The article on the original Olympics erred in saying the modern games had been cancelled only during World War II. World War I forced cancellation in 1916. (Published 08/14/96)
They came by the hundreds -- highly trained, muscle-bound athletes under intense pressure to win and carry glory back to their native lands and families who had raised money to send them to the Olympic games. For many, victory guaranteed a lifetime of fame and riches. As they gathered in the Olympic village a month before the games, the athletes obsessed about fitness. They dieted. They warmed up and stretched their muscles. They repeated training regimens religiously, always under the watchful eyes of professional coaches and trainers. So it was in the Olympics of classical times, established in Greece in 776 B.C., it is generally agreed. While no corporate sponsors or advertisers backed the athletes, Olympics winners could anticipate wining and dining for the rest of their lives at public expense. Like today's athletes, the ancient competitors were criticized for being too pampered and too concerned with their bodies. But that didn't make the ancient games at Olympia any less popular before they were banned by Christian leaders in the 4th century A.D. Like their counterparts gathering this summer in Atlanta, spectators flocked to Olympia by the thousands, setting up tents in the summer sun to watch men jump, run, wrestle and race until they found victory or collapsed in defeat. Athletes were cheered if they won, booed if they lost. But unlike the modern games, the ancient contests were for Greek men only, nude Greek men. Women were barred from attending. Their primary role was to raise girls to become wives and mothers and boys to become upstanding citizens. The games were religious festivals, held in honor of Zeus, supreme god of the ancient Greeks. Greece was not a unified country but a region of many Greek-speaking, independent and often warring city-states such as Athens and Sparta. But every four years, the games brought people together in the spirit of friendly competition. The modern Olympics, celebrating their 100th anniversary this year, have changed considerably from their earliest predecessor but still draw on the spirit of ancient Olympia: the excitement of competition, the promise of individual achievement, the ideal of good sportsmanship and the belief that competitive sports can strengthen peace among rival states. ORIGINS Many myths exist about how the Olympic games came to be, and most should be considered just that, no matter how entertaining. One version traces the games to Herakles (or Hercules), a demigod in classical Greek mythology who wanted to become immortal. To achieve immortality, he was told to serve a man called Eurystheus for 12 years and to perform 12 labors imposed by him. For instance, Herakles was told to visit Elis, a small town that was about 60 miles from Olympia and whose king, Augeas, owned vast cattle herds. The Augean stables had never been cleaned, and Heracles was ordered to do it. According to myth, the aspiring demigod finished the task in one day by diverting two rivers through the barns. The king was so impressed that he promised Herakles one-tenth of his herds as a reward. Later, however, he reneged and banished Herakles from Elis. Years later, after Herakles had completed all 12 labors with the aid of Zeus, he returned to Elis and killed the deceitful king. To celebrate his ascent to divinity, Herakles instituted the Olympic games in honor of Zeus. Textbooks say the Olympics started in 776 BC. But historians have suggested that the games were held much earlier and cite classical texts referring to King Iphitos of Elis, who lived in the 9th century B.C. As the story goes, Iphitos had asked the Oracle at Delphi, a sanctuary to which people from throughout the Greek world traveled for advice about problems, how to stop civil wars destroying Greece. The oracle advised him to "reinstitute" the Olympic games, suggesting that they had been held before Iphitos's time, and to declare a truce for the games' duration. So began the "Olympic Truce." Every four years before the games started, three heralds crowned with olive wreaths were sent from Elis to every Greek city-state to announce the date of the festival and invite the city-state to participate. The heralds came to be known as the Trucebearers. City-states that accepted were forbidden to bear arms or carry out death penalties. If they did so, they were heavily fined. While the truce did not end war in Greece, it did ensure those traveling to Elis as spectators a safe journey. "There is some truth to the story about Iphitos and to the Olympic Truce," says Hugh Lee, who teaches classics at the University of Maryland. "But no one can say with certainty that the games started because of this truce." More likely, the games grew out of a religious cult gathering that began in the 10th century B.C., according to Donald Kyle, who teaches classical history at the University of Texas at Arlington. The latest theory in archeological circles suggests that, because Olympia was a sacred site even before the games started, locals probably held religious festivals in honor of Zeus. "What most likely happened at these religious festivals, which attracted many Greeks who were naturally competitive and well-versed in sports, was that Greeks rather spontaneously started running races," Kyle says. "Sports are attractive and fun, so it is not hard to understand how the races eventually caught on until they became an integral part of the festival." The games were timed so the first day of the festival fell on the second or third full moon after the summer solstice. Although this was the hottest time of the year in Greece, harvesting season had ended, and men had earned a break from work. OLYMPIA Ancient Olympia was not a city or city-state but a remote spot in southern Greece, a sacred place even before the start of the Olympics. In the first years of the games, athletes competed on a dusty expanse of flat land with a starting line scratched in the dirt. By 350 B.C., years of work culminated in completion of the Olympic stadium. As Olympia grew, temples to Zeus grew with it. A 600-foot track was built in the stadium, and according to myth, Herakles fixed the distance by placing one foot in front of the other 600 times. A variation of that myth has Herakles running the distance in a single breath. Training in combat events, such as wrestling and boxing, took place in a building called the palestra, also something of a social club. A 19-room palestra was built at Olympia in the 3rd century B.C. Included were an oiling and powdering room where athletes could bathe and a common room where they could socialize. THE GAMES The games lasted five days, but preparation for the festival started almost a year in advance. Olympia had to be readied for thousands of spectators and athletes. Fields had to be cleared for running tracks and temples swept, washed and scrubbed. Almost as important as the athletes were the judges, called the Hellanodikai, or "judges of the Greeks." All were upper-class citizens from Elis and expected to be impartial, although officials from other city-states occasionally voiced concern that the judges might favor competitors from Elis. Efforts were made to keep the 10 judges honest. They were chosen by lot 10 months before the games started and were divided into three groups of three, each assigned to different events. The 10th judge supervised the three groups. To signify their importance and the expectation of objectivity, the judges' living quarters were in Elis. "The judges were enormously well-respected," Kyle says. "Athletes took them seriously and never questioned their authority." Competitors lived in Elis for one month before the games and underwent, even by today's standards, harsh training. They observed a strict diet and exercise regimen. Training was mandatory, and potential competitors were weeded out as judges ascertained fitness for competition and even the legitimacy of their Greek descent. Athletes who met judges' standards set out on a 36-mile hike to Olympia two days before the festival. First in line were the judges, then athletes and their trainers followed by horses and chariots carrying equipment and personal belongings of the chosen ones. Meanwhile, crowds of men converged on Olympia from throughout Greece and later from Italy, Asia Minor and Egypt. They came on foot or horse. Admission was free. Spectators erected their own tents and usually were enthusiastic, cheering athletes representing their regions and showering them with flowers and fruits. Twenty-three events were held, and many, such as wrestling, boxing and chariot racing, were added about 600 B.C., by which time they had become an established part of Greek life. At the start were foot, chariot and horse races and even a mule-cart race. A very popular event was the pentathlon, whose name was derived from "penta," the Greek word for five. Considered a test of strength, speed, endurance and versatility, the pentathlon included running, jumping, wrestling, javelin- and discus-throwing. The 10-event decathlon -- "deca" is Greek for ten -- is a modern invention. A far more gruesome event was the pancratium, known in Greek as the pankration, a combination of words meaning "all" and "strength." One of the most violent events in the ancient games, it was an "anything goes" contest that included wrestling upright and on the ground and whose object was to force an opponent into submission. While a knee to the groin was not penalized, gouging the eyes and biting were forbidden, though ancient vase paintings depict athletes ignoring that prohibition. "The pankration was a gruesome and violent event," said Thomas F. Scanlon, who teaches classics at the University of California, Riverside. "There were bone-breaking and strangleholds. The point was to bring your opponent to his knees." No one is certain when and why Greek athletes competed in the nude, a subject of great notoriety. Theories about Greek nudity touch on everything from efficiency and speed to the ancient Greeks' embrace of homosexual culture. One story holds that nudity became popular after one sprinter lost his loincloth and won the race. Another cites the danger of tripping over a falling or fallen loincloth. Recently, however, scholars are beginning to agree that, because of the games' religious nature, athletes viewed nudity as a clean, pure state of being. The ban against women was rigidly enforced but sometimes violated. Ancient chronicles tell of a widow from a wealthy family of Rhodesian exiles who wanted to watch her son box at the Olympics and arrived disguised as a trainer. But when her son won, she is said to have leaped the barrier separating trainers from athletes, and been exposed, literally, because her robe fell open. Out of respect for the men in her family, all of whom were Olympics winners, the judges immediately established a new rule: Trainers also must be naked. TO THE VICTORS . . . Winners did not receive medals. Instead, an olive wreath was placed around the head as a symbol of fame and recognition that victors retained for life. There were no prizes for second place. If an Olympic winner's family had enough money, a statue of him was erected in the ceremonial center of Olympia and in his hometown. Before returning home, he was honored at huge private and public banquets, and the revelry carried over to his hometown amid further grand celebrations with food, wine and music. Most often, he was given great sums of money and allowed to dine for life at public expense. THE GAMES END When the last games were held at Olympia is not certain. Most scholars say 393 A.D., asserting that the advent of Christianity, with its disdain for worshiping Greek gods, blunted the games' religious significance and eventually prompted officials to ban them. That is exactly what Emperor Theodosius I of Rome did in 393 A.D. But even before the ban, critics insisted that glorifying athletes and cultivating the body at the expense of mind and spirit was wrong. "The ancient criticisms of the Olympic games sound so modern, you'd think they were spoken during our times," Kyle says. Critics "talked about these muscle-bound jocks who are making too much money as a sign of what's awry in society." One critic was Plato, one of the greatest Greek philosophers who, before turning to scholarly endeavors, was a wrestler known as Aristocles and had such wide and powerful shoulders that he was nicknamed "platys", the Greek word for broad. Without first defining the mentality peculiar to the ancient Greek way of life, it is difficult to understand why Plato objected to the games. From youth, boys were taught to seek physical, spiritual and cultural balance. Only in that way would they become fully functional men of honor. Favoring one of the three endeavors would destroy the equilibrium and harmony so important to Greeks. Moderation was a way of life, an ideal state being touted as the only way to attain mental stability and health. Plato and other critics contended that the athlete's obsession with cultivating the body could destroy the balance. But criticism alone could not halt the games. Recent archeological findings indicate that games continued for almost a century after first being banned and suggest that the games disappeared slowly over a long period. Still, by 300 A.D., the festival was in decline. Greece was being invaded from the north, men were preoccupied with war and no longer could previously wealthy city-states afford to send money to Olympia. While the Olympics were not subsidized, Olympia did rely on the patronage of rich kings and emperors for upkeep of grounds and facilities. THE MODERN GAMES The Olympics were revived in Athens exactly 100 years ago, thanks to a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, who felt that the games could improve international relations. As a young man, he had visited England and admired how games were played at Rugby School. He later visited Olympia and became convinced that French youths were concentrating too much on intellectual pursuits without developing or exercising the body and learning ideals of teamwork and sportsmanship. Coubertin set out to persuade authorities to revive the spirit of the ancient games but with a non-Greek twist: He invited the world. The first modern, and modest, Olympiad was held in Athens in 1896 with eight countries competing in 42 events in 10 sports. Only in modern times would the Olympic torch and five-ring Olympic symbol appear, and only twice, in 1940 and 1944, were the games suspended, as the world went to war. When the Atlanta games begin in nine days, about 10,000 athletes will represent 197 nations. "Today's games are certainly much different from the ones the ancient Greeks held," Scanlon says. "But the ideas of harmony, balance and good sportsmanship have received a virtual revival in the 20th century."
CAPTION: Racing in the nude, Greek men compete in the ancient Olympics. The urn dates to about 530 B.C.
CAPTION: Finger raised in surrender, a fighter signals defeat in what appears to be a pankration match, a vicious combination of wrestling and boxing with few rules.
CAPTION: Nike, goddess of victory, extends a crown of laurel leaves to the winning driver of a four-horse chariot race, an event omitted from today's Olympic games. This is a commemorative silver coin, minted about 400 B.C.
CAPTION: Ruins of a colonnade that once formed part of a 600-foot covered track at Olympia's gymnasium.
CAPTION: An Olympic discus thrower, rendered in a mosaic damaged over the years.