As London gears up to host the 2012 Olympics, it will not be long before the Olympic flame is lit at the ancient sanctuary of Olympia to send it on its way to London. But what were the ancient Olympics really like?
It all began with a call to athletic competition: heralds were sent out on pre-defined routes around the ancient world to announce the games and invite competitors. Those good enough to compete had to arrive at least a month before the games began – not at Olympia, but at the small city of Elis some 30km away.
Elis was the city which ran the games and it took its job very seriously. The athletes completed their final month’s training under the watchful eye of the Eleans – no chance to take drugs or maim your competitors here.
Then, the spectators began to arrive at Olympia itself. The games were held in a religious sanctuary dedicated to the king of the gods, Zeus. The earliest stadia at the sanctuary seem to have started not far from the great altar of Zeus itself (an altar that amazed ancient travellers since it was constructed entirely of the burnt remains of previous offerings, which, by the 2nd century AD, was a whopping 6.5 metres high).
By the 4th century BC, the stadium had been re-built on the edge of the sanctuary with banked rows for spectators on all four sides. These grassy slopes, however, were not completely clear: dotted around them would be tall wooden poles, hanging off which would be pieces of armour captured by Greeks from other Greeks in the heat of battle – a reminder that the games took place in a world where war was the norm, and the games a brief respite.
Maybe up to 40,000 spectators gathered to watch the ancient Olympic games from all over the Mediterranean. They came to watch chariot races, running races (in which the naked male athletes often tied up their penises to keep them out of the way), boxing, long jump and wrestling matches amongst others.
They came to cheer on the victors in a world where coming second was coming nowhere at all. The athletes competed for eternal glory that might be made concrete in the form of a statue erected in the sanctuary, a poem composed in their honour or simply their name on the publicly inscribed victory lists. But for those who cheated, the fine was the cost of a golden statue of Zeus to be erected by the tunnel entrance to the stadium.
And when the games were over, the clean–up began. The ancient site of Olympia is covered with small wells – dug to supply water for competitors and spectators during the games and used afterwards as rubbish tips in the clean up. Only another four years to wait before it all began again.