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The Ancient Olympic Games
With Judith Swaddling
Ancient Greek Historian & Author

Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2002; 11 a.m. EST

How did the Olympics start? Why were they held in Olympia and not somewhere else in the ancient world? Who was allowed to compete? What did the victors win?

Judith Swaddling, assistant keeper in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum and author of "The Ancient Olympic Games," was online to discuss the ancient Olympics.

Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

The transcript follows

Berkeley, Calif.: What Olympic events stood out in ancient times as being the most popular and were there any team sports as there are today?

Judith Swaddling: The most popular events by far in ancient times were the equestrian events with the thrills and spills of chariot racing and bareback riding. There were many chariot crashes and there were particularly dangerous points during the course, such as the turning post and an altar where the sun shone directly into the horses' eyes and caused chaos and confusion. It was largely the sport of the wealthy who employed charioteers and small boys as jockeys who were regarded as dispensable. It was always the owners of the winning horses who won the glory, not the charioteers or riders.

The most important event of the Olympics, however, was the sprint or short running race which was the only event for the first thirteen Olympics and the Olympiad was named after the victor. It was by reference to the victors in this race that the Greeks recorded dates.

There were no team sports in the ancient Olympics. The relay race where the torch was passed as a baton between members of teams was an event in the games at Athens but never at the Olympics.

Ellicott City, Md.: At those games, did the winner of any event get a prize? If so, what was that prize? and if he did receive a prize, was there a different prize for each event?

Judith Swaddling: It was the same prize for all the contests at the Olympics. It was a wreath of wild olive from the sacred tree at the heart of the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia. The home towns of the victors would often give them a grand celebration on their return and occasionally sums of money. In Athens they received five hundred drachmas, which was the equivalent of a very high income for a year. Sometimes they received free board and lodging and theatre seats. The winners were also allowed to set up statues of themselves in the Sanctuary at Olympia, an idealized statue for one win and a portrait statue for three wins.

Ashland, Ohio: Did anyone ever outdo Alcibiades' entry of seven chariots (Ts. 6.16.2)? Was he right that no individual before him had submitted so many chariots?

Judith Swaddling: We are not aware of anybody entering more than seven chariots, before or after Alcibiades.

Boston, Mass.: Women & the Ancient Olympics:

How/Were women involved? Did they compete? Watch? Or was this an all boys' event?

Judith Swaddling: Women were not allowed to compete at the ancient Olympics. Women played little part in public life in ancient Greece and it seems that only virgins were allowed to witness the Olympics. This probably dates back to ancient fertility rites which were originally practiced in the Sanctuary when it was associated with the goddess Ge (Earth). The only married woman who was allowed to watch the games was the priestess of Demeter Chamyne (literally "of the couch") who was allowed to sit on her altar, which was part way down the stadium. Women did have contests at Olympia but they were held at a different time from the Olympics and they were celebrated in honor of Hera rather than Zeus. They consisted solely of running races for girls of different ages.

Merion, Pa.: Was there any Greek city state that was responsible for organizing the ancient Olympics given the fact that Greece was a country consisting of autonomous city states?

Judith Swaddling: The Games were certainly not free of political intervention. It was the district of Elis which was responsible for organizing the ancient Olympics. The Sanctuary of Zeus where the games were held was within their territory and throughout the history of the ancient Games they endeavored to maintain their neutrality but there were interruptions such as when during the Peloponnesian War the Eleans sided with the Athenians and they banned the Spartans from the Games. The Games then had to be held under the protection of thousands of armed troops for fear of Spartan invasion. On another occasion in 365 BC control of the Sanctuary was seized by the Arcadians and the Pisatans who were old enemies of Elis. It was only through fear of anger of the gods that power was restored to the Eleans.

It is interesting that a number of rival monuments were set up at Olympia honoring victories of Greeks over Greeks.

Marshall, Va.: We are a group of third graders from Marshall, Va. We are studying about ancient Greece and the Olympics. We were wondering about the tradition of the Olympic torch. Did the ancient Greeks have a torch? If so, how did they decide who would carry it. Also, did they keep track of records of who won from year to year? How did they record the winnings? Thank you

Judith Swaddling: The torch race was not part of the ancient Olympics as I explained to one of the inquiries above. The winner in the torch race at Athens which took place between local tribes of that city was allowed to light the fire on the sacred altar.

It seems that no records were kept of achievements in the Olympics or any other ancient games, which seems strange to us. It may be partly to do with the fact that there were no standard measurements and that local regions had their own units of measure. In the very few instances where distances are implied such as the discus throw achievements seem to fall far short of current standards. This may be because the Greeks overall achieved a lower level of fitness or in the case of Olympia because the festival was begun with a two-day march of fifty-eight kilometers from the city of Elis to Olympia.

Pelham, N.Y.: Is it true that the original Olympic games were held in the nude without spectators?

Judith Swaddling: According to tradition for the first fourteen Olympics athletes wore a type of shorts or loincloth. Then it seems that they abandoned them -- one of two reasons are given, either that a runner lost his shorts, tripped over them, struck his head and died; such garments were then banned, a kind of health and safety measure! The other version is that a runner called Orsippos deliberately discarded them so that he could run faster and thenceforward all runners did the same. In reality the reason that the Greeks ran nude was pride in their suntanned muscular bodies, and they mocked the barbarians (those who spoke a foreign tongue) because they competed clothed.

There were always spectators at the Olympics. In the fifth century BC the stadium could hold as many as forty thousand!

Washington, D.C.: Were the ancient Olympics staged once a year or ever four years like the modern Olympics? Was it strictly a sporting event or were there any cultural aspects to it?

Judith Swaddling: The Olympics were held every four years as now. In addition there was a major Greek sports festival in each of the intervening years -- at Nemea, Delphi or Corinth.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the ancient and the modern Games is that the ancient sports were always held in honor of a deity who bestowed on athletes the power and skill that enabled them to excel. At Olympia the deity was Zeus, the chief of the Greek gods.

At the Olympic festival spectators not only watched the games but also enjoyed speeches by philosophers, historians and statesmen. Some of the games also included competitions for musicians and singers. At Olympia there was also a contest for the trumpeter who would start the events.

Harrisburg, Pa.: What records exist of ancient Olympic games? For instance, do we have any ideas of the names of athletes who won events, and, if so, has this been passed down from stories or was a record of victors kept and preserved somewhere?

Judith Swaddling: Official lists of victors were kept but unfortunately very little of these have survived. Part of the list of winners in the foot race survives as an extract which was incorporated into a Roman work of the fourth century AD and by chance the names of some of the victors from the fifth century BC are preserved on the back of a Roman financial document. Recently some bronze plaques have been found in the gymnasium at Olympia recording the names of some victors in the Olympics in the fourth century AD of which we previously knew only one, that of an Armenian prince.

The names of many of the victors are however known to us from literary accounts, particularly that of Pausanias who wrote a Guide to Greece in the second century AD, and paid particular attention to Olympia. Names are also inscribed on the bases of statues set up by athletes in the sanctuaries where the games were held.

Bowie, Md.: Were these games open to all males, or to only a select few men? In addition, what was the maximum amount of male individuals (since these games were open to only men) allowed to participate in those games? And finally, was there a selection process for participation in those games?

Judith Swaddling: In the beginning the games appear to have been open to all Greek citizens. In practice you probably needed to be quite wealthy because you needed to be able to take leave of your occupation for ten months training in order to compete in the Olympics. The last month had to be spent on training under strict supervision by the Hellanodikai, the judges who presided over the Olympics.

On arrival in Elis the fitness, age and background of the athletes were checked by the judges and heats were held to decide on the final list of competitors. The athletes, their brothers, fathers and trainers then had to swear an oath over slices of boar's flesh that they would not in any way break the rules of the games.

After the Roman conquest of Greece all male citizens of the Roman Empire were also allowed to compete.

McLean, Va.: How were the ancient Olympics supported financially? Was it primarily rich patrons, or is there evidence that, for example, "Yiorgo's Fine Olive Oil" was at some point the official olive oil of such-and-such Olympiad

Judith Swaddling: We don't know exactly how the Olympics were financed. It seems that to a large extent the competitors had to be self-financing. It is likely that the Elean religious authorities may have profited in some way from pilgrims visiting the site. There were a number of treasuries erected in the sanctuary by rich Greek colonies and they may have had to pay some dues to the authorities for this privilege.

We don't know of any sponsorship by manufacturers! Sometimes states did pay for athletes to attend the games or sponsored chariots (the Argives entered a "public chariot" in one of the events) and set up statues to their own victors.

Washington, D.C.: Were truces declared during wars so that the games could go forward? Was there a religious element to the games?

Judith Swaddling: A truce was declared for different lengths of time at different dates in history. This was simply to safeguard competitors and spectators travelling to and from the games. Some of them came from as far away as Spain and the coast of North Africa.

Heralds were sent out to announce the truce as many as three months in advance. It does not seem to be the case that the games were established in order to bring about national peace, though according to legend the games were actually re-instituted by King Iphitos of Elis on the advice of the Delphic Oracle. He had asked how to resolve the wars and pestilence which were ravaging the country. This idea may however have been a relatively late invention.

As I answered to a previous question there was a very strong religious element to the games, which were held in honor of Zeus. The most important building in the sanctuary at Olympia, which was in fact his oldest and most important sanctuary, was the Temple to Zeus which housed the gold and ivory statue of him by Pheidias, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The athletes prayed to him for victory and offered thanksgiving (in the way of food and libations of wine), or statues if they could afford it.

Chicago, Ill.: Why did the Olympic games eventually die out?

Judith Swaddling: The last Olympic games seem to have been held in either AD 393 when Theodosius I, the first Christian emperor banned pagan cults, or possibly as late as AD 426 when Theodosius II ordered the destruction of pagan temples in the east Mediterranean. By that time the religious element which had motivated the first games was in any case on the wane and athletes were probably earning considerable incomes from the numerous games staged by Roman officials. (In earlier times, although no money was won at Olympia, Olympic victors became great celebrities and could earn prize money and even appearance money from other festivals.)

Between the 4th and 6th centuries AD massive floods and earthquakes destroyed the sanctuary which had always been home to this kind of phenomenon and by the Middle Ages even the site of Olympia had been forgotten.

Bethesda, Md.: Is it true that victors were given different wreaths (Laurel, etc.)? If so, is the reason for the giving of these trophies related to the way in which they withered and lost their luster within a short period of time?

Judith Swaddling: At Olympia the wreath was always of olive but at the other festivals there were other wreaths from such things as pine or dried celery, whichever was associated with the particular deity in whose honor the games were being held. In a tomb in Southern Italy which seems to have belonged to an athlete a crown of gold leaves was found and so the home town of an athlete may have granted a more lasting tribute of this kind.

Charlottesville, Va.: I know that the Hellenes held games to celebrate almost everything, and that there were four contests -- Nemea, Isthmia, Delphi, and Olympus. Did these rotate? And what made athletic contests a way to celebrate? I heard someone say that the idea of "sport" didn't really occur to the Greeks in the same way it does us.

Judith Swaddling: The Olympic games were the oldest of the four Panhellenic or national athletic festivals, which composed the periodos or circuit games. The other three were the games at Delphi, Corinth and Nemea. The games didn't rotate but were held so that there was a major festival each year. Athletes attributed their sporting talents to particular deities and games seem to have been held to celebrate these gifts.

In fact at some stage they are likely to have been assimilated with funerary games which were held in order to decide ownership of a hero's property.

You are right in saying that sport had a different connotation to the Greeks as there were no team sports in antiquity and it was the victory of the individual and his state which counted. Second and third places counted for nothing. The idea of being a good sport when losing was completely foreign to ancient Greek thinking!

The Greeks were however very aware of the physical benefits of exercise and the games were originally conceived as an effective means of training for warfare -- almost all the events have relevance to military training, perhaps most notably the race in armor. An incentive to achieve physical fitness was also uppermost in Baron de Coubertin's mind when he reinstituted the games in 1896.

Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: How would Sophocles have responded to the recent skating controversy?

Judith Swaddling: He would have written a play about it and the chorus would have looked good on ice!

Judith Swaddling: Thanks for all the questions. In London it's time to go home!
If you're still interested in the ancient Olympics, there's always my book, The Ancient Olympic Games, published by The British Museum Press & Texas University Press, 1999 (ISBN O-292-77751-5)

That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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