Then there is corruption, which enters the games around fourth century B.C., when the boxer Eupolus gets caught bribing his opponents to throw matches. He's fined a massive amount. But it happens again and again.
Emperor Nero comes to the Games and wins the chariot race, even though he falls out of the chariot. That was the low ebb, really. Having said that, the Olympics were considered the cleanest of the athletic games.
Let's talk about the actual sports. The chariot race was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated event. Why?
It was the most aristocratic event. It was also very violent. It was the Indianapolis 500 of antiquity. If you've seen the Charlton Heston version of Ben Hur, it gives you a very good idea of the nail-biting tension that was invoked by this event.
It was very dangerous, with crashes between chariots and chariots veering off the course and into the audience. They would go 12 laps around the stadium.
The tight corners were the most dangerous part. There were usually 40 chariots in the race. In one race, with 21 chariots starting, only 1 finished. That gives you an idea of just how dangerous this race was.
Running was the oldest event, but what about the marathon?
The ancient games didn't actually have a marathon. The three-mile [five-kilometer] dolichos was the longest running event in the early ancient games.
The marathon is a Victorian invention, based on a story about the Battle of Marathon. A courier, Philippides, who fought in the battle, dashed from the battlefield to bring news of the Greek victory to Athens. Once there, he collapsed and died.
The 26.3-mile [42.3-kilometer] distance from Marathon to Athens is the length of the modern marathon races around the world.
Even these three-mile [five-kilometer] races must have been pretty tough. Athletes certainly didn't have scientifically designed Nikes and Reeboks at the time.
I ran in Olympia, and it's definitely hard on your feet. At the games they put a layer of sand over the running track to soften it, but it was still very rough. The ancient Greeks just had harder feet. When you're running around with no shoes all your life, they become like a hobbit's, probably.
One unusual thing was that there was no oval running track. Everyone was running back and forth on this straight running track that looks like an airstrip. They had turning posts at the ends. You would go around with a group, which offered plenty of opportunities to accidentally trip people.
Today the decathlon is considered one of the most prestigious events and a true test of an athlete's greatness. How was the pentathlon looked upon in ancient Greece?
They started out with the discus, which was followed by the long jump, which was considered the most aesthetically pleasing, which was a big deal to the Greeks. Athletes jumped from a standing start, and it was done to flute music. Then there was the javelin event, followed by a sprint and a wrestling match.
The guys who were best at the pentathlon wouldn't be the best at the specialty events, but people would admire their versatility and great skill.
Some of the other events were very violent.
The combat events on the fourth day were very popular with the rank and file. The wrestling was similar to today's Greco-Roman wrestling. But the boxing was more exotic. Guys pummeled each other to the head using their fists with leather thongs wrapped around them. Body blows were actually forbidden. There were no rounds and no weight restrictions.
There are vivid tales of people's faces being pummeled to a bloody pulp. One boxer didn't want to give his opponent the satisfaction of knocking out his teeth, so he swallowed them all.
The third combat sport, the pankretion, is the most exotic to us. The only thing banned was eye gouging. Anything else goes. Bone breaking was common. One guy became known as "Mr. Digits," because he would break his opponent's fingers. Strangulation was encouraged.
To win, the other person had to submit, so you really had to knock the person out. And you're doing this in the nude, so people are going for the groin. It would have been an extremely uncomfortable event.
There were no team sports.
No, the Greeks were very individualistic. Athletes represented themselves first and their city-state second. There was no second place in the ancient games, no Victorian ideals of a handshake and gentlemanly slap on the back for a game well played. If you lost, you'd scamper home through the back streets. Your mother wouldn't even talk to you.
How would these athletes have performed against today's elite?
That's hard to say, because the Greeks didn't share our obsession with keeping records. They didn't have stopwatches. It was very much the winner of the moment.
Remember, the gene pool was much smaller in ancient Greece, a few million people. Now the athletes are chosen from billions of people around the world. I think the ancient Greeks would probably have a pretty rough time. Maybe they'd do well in events like wrestling. God knows they knew a few tricks.
Why did the ancient games end in A.D. 394?
They end when the Christian emperor Theodosius I bans all pagan festivals. The Christians hated the Olympic Gamesthe celebration of the human body, these guys running around naked, drinking, fornicating, the whole bit.
The end came as an incredible shock to the psyche of the ancient Greeks. They assumed quite logically that the games would go on forever.
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