The Olympics weren't the only games in ancient Greece. There were three other panhellenic games, those at Isthmia and Nemea and the Pythian Games at Delphi, along with the local Panathenaic Games at Athens. In each case, the games were part of a festival dedicated to one of the gods (the Olympics belonged to Zeus himself). In Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece (Getty, $75), Panos Valavanis, associate professor of archaeology at the University of Athens, summarizes what is known about these forerunners to today's Olympics. We learn, for example, that the pentathlon, thought to have been introduced at the 18th Olympiad in 708 B.C., was "the first multiple event in the history of athletics" but that it didn't always extend to the full five matches. If an athlete won the first three events, the other two were considered superfluous, and he was declared the winner. Pentathletes rarely repeated their victories -- the events were too demanding, and age took its toll -- but the record is full of wrestlers who won again and again. "No one ever approached the achievements and fame of the legendary Milon of Kroton in southern Italy, one of the greatest athletes in the ancient world, who dominated the event for decades," the author writes. "He was winner six times at Olympia (once in the boys' wrestling in 540 B.C., and five times in the men's event), seven times at the Pythian games, nine times at Nemea and ten at Isthmia, and he won countless victories in lesser games." An epigrammatic tribute to his perduring might has come down to us: "This beautiful statue is of beautiful Milon, who won six times without being thrown."
-- Dennis Drabelle