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Run for the gods

The notion of sport as a religious exercise seems alien to us – with only the Olympic Games having some remnants of this sacred character. Indeed, the earliest athletes were said to have been the gods and mythical heroes themselves.

Philip Coppens


Some of the athletic events, such as running, come natural to Mankind. Jumping, whether long or high, is but an extension of what we sometimes had to do to make our way in the world and javelin throwing is an abstraction from what our ancient ancestors did during the hunt. Sport thus largely fits in three categories: some are “natural” (running, swimming, etc.), some originated from the hunt or war (boxing, wrestling, etc.), whereas others are abstract (hockey, handball, etc.)
Many of these sports would therefore go back to the beginnings of Mankind, perhaps in origin being nothing more or less as preparation for a great hunt that the tribe was about to perform. Its origins are lost in the mists of time. Still, it is sports and the Olympic Games, that was the first event that marked the start of Greek history. The year of first Olympiad, 776 BC, is indeed the first accurately attested date in Greek history. As such, sports, and the Olympic Games, are thus seen as a Greek invention and the backbone of this civilisation.

The stadium, Olympia

The Olympic Games were the most important games of ancient Greece. Yet Olympia, the site where they were held, is not as impressive as the acropolis of Athena or the sanctuary of Delphi. Still, Olympia was a religious centre, dedicated to Zeus and the Olympic Gods. As they were in charge of the Greek pantheon, Olympia was one of the main religious centres in Greece.
Today, Olympia remains the site from where the Olympic flame is lit every four years. The flame commemorates the theft of fire from the Greek god Zeus by Prometheus. The ceremony was introduced at the 1928 Olympics, but its origins lie in ancient Greece. A fire permanently burned on the altar of Hestia in Olympia, but during the Games, additional fires were lit at his temple and that of his wife, Hera. The modern Olympic flame is ignited at the site where the temple of Hera used to stand. Today, very little remains, but the backdrop remains spectacular. Today, the main attraction of the site is probably the stadium, the largest of ancient Greece and though not as spectacular as the theatre of Epidaurus or the ancient and modern Olympic stadium of Athens, it remains nevertheless one of the most important sites of the ancient world.
The Olympic Games did not appear out of nowhere. Mythically speaking, the Greeks stated that the Gods were the first participants in the Games and they went as far back in time as the times of Kronos – time immemorial. In fact, the gods were said to have invented most disciplines: that Jason invented pentathlon and Apollo boxing. Historically, they were an adaptation of the funerary games, held in honour of a deceased person, to celebrate his life. Greek funeral games go back to mythical times and Homer’s Iliad, where it was stated that funeral games were organised by Achilles to honour his best friend Patroklos, who was killed by Hector and Euphorbos, with the help from the god Apollo. After retrieving his body, Achilles avenged his companion's death by killing Hector and then desecrated Hector's body by dragging it behind his chariot, instead of allowing the Trojans to honourably dispose of it by burning it. For some time, he refused to dispose of Patroklos’ body, but Patroklos appeared to him and told Achilles that he could not enter Hades without a proper cremation. Achilles placed Patroklos’ body on the funeral pyre and organised an athletic competition to honour his dead companion, which included a chariot race (won by Diomedes), boxing (won by Epeios), wrestling (a draw between Telamonian Aias and Odysseus), a foot race (won by Odysseus), a duel (a draw between Aias and Diomedes), a discus throw (won by Polypoites), an archery contest (won by Meriones), and a javelin throw (won by Agamemnon, unopposed). Prizes were said to have been given by Achilles himself.
Such funeral games were commonplace in ancient Greece: after the death of Oedipus, the mythical king of Thebes, there were funeral games in Thebes. As to Olympia itself, Pelops wished to marry Hippodamia, the daughter of King Oionomaos of Pisa (Olympia) who had promised his daughter to the man who could win a chariot race against him. If the suitor lost the race, he would also lose his head. Through treachery, Oionomaos had so far kept his daughter unmarried and through treachery, Pelops won the race, killed the king, and married Hippodamia. Pelops celebrated his victory and King Oionomaos funeral with funeral games at Olympia, though the Olympic Games themselves were said to have been founded by Hercules at the place where Pelop's tomb was located at Olympia. The first ever Olympic stadium, in its earliest phase, indeed began at his tomb, the sacred Pelopion, which is the somewhat conical hill on the perimeter of Olympia’s sanctuary, at the foot of which the Olympic flame continues to be lit.
In short, all great panhellenic games were established in honour of a dead hero or to commemorate some act by god. At Delphi, the Pythian Games were held in honour of Apollo slaying the dragon, the Python. Delphi sits on the slope of a steep hill and hence it should not come as a surprise that it had the smallest track. Olympia, sitting on a plain, had the largest track. Though the Olympian hippodrome (ca. 780 metres long) has never been excavated and is believed to have been partially washed away by the river Alpheios, in Delphi, there was no room to hold horse races, so those events were held in the valley below the sanctuary, rather than inside its walls.
With the arrival of the panhellenic games (a series of games, which included amongst others the Olympic and Pythian Games), funeral games did not cease to be held: Alexander the Great did so after each one of his victories to express his gratitude for the gods and to honour the fallen. He honoured his dead friend Hephaiston with games in Babylon, in which no less than 3000 competitors took part.

The 1896 Olympic Stadium in Athens, refurbished for 2004 Olympic Games

There are many parallels between the ancient and modern Olympic Games. In Antiquity, the recital of hymns normally preceded the sporting events and the modern equivalent is of course the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games, largely a festival of song and dance. Both ancient and modern games occur every four years. Today, winning the Olympic title is far superior to attaining a good time. In ancient Greece, there was no timekeeping. There was also no standard distance for the length of a stadium, though it varied between ca. 180 and 200 metres. Originally, competitors were mainly from the aristocratic or middle classes of the various cities that competed in them. But over time, professional athletes and coaches began to exist, largely supported by funding by the cities, who were very aware of the fact that victory in such games was good propaganda and beneficial to the name of the polis.
The biggest difference between ancient and modern games was in the area of refereeing and the audience. The Hellanodikai, or umpires, were the only people to have stone seats in the stadium; everyone else sat on the stadium embankment to watch and the stadium of Olympia could hold no less than 45,000 spectators, in line with many modern stadium requirements for important events. Women were not allowed to attend, let alone participate, though they sometimes were identified as Olympic winners, specifically in the chariot race, where the owner was celebrated too – though therefore sometimes not allowed to attend. Nevertheless, some women sometimes did dress up, and on occasion, even tried to enter the competition. After one such incident, athletes were soon required to compete naked, so that no foul play could occur.
Why women were not allowed to attend the Games is unknown. At any other time of the year, they were allowed to both enter the sanctuary and the stadium, but not during the Games. The only woman allowed was the local high priestess, who was allowed to sit on a stone seat too. The goddess Hera actually had her own Games, the Heraia, held at Argos. This was a running contest in which 16 females participated in three races, divided by age.
As to the Olympic Games, until 684 BC, the 24th Olympiad, only five competitions existed and the Games lasted just one day. Chariot racing was introduced in the 25th Olympiad and an extra day was added as “junior games” for younger boys were introduced into the programme too. In 632 BC, a third day was added as more competitions were added to the programme, with the final Olympiads lasting five days.
Unlike today, each Olympiad took its name from the winner of the stadium race. Hence, the 1984 Olympic Games would have been known as “the Carl Lewis Games”. Indeed, the short sprint distances, and specifically the 100 metres, remain for many the highlight of each Games. Then as now, there were starting blocks for the sprint races, as well as a complex release mechanism so that all competitors started at the same time. Starting gates for the horse races also existed.
Modern Games were not held during World War I and II. But in ancient times, a truce existed throughout the Games and in a specified period leading up to the Games. It shows the importance of ancient Games, whereby worship of Zeus, the supreme judge and arbiter and source of wisdom, was deemed to be above any human squabble. In some instances, some cities did not adhere to this rule and when this was found it, they were severally penalised for not adhering to these rules –with the referees of the Olympiads acting very much like the General Synod of the United Nations.

Start line in the stadium of Olympia

Though we see sports and the Games as typically Greek, they are, in fact, older. In Crete, there were athletic games to entertain the visitors at festivals. Tumbling, bull leaping, boxing and wrestling were known to the ancient Minoans. Sit Arthur Evans interpreted the depictions of the bull leap very literally, but had to admit that in the opinion of some people, including a professional steer-wrestler, what the frescoes show is simply not possible. The expert stated that the acrobat would have no hope of obtaining his balance against a bull in full charge, and in particular would face the problem that a bull tends to sweep his head sideways for the purpose of goring anyone within reach, which would presumably make getting any kind of grip on the horns virtually impossible. In addition, the relative momentum of the bull and the acrobat would almost certainly result in a landing not on the bull's back but on the ground behind it. Perhaps the images therefore show the concept behind bull-leaping, the defeat of a powerful animal by human skill, and not the mechanics of how it was done. Thus, it would sit within the same category of the ancient Egyptian depiction of the “strong arm”, which was equally symbolical. It may also be linked with Mithraism, where Mithras was seen as mastering the bull.

With Minoan Crete, we have pushed back the dawn of the Sports Age back to ca. 2000-1500 BC. But its origins lie even further back. Sports actually existed in ancient Egypt and though seldom reported or highlighted these days, they were frequently depicted in wall paintings. One Egyptian example of sports is found with Amenophis II, who left a stele in the vicinity of the Sphinx, upon which he proclaimed that he was very proud of his skill in archery, running, rowing and his love of horses. The same was true for Tuthmosis IV who was proud of his skill in shooting, hunting and other major sports. Depictions of Pharaohs playing sports are also numerous amongst the tombs of Saqqara, though those of Petahhotep and Merioke should be singled out, as they show images of children playing sports and contain many illustrations of athletics, wrestling and other sports.

Many of today's sports were indeed already practiced by the ancient Egyptians, who set rules and regulations for them. Inscriptions on monuments indicate that they practiced wrestling, gymnastics, weightlifting, long and high jump, swimming, rowing, shooting, fishing and athletics (including javelin), as well as various kinds of ball games, such as hockey and handball. Some of the ball games were played with wooden staffs and knives, both on land or in boats on the Nile.
In what framework were these sports practiced? Some were, like all sports today, part of the social life of the nation. But some had a sacred atmosphere. Indeed, there is a theory that the ancient Egyptians began the custom of holding international games regularly at Akhmim in Upper Egypt. The town was known as Ipu or Khent-Menu to the early Egyptians and Panopolis to the Greeks and was named for the principal god of the city, Min, who was Pan to the Greeks and the god of fertility and master of the deserts between the Nile and the Red Sea. Plutarch states that "The pans and Satyris who live near Chemmis [Akhmim] were the first to learn of the death of Osiris and spread the news.” We can only wonder whether as a consequence funeral games were held for the dead Osiris and whether this may stretch back the origins of the funeral games back from Greek to ancient Egyptian times.

Queen Hapshepsut running the Heb Sed, depicted in the Red Chapel, Karnak

The most important Egyptian festival, the Heb Sed, in which the king displayed his ability and agility to rule, also involved a “sport competition”: the Pharaoh had to run around the courtyard, e.g. the courtyard at Saqqara, in front of the first step pyramid, built by Imhotep for the Heb Sed festival of Zoser. The race consisted out of running four times around the open courtyard, during which the king made various proclamations evoking his connections with the gods. “I have passed through the land and touched its four sides.” There are also references in the Pyramid Texts to this event: “The king has gone around the entire two skies, he has circumambulated the two Banks.” There is in fact a depiction of Zoser performing in the Heb Sed festival and it is the oldest existing document relating to sport. The artist brought out, with a thorough knowledge of anatomy, the harmonious play of muscles. The positions of Zoser's arms, trunk and legs denote an expertise of technique and movement which only advanced development can achieve. Also, in the extremely rare case where a queen reached the throne of Egypt – i.e. Hatshepsut – she too was subjected to the tests of the Heb Sed and a depiction of this event remains on the wall of her sanctuary in the Temple of Karnak.
The courtyard resembled Egypt and the king running around the courtyard symbolised his mastery over the land of Egypt. He also shot arrows into the sky, to show he also mastered the skies. Egyptologist G. A. Wainwright wrote how the Heb Sed “consisted essentially in a running ceremony, performed in archaic times before the king and from the First Dynasty onwards by the king himself…” It thus dates back to the 4rd millennium BC, making it more than two millennia older than the first Olympic Games.
In both Greece and ancient Egypt, it was believed that sports – and the Games or the Heb Sed run – brought Man in contact with the gods. Those who were victories, became heroes and some were spoken off like the mythical heroes of Homer’s legends. For the ancient Greeks, there was equally a fine balance between mind and body, between sport and theatre and we already noted that song and dance were part of the Olympic Games. Theatrically, at first, it was nothing more than a stage for the legends and lessons to be recited. The hymns Aesop performed at Delphi are notorious and the presence of theatres in several sacred sites is well-known. Some such theatres, such as at Epidaurus, have become the main attraction of the complex, whereas Athens built theatres on the slopes of the acropolis, which were used for the yearly festivals that occurred to celebrate the birthday of the patron goddess. Apart from reciting poetry, music and hymns were vital ingredients of the Games. Music was seen as a sign of good education and the lyre was said to have been the instrument of the god Apollo himself.

Interpretation of the statue of Zeus at Olympia, originally one of the Wonders of the World

Though it is clear that in sports too, Greece was a child of Egypt, the most intriguing account can actually be found in the marathon, today, with the 100 metres sprint, one of the crowning moments of the Olympic Games. Though we consider the marathon to be typically Greek, the marathon itself was never an Olympic event. It officially originates from an event in the 5th century BC, when the Persians invaded Greece, landing at Marathon, a small town about 26 miles from the city of Athens. The Athenian army was seriously outnumbered by the Persian army, so the Athenians sent messengers to cities all over Greece asking for help to fight off the invaders. The story goes that a herald named Phidippides ran the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory and died on the spot. But Phidippides was sent by the Athenians to Sparta to ask for help and it was another man, Eukles, who announced the victory to the Athenians and who then died. Later sources confused the story of Phidippides (also called Philippides) with that of Eukles. Most ancient authors do not support this legend, but the story has persisted and is the basis for the modern-day marathon.
The idea of organizing the race came from Michel Bréal, who wanted to put the event on the program of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens, an idea which received the full back of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics. The first marathon was won by Spiridon "Spiros" Louis, a Greek shepherd, winning in 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds, despite apparently stopping on the way for a glass of wine from his uncle waiting near the village of Chalandri.
Though thus apparently of modern origins, there are several records that state that long distance races, like the marathon, were performed in ancient Egypt. They seem to have been part of the coronation festivities of pharaohs throughout most of ancient Egyptian history.

Though this has pushed the origins of sports back to the dawn of civilisation, and though much remains to be uncovered, how it all ended, before de Coubertin restarted it in 1896, is well-known. In 393 AD, Emperor Theodosius I forbade heathen sanctuaries. As the Games were religious ceremonies, the Olympic Games were forbidden by law and hibernated for more than 1500 years before de Coubertin rekindled the Olympic spirit, soon to be followed by the Olympic flame.