Leonidas of Rhodes.
He first competed in the Olympic Games of the 154th Olympiad in 164 BCE, where Leonidas captured the laurel wreath in three different races; the stadion, the diaulos (a foot face of (400 metres) and the hoplitodromos (a diaulos where the runners wear armour – talk about exhausting!). He then went on to win these three events over the next three consecutive Olympiads. Bear in mind that in the Ancient Olympics there was no second of third place, you were either a winner… or a massive loser.
This astonishing act, of winning twelve individual Olympic victories, was unmatched until 2016; when Michael Phelps, the American swimmer, one his 13th Olympic Gold.
Adrian is a co-owner of Imagining History workshops. Imagining History provides educational history workshops for primary schools that captivate and entertain.
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