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The Ancient Olympics: The Earliest "Time Out!"

Alright fess many of you have dreamed of being in the Olympics? That big day when you would stand up on that platform, with tears glistening down your cheeks, as your national anthem blared on the loud speaker and your flag was raised high in the wind. I remember watching Greg Lougannis twirling gracefully through the air and thinking...hmmm...maybe I should have started diving at a younger age...Oh and how I dreamed of running as fast as Flo-Jo or spinning like Kristi Yamaguchi.

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The crowd roars as the racers enter the stadium
The Olympics...the ultimate display of strength and skill... Every four years I would look forward to that exciting time, to watch the best of the best compete, but you know I never realized what a significant thing it was to have all these nations joined together, not for wars or treaties or taxes and laws, but for sports and the spirit of a challenge. It wasn't until we came to Greece, where the Olympics first began, that I learned how monumental it really was. Greek history is full of versus city-state, island against island, even the Gods were constantly warring with each other! To think that these very people would agree to stop beating each other up once every four years, and instead compete in races and sports, is really incredible!

Ancient Olympia on the western part of the Peloponnese in Greece was a complex of temples, priests' dwellings and public buildings. I went to go see it because it was also the sight of the very first Olympic Games. The great city states of Greece agreed to an ekeheiria (a sacred truce) to stop any warring during the games. Just a few days, once every four years, isn't too much to ask, is it?

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Practicing for Sydney 2000
As far back as the 11th century BC, small regional festivals that probably included athletic events were already occurring in Olympia. The first official quadrennial Olympic Games were declared in 776 BC by King Iphitos of Elis. The games were held in honor of Zeus, the supreme deity. Most Greeks acclaimed Zues as the founder. By 676 BC, the Olympic Games were open to all male Greeks and later were opened up to Roman men as well. Unfortunately all you budding Flo-Jo's or Dominique Dawes wouldn't get very far in the Ancient Olympics. Slaves and women were not only forbidden from competing, but they weren't even allowed in the stadium as spectators!

The festival lasted five days and took place on the first full moon in August every four years. The ancient games included wrestling, chariot and horse racing, the pentathlon (wrestling, discus and javelin throwing, long jump and running), and the pancratium-a viscous form of boxing. Our Greek friend Marios thinks that since the city states were so accustomed to warring, the Olympic events were probably training for the military soldiers.

The event was more than just an athletic competition. It was a venue for writers, poets, and historians to share their works with a large audience, a place where people from neighboring city states to gather and discuss current events. Traders would bring goods from distant regions, and rulers could talk in a relaxed and festive atmosphere-much more conducive to resolving differences through discussion rather than battles!

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Kavitha runs with the Olympic torch-NOT!
As I walked through the ancient ruins, I tried to imagine the incredible energy that must have surrounded the events back then. These games were taking place over 2500 years ago! Far before cars or trains connected countries, before TV's or phones exchanged communication or ideas...people traveled for a long time to make it to these games that were only held once every four years. Today we have all kinds of festivals, programs, summits, and events that join people from different regions together, but back then there was nothing else like it. As much as I would love to be able to experience the excitement and energy at the time, I realize I'm romanticizing the past. If I had been caught at the Ancient games in Olympia, I would have been thrown from a nearby rock! That was the unlucky fate of any woman that tried to sneak in!

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The stadium where it all began
The games continued through the first years of Roman rule, but they had lost much of their importance by then. Finally around 398 AD, after the Romans embraced Christianity, the Olympics were outlawed by Emperor Theodosius I who claimed they were a pagan ritual. As I walked through Ancient Olympia, there were little more than crumbled ruins of the once great sanctuary. Unfortunately Theodosius II ordered all the temples to be destroyed in 436 AD.

Despite the emperor's hasty wrath, visiting the crumbled remains surrounded by green hills and big shady trees was still a wonderful experience. I strolled past the ancient gymnasium and through a large area with rows of columns still standing. This was once the palaestra, or the place where the athletes would practice wrestling. Stepping through what must have once been a doorway, I arrived in the ancient workshop where Pheidias sculpted his legendary Statue of Zeus. This enormous chryselephantine statue was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and was once displayed in the Temple of Zeus which was just across the way from the workshop. Unfortunately little remains of this important building that paid homage to the mighty protector deity of the Olympic Games. Theodosius II removed the statue to Constantinople where it was destroyed by fire in 475 BC.

From the temple I walked towards the stadium, where the competitions actually took place. As I walked through the stone archway, I imagined all the great athletes that once made their entrance through this same path representing their own respective city-state. The 120 m sprint track and the judges' seats still survive. Budding athletes from all over the world make their pilgrimage to this ancient site and can be seen timing themselves as the sprint through this ancient track. This old stadium once sat over 30,000 spectators...all men of course. The women and slaves would struggle for a view from the hillside behind.

Nike, the goddess of victory, also played an important role in the Ancient Olympic games, but I doubt her role was as omnipresent then as it is today. Today the brand name Nike or their symbol the swoosh can be seen on athletes in virtually every event. The winged goddess may have been an important symbol of courage and success to the ancient Greeks, but read today's Making a Difference and decide for yourself just how heroic the Nike of today really is! JUST DO IT.
The Olympic Games we know and love today were not re-instated until 1896, when they were held in Athens, Greece. They have been held every four years since in different cities around the world, except during World War I and World War II.

Though the games have evolved quite a bit, to include a number of different sports...AND to include women...their origins to Olympia are not forgotten. The Olympic flame is lit at the ancient site and carried by runners to the city where the games are held. How did they run with a flame all the way to Atlanta? I couldn't even imagine carrying it all the way from Barcelona, Spain where we just came from. Lucky for the runners, they won't have far to go in 2004. The Greek people are already looking forward to hosting the Olympics once again in Athens that year!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Olive the Greek History You Ever Need to Know!
Monica - The Athena Game Show
Making a Difference - The Parthenon
Making a Difference - Just Do It

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