The eyes of the world will be on London this evening as the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games heralds more than a month of Olympic and Paralympic sports. Many know that the games originally started at Olympia in Greece but fewer realise that the festival of sport actually started as a festival of religion.
The first games were held around 776 BC with only a single event: the foot race. Sport was not particularly high on anyone’s agenda but rather people came together to honour Zeus, the preeminent God of Greek religion. His temple formed the centre-point of the ancient Olympic park, and Pheidias’ statue of the God in the interior is one of the wonders of the ancient world, although, as with all bar the great pyramid, this wonder is no more.
Around the edges of Zeus’ temple, in carved reliefs called metopes, the labours of Herakles showed his various exploits in killing or capturing the mythical menageries of ancient Greece. This was a temple of male virility and power and, accordingly, upon pain of death, no woman was allowed to attend the Olympic gathering. This stricture against females (except prepubescent girls) remained throughout the history of the ancient games.
The games opened at sunset – as its modern incarnation will do today – with solemn rituals in honour of Pelops, possibly the Olympic’s first sporting hero, although why this should be is hard to fathom as he was also the first cheat in the history of the games. The story goes that Oinomaos, the King of Olympia, was offering his fair and nubile daughter to any suitor who beat him in a chariot race. Many men of Greece thought the challenge worth undertaking, even if the penalty for losing was death. King Oinomaos beat them all and stuck their heads on stakes around the course. Pelops reasoned his chances might be better if he sabotaged Oinomaos’ chariot and so he asked Oinomaos’ charioteer, a man called Myrtilos, to replace the lynchpins that held the wheels on the vehicle with wax. Myrtilos obliged and, halfway round the course, the wax melted and King Oinomaos was killed beneath his own disintegrating chariot. To the victor, the spoils, and Pelops married the princess and then, to cover his crime, he threw Myrtilos off a cliff.
None of this seemed to matter to the Greeks and the Precinct to Pelops graced the central Altis of Olympia: the sacred enclosure at its heart. After the rituals to Pelops, a hundred oxen were sacrificed to Zeus. Each was required to be physically perfect and so too, the men who came to honour Zeus also considered themselves perfect physical specimens. But whom among them was the most perfect? What better way to determine than by a race – after all, this is how Pelops showed his superiority over King Oinomaos (providing we overlook the cheating). Yes, they did race naked (reputedly after a competitor’s loin cloth fell off an he ran faster as a result) although everyone was well oiled and doused with dust.
Over time, other events were added, such as wrestling (giving the Greeks another hero: Milon the Wrestler who was so good that at one games nobody dared face him and he won by default. As he went to collect his crown, he slipped and fell anyway. The Gods hate hubris). Chariot racing was another prominent sport and made Alcibiades name, not for competing but for providing the sponsorship money behind the team. In one games, Alcibiades’ charioteers came first, second and (according to him) also third. Since usually only the winner counted, the fact we know who came second and third in the chariot race is down to Alcibiades and his incessant self-promotion. In his home city of Athens he commissioned Euripides to compose an ode in his honour and placed a painting of himself in the Acropolis.
The attraction of the ancient games for self-promotion led to its eventual downfall around the late 4th or early 5th century AD. This started with the erection of the Philippeion, a round temple at the heart of the Olympic sanctuary, containing statues on raised blocks. But these statues were not of Gods or even mythical heroes, but of Philip of Macedon and his extended family, including his son Alexander. Philip had just subjugated the Greeks in war and the Philippeion was a way of rubbing it in.
All participants in the ancient games swore an oath to Zeus at the opening, promising to uphold sporting tradition. However, the disqualification of the boxer Eupolus in 388 BC for attempting to bribe the judges shows that not everyone took it seriously. Today, no such oath to a God is demanded as the religious and spiritual traditions that defined the early games have all but disappeared. But spare a thought for the River Lea that runs through London’s Olympic Park. Probably named after the Celtic word ‘Lug’ meaning light (and providing the root behind the God name Lugh) it also separated the Christianised Saxon Kingdom of Wessex and the Pagan Danelaw of the north, according to the treaty of AD 879 between Alfred the Great and Guthrum. Much of the action in this year’s games (although not the opening ceremony) will take place on the Pagan side. So maybe not everything of ancient Greece is entirely lost.