A wreath of celery
Apparently it all began in 776 BCE, when the first games were held in Olympia. “Apparently”, because it can’t be ruled out that they were held earlier.
At first the games lasted one day, and the programme included only a race of one stadion, or around 200 metres. After that, the games were held every four years during the second full moon after the summer solstice, meaning late July or early August. Later the event expanded to five days, and was as much a religious festival as a sporting one: athletes competed to the glory of Zeus, and in the middle of the games, 100 oxen were sacrificed to the god.
During the preparations and the games themselves, a ‘divine peace’ obliged the Greeks to lay down their arms so that athletes could arrive safely at the event to compete. But although the games in Olympia were the most prestigious, they weren’t the only all-Greek games. Every four years the Pythian Games were held at Delphi, and every two years the Isthmian Games in Isthmia, and the Nemean Games (in Nemea). They were organized in honour of (respectively) Apollo, Poseidon and Zeus. The events and the prizes varied. Initially, the games in Delphi included only musical competitions; sport was added later.
At the Olympic Games, athletes competed for olive wreaths, at the Pythian Games for laurels, at Nemea for ivy, and at Isthmia for wreaths of celery leaves or pine branches. The history of the ancient Olympic Games ended in 393 CE, after 1169 years and 293 tournaments. At that time, due to the pagan nature of the games, they were abolished by Theodosius the Great.
To the last breath
The judges declared him the winner as he lay there dead.
Arrichion became an Olympic champion twice, though the second time he paid for it with his life. In the finals of the games in 564 BCE, he was being choked by his opponent. Just as it seemed he was going to lose, he gathered his strength, and with a powerful kick broke his opponent’s ankle. The adversary, unable to take the pain, raised his hand to concede defeat. When he fell, it turned out that in striking the blow, Arrichion had broken his own neck.
This brutal combination of boxing and wrestling, whose fans included Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, was known as pankration, which in Greek means ‘all strength’. As Arrichion’s example shows, a better description would be ‘to the end of your strength’. In contemporary Polish mixed martial arts (MMA) bouts, organizer KSW prohibits tactics including elbows to the face, blows to the back of the head or the crotch, scratching, eye gouges, hair pulling and headbutts. During the ancient Greek games, the rules were a lot shorter: no biting or eye gouges. That was all.
Competitors weren’t divided into weight classes, and the fights lasted until a victor emerged – meaning until one of the fighters gave up, or was unable to continue.
When, at the end of the 19th century, Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games, he included wrestling in the programme. He gave up on boxing, and the archbishop of Lyon objected to the inclusion of pankration. Today, the MMA authorities are seeking to ‘return’ to the Games, and believe they’ll make it onto the schedule in 2028.
Where’d they get the testosterone?
There was no doping in the ancient Olympics. That is, there might have been, but it wasn’t considered doping. To be precise: because there was no list of banned substances, it’s hard to speak of violations of the regulations. But there are many indications that people who today would be considered dopers participated in the ancient games.
Potions prepared by doctors and trainers were made in complete secrecy (just as today nobody shouts it from the rooftops); everyone had their own method for improving speed, stamina, strength and muscle mass. They also made concoctions to relieve pain. Drinks based on plants and mushrooms were used, as was bread with poppy-seed extract. Obviously, these agents were also given to the horses taking part in the chariot races. Meanwhile, long-distance runners were given an extract of horsetail. The Roman doctor Claudius Galenus also wrote about athletes using a drink made from boiled donkey hooves, seasoned with rose petals.
Participants in the games were also aware of the power of testosterone, which, many years later, athletes, cyclists and weightlifters would dose themselves with. In ancient times, the athletes took it in by eating bulls’ testicles, and before competitions also consumed raw animal hearts.
To increase their glucose and carbohydrate levels, they ate honey. But they had to be careful with wine. Before entering the stadium, referees would test the competitors’ breath in what were the first anti-doping inspections.
So who’s the greatest?
The greatest Olympian of all time was born in 1985, competed at five games and medalled 28 times. Michael Phelps, from Baltimore, is 10 medals ahead of the second-place competitor, Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.
But if we compare the American swimmer to his rivals from the past, things get a lot more complicated. 2168 years before Phelps’s last medal, the hero of the Games was Leonidas of Rhodes. At four tournaments (between 164–153 BCE) he won 12 times; his monument says that Leonidas had “the speed of a god”. It doesn’t tell how he had the endurance of an ox, and was an all-rounder.
The three competitions he participated in were held on the same day, which itself is a crippling challenge. Combining the stadion run and the diaulos (about 400 metres) is nothing exceptional; today’s athletes also combine the longest sprinting distances. But after his victories in these competitions, Leonidas also took part in the hoplitodromos, in which competitors raced over the same distance as in the diaulos, but carrying more than 22 kilograms of equipment: a helmet, greaves and a shield, as worn by the hoplite citizen-soldiers that the event takes its name from. According to Professor Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge, these conditions would have been exceptionally inhospitable, with a temperature of 40°C, requiring a huge effort from Leonidas.
Getting back to the greatest Olympian of all time, Phelps won 13 individual medals (the rest were in relays), meaning one victory more than Leonidas. But the American also lost sometimes, while his ancient rival won everything he entered.
The champion emperor
It wasn’t cheap, but people will do anything for glory and Olympic victories. In the end, Nero paid the hellanodikai, the judges, a one-million-sestertius bribe.
Here’s what happened. Hungry for sporting success, the Roman emperor travelled to Greece and took part in local and Pan-Hellenic games. In total, he won more than 1800 wreaths. So that he could participate, he ordered that the Olympic Games be postponed for a year, ruining the calendar of the Games. In Olympia, Nero triumphed in all six competitions he entered.
He took first place in the music and drama competitions, added at his request (though, as is known, he had no talent as a singer). He also won the four- and 10-horse chariot races (the only time the 10-horse race was held), even though in the latter case, he didn’t even make it to the finish line. He fell out of the chariot, sustaining such an impact that he wasn’t able to continue the race. But the paid-off hellanodikai declared him the winner. They determined that if only he had finished, he would definitely have been the best.
The judges’ task was made easier by the emperor’s opponents, who, after his accident, didn’t want to continue competing. It’s hard to blame them – defeating the cruel ruler could have ended in death.
Nero’s tour was topped off with a triumphal entry to Rome, during which the emperor’s sporting trophies were presented to the crowd. But after his death, it was decided that the winners from the year 67 CE wouldn’t be listed among the victors of the games.
Wreath for sale
Nero is an extreme example, but one that shows how today’s problems in sport have their roots in the ancient games – including corruption, match fixing and illegal gambling.
The first recorded cheat was the boxer Eupolus of Thessaly, who in 388 BCE bought off three opponents and won the games. When the hellanodikai discovered the fraud, they punished all four. All were required to finance statues of Zeus that included an account of what had happened. They lined the path to the stadium as a warning to others. The same punishment was meted out to Deidas and Sarapammon, boxers from Egypt who first agreed that the former would win, and then bet on the outcome. It also happened that two hellanodikai awarded the victory in a footrace to Eupolemos, while the third awarded victory to Leon of Ambrakia. Leon protested; the two paid-off judges were punished.
Still, there were only about 16 of those monuments to Zeus, which shows that match-fixing (or the discovery of cheating) happened only rarely. More often, the corruption involved something that Gulf states specialize in today. Qatar, Bahrain and other states from the region pay athletes from other countries millions to change their citizenship and win medals for their new fatherland. Here’s how it looked in ancient times: Astylos, an Olympic champion in the stadion and diaulos races, was paid to compete for Syracuse rather than Croton. He then became an outcast, his parents destroyed a statue of him, and his house was converted into a prison. In his new colours, he won at two more games, but he died alone.
Athletes, the elite
In Ancient Greek, the word athlētēs meant ‘one who competed to win prizes’.
The competitors didn’t receive money from the organizers of the Olympics. But after returning home, to their success were added glory, prestige and prizes. Athens showered winners with tax exemptions, front-row seats at the theatre, free meals and money. A victory at the Olympics was worth 500 drachmas, and in Isthmia, 100. These were huge sums, considering that a sheep cost only one drachma.
On the other hand, competing in the Olympics was costly. The athletes spent the last month before the competition training in Olympia; to enter the games, they had to convince the hellanodikai that they could compete at a high enough level. And earlier, they had to swear that they had devoted the previous 10 months to heavy training. Combining regular training with work was almost impossible, and the athletes also had to finance their travel to Olympia, which was difficult to get to. That’s why it was mainly aristocrats who could afford to compete; poorer people had to seek sponsors, which included cities and the local elite.
Drivers who leased chariots from wealthy people hungry for success also got a chance to compete. Of course, we’re speaking only of free citizens; slaves couldn’t compete in the Olympics and were allowed only into local games. And in the end they didn’t succeed there, because they didn’t have as much time and money for preparation as their rivals.
A bull a day keeps the doctor away
According to Plato, Iccus of Taranto – winner of the pentathlon in 470 BCE – didn’t touch a woman for the entire training period, not to mention boys. At that time, the competition comprised the long jump, a footrace, javelin throw, discus throw and wrestling. Kleitomachos of Thebes, who won victories in boxing, wrestling and pankration, went even further. He didn’t just abstain from sex and leave parties when the amount of wine being brought into the hall indicated the approach of an orgy. Kleitomachos didn’t even want to talk about sex, and averted his gaze when he saw animals mating.
Of course, sexual abstinence before the games wasn’t universal. Iccus added to it a light diet based on fruit and vegetables. After retiring, he trained two victorious pentathletes using these methods. Today, he’s seen as the first person to recognize the connection between a competitor’s behaviour and his results, but he wasn’t the only one. Dromeus of Stymfalia, a two-time Olympic champion in the dolichos run (about 4.8 kilometres), ate only meat, and diet tips were also offered to athletes by Pythagoras.
Those who practised the least self-denial at the table were the competitors in combat sports. Because there were no weight classes, the biggest and the heaviest had an advantage. So boxers and wrestlers looked like gluttons. Theagenes of Thasos, who at various games won 1300 wreaths in boxing and pankration, was able to eat an entire bull in one day.
Games without women
Women weren’t allowed to compete in the ancient games, and married women weren’t even allowed to watch from the stands. The penalty for violating the prohibition was to be thrown off Mount Typaion. Alongside unmarried women, the games could be watched only by the priestesses of the goddess Demeter, whose temple was found in Olympia.
But without women, the history of the games would be incomplete. In 388 BCE, Callipateira dressed in the robes of a trainer to accompany her son during the games. When Peisírrhodos won the boxing tournament, she ran to congratulate him. Her clothing slipped off, and everyone saw that she was a woman. But Callipateira wasn’t thrown from the cliff, out of respect for her family’s achievements: earlier games had been won by her father and three brothers. Instead, they only changed the rules. From then on, not only the athletes but also the trainers were required to enter the stadium naked.
But the ban didn’t mean that women had no chance of winning. In 396 BCE, the Spartan princess Cynisca found a loophole. The winner of the four-horse chariot race was not the driver, but the owner. So Cynisca hired a driver and twice enjoyed a victory at the games. Later, another Spartan woman, Euryleonis, won the competition twice.
By the way, Sparta approached sporting activity by women completely differently from other Greek city-states. The Spartans believed that an athletic woman would give birth to healthy warriors. Women had their own tournament, in honour of the goddess Hera. It consisted of just one competition: a run over a distance of 5/6 of a stadium (about 160 metres). Only unmarried women took part, in three age categories.
Milo, the star
Milo of Croton had that special something. Maybe charisma, maybe personality. In any case, something that changes an outstanding athlete into a beloved star in the stadium.
He was an outstanding wrestler, winning at the Olympics six times, and the Pythian Games seven times; 10 times at the Isthmian Games, and nine at the Nemean Games. Sometimes he won without a fight – his rivals, seeing no chance to beat the champ, withdrew from the competition. He also won military acclaim, leading an army of 100,000 Crotonians to victory in 510 BCE against an army from Sybaris three times its size. A hero. And like every hero, he was surrounded by legends and anecdotes that are impossible to verify.
At the peak of his fame, Pythagoras supposedly assisted Milo in physical exercises and mathematics. It’s said that he ate nine kilograms of meat and nine loaves of bread a day, and drank 10 litres of wine. He also had something that today would be called a training plan. As a teenager, he bought a young bull, which every day he would put on his shoulder, before running about 200 metres. The animal grew, getting heavier and heavier – and Milo got stronger and stronger, too.
He liked to show off his strength, as stories survive about how he tied a rope around his head and then parted it by tensing his muscles, or how he held up a collapsing ceiling on his shoulders. Supposedly, he could hold a pomegranate in his hand so that no one could take it from him, but he never crushed it.
According to legend, pride was his undoing. Wandering in the forest, he is said to have noted a tree split by wedges. He wanted to tear it apart with his bare hands, but he miscalculated and got stuck in it. The trapped hero was torn apart by wolves.
Translated by Nathaniel Espino