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When the games began: the Greeks competed in the equivalent of the Olympics 2,800 years ago. Now, as the Games return to Athens in August, recent archaeological findings are shedding new light on those ancient contests.

Opening day of the ancient Greek games was a spectacle to behold, a celebration of the vigor and supercharged competitiveness that infused the spirit of one of antiquity's most transforming civilizations. People by the thousands from every corner of the land swamped the sacred grounds. They came from cities that were often bitter rivals but shared a religion, a language, and an enthusiasm for organized athletics. There was no doubt in their minds that the games were as much a part of Greek culture as the epic poet Homer, the philosopher Plato, or the playwright Euripides.

At dawn, the opening procession of athletes began: runners and jumpers, discus and javelin throwers, boxers, wrestlers, all young men, marching to the stadium and the hippodrome, where the horse and chariot races took place. They walked from one altar to the next and past shrines to the heroes of previous games. Finally a trumpet sounded the beginning of the big event.

This summer the Olympics return to Greece, where they began as early as 776 B.C., and where they were revived in their modern international form in 1896. The opening ceremonies are set for August 13 in Athens.


The games are going back to Greece at a time when the study of ancient texts, art, and archaeological excavations are giving scholars new insights into the early contests.

The games, says Stephen G. Miller, an archaeologist and classics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, "ran hand in hand with Greek cultural development."

Miller thinks organized Greek athletics began in the eighth century B.C. as Greece awakened from a "dark age" of several centuries, energized by the arrival of the Dorians, people who probably came from the north. Archaeological finds suggest a sharp growth in population, prosperity, and substantial architecture.

Soon afterwards, in the same century, the first known Olympic games were held in Olympia, a city about 200 miles west of Athens, at the sanctuary of Zeus (and not on Mr. Olympus to the north, as is sometimes supposed). Olympia was the first of four sites where major competitions were held. Athletics were so important that in 480 B.C., the games went on while the Persians torched Athens. (Armies of rival cities within Greece usually laid down their weapons in a "sacred truce" during the games.)

The games continued for 12 centuries until the fourth century A.D., when, Miller writes, with the spread of Christianity and the waning of belief in the ancient Greek gods, which were integral to the competitions, the games "ceased completely to play any meaningful role in society."


In athletics, scholars are finding, the ancient Greeks expressed a defining attribute: the pursuit of excellence through public competition. The games were festivals of the Greekness that has echoed through the ages and reverberates in the core of Western culture. "Of all the cultural legacies left by the ancient Greeks," Edith Hall of the University of Durham in England writes, "the three which have had the most obvious impact on modern Western life are athletics, democracy, and drama."

As Hall notes in The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece, all three involved performance in an adversarial atmosphere "in open-air public arenas in front of a large mass of often extremely noisy and critical spectators." In these competitive exhibitions, she continues, "success conferred the highest prestige, and failure brought personal disappointment and public ignominy."


The Greeks were not the first to engage in competitive sports like running and boxing. Their contemporaries in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and Egypt put on lavish, costly entertainments at court in which acrobats and athletes performed for royalty. They also promoted some sports as part of military training.

But the Greeks took athletics out of the court to the wider public, beyond singular spectacles to regularly scheduled competitions, according to Donald G. Kyle, a professor of ancient history at the University of Texas. They spread their games as they colonized Sicily and southern Italy and as Alexander the Great conquered Eastern lands. "]'he Greeks linked their games to recurring religious festivals," Kyle says, "and this regularized and institutionalized athletics." Much of the new research draws heavily on the texts of ancient writers, inscriptions found on stadium walls and statue bases, and artifacts excavated from ruins at the sites of the contests.


At Nemea, another of the four ancient competition sites, where he has excavated since 1972, Miller believes that he has discovered the stadium's locker room--the earliest known inner sanctum of athletes. Archaeologists have also recovered the jumping weights and discuses of athletes, and jars for olive oil that athletes rubbed on their bodies, probably to warm up for exercise or races.

"The largest single category of visual evidence is the vase painting," Miller says. Vase painters seemed to favor the pentathlon, five competitions in which a single winner had to excel.

Fans of the modern Olympics, scholars say, would hardly recognize the original games. There were no team sports and no second-place prizes. Fouls were punished by flogging; vase paintings show judges with whips. Athletes were considered amateurs competing for honor and a laurel garland. (The word athlete is from an ancient Greek word that means "one who competes for a prize.")

But the athletes were allowed to accept cash and gifts before and after competing. Back home, they were honored with statues, lifelong stipends, and fame. "Sport for sport's sake was not an ancient concept," Miller notes.


Women were not allowed to watch the games or take part in them, except as owners in the horse races, in later years, however, some separate contests were staged for women in honor of Hera, the wife of Zeus, including footraces for unmarried girls.

The most obvious difference between the modern and ancient games was the nudity of the young men. The reasons are obscure. In one story, the practice started after a runner lost his loincloth but continued on and won the race. Or perhaps it may be that "in a body-conscious society, the robust nude male was the ideal form, another expression of Greek competitiveness," says Jenifer Neils, an art historian at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

In his book, Miller reconstructs the scene at the peak of the Panhellenic games in 300 B.C. For days before the first races, crowds feasted on the meat of oxen roasted on altar fires, sacrifices overseen by a priest and accompanied by a pourer of libations (wine offerings to the gods), dancers, and a flutist. People pitched hundreds of tents across fields, and thick smoke from campfires filled the air. Flies swarmed, speakers ranted, and fights broke out.

There was something for everyone in the noisy throng: magicians and fortune tellers, poets declaiming their verse, sculptors displaying their works, and, as one ancient writer said, "countless lawyers perverting justice and not a few peddlers peddling whatever came to hand."

In the Olympics of 448 B.C., Miller notes, two brothers from Rhodes each won a contest. They paraded triumphantly with their father, Diagoras, an Olympic winner himself years earlier. Suggesting how important the games were to those early Greeks, a Spartan shouted to the father: "Die now, Diagoras! You will never be happier."



* Why do you suppose there was such a strong link between the ancient Olympics and religion?

* How would you categorize the role of organized athletic competition in ancient Greek society?


To help students understand the integral role played by the Olympic Games in the culture of ancient Greece and to help them understand that part of this legacy has been passed down to the world today.


CRITICAL THINKING: This article is more than a look at how the ancient Greeks played sports. Rather, it serves as a vehicle to encourage students to make comparisons between an ancient culture and ours.

DISCUSSION: You might ask students a series of questions to help them compare the two cultures. Here are a few suggestions:

* How does the influence of athletics on American culture compare with its influence on ancient Greek culture? (Modern societies don't stop wars for games, but today's athletes are glamorized and do receive hefty salaries.) Is athletic success today comparable to the "highest prestige" accorded ancient Greek athletes?

* Note the link between religion and the ancient Olympics. Do students recall seeing modern athletes engage in a moment of prayer or a religious gesture before a game, after scoring points?

* The article notes that victorious athletes had their likeness preserved in statuary. Do Americans still follow this practice? Should we regard sports trophies as similar to Greek statues?

* Refer to the public gatherings and celebrations before the Games. Are these similar to the tailgating popular at American football games? Why do people have parties when the Super Bowl and World Series are played?

WEB WATCH: is the official Web site of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. The site provides information on upcoming events, celebrations, Athens's competition sites, and more. olympicintro.shtml is the Web site of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The site provides background on the ancient Olympics and links to related issues.

John Noble Wilford covers science for The New York Times.
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Article Details
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Author:Wilford, John Noble
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:4EUGR
Date:May 10, 2004
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