Olympic Games in Ancient Greece

by Alfred Tamarin

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

Olympic Games in Ancient Greece presents a colorful account of how the ancient Greeks played the Olympic Games. Each chapter describes one day in this five-day festival, beginning with the day-long opening ceremonies, proceeding through three days devoted to various sporting events, and concluding with the Victory Banquet on the last day. Shirley Glubok and Alfred Tamarin give an almost hour-by-hour account of the festivities and sporting events, giving the reader the feeling of having personally witnessed an ancient Olympiad. Brief but evocative details of the typical sights, sounds, and smells of the festival add to the impression of immediacy. Although the emphasis is on a “typical, ideal” Greek Olympiad of the fifth century b.c., information about the history of the games and anecdotes about famous athletes from different time periods are incorporated into the narrative so that the reader has a sense of how the festival evolved over time. Black-and-white photographs of ancient pottery and statuary depicting Olympic athletes provide a visual extension to the authors’ description of most of the sports. A note on the modern Olympics, a list of important dates, and an index conclude the book.

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A procession of judges, games officials, trumpeters, athletes, and their trainers initiated the Olympiad on its first day. The marchers would start in Elis and proceed thirty-four miles to Olympia. Travelers from throughout the Greek-speaking world representing all classes and professions also converged on Olympia, the sacred site of the Olympiads, which first took place in 776 b.c. and every four years thereafter for more than a thousand years.

Religious rites were an important part of the games. A sacred truce was declared throughout the Greek empire in order to enable Greek citizens to travel to and from the games; contestants took sacred oaths in front of a huge statue of Zeus; an official sacrifice to Zeus marked the high point of the five-day festival; and the victors of the games would dedicate their olive crowns of victory to their peoples’ gods and goddesses. Winning was considered pleasing to the gods; cheating was an insult.

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Chariot races, horse races, and a pentathlon took place on the second day of the Olympiad. The pentathlon consisted of the discus throw, long jump, javelin throw, stade race (a sprint down the length of a stadium), and upright wrestling. With his tall, slim figure and strong torso and legs, the pentathlete was considered the ideal of Greek youth and beauty. Lampis of Sparta, a victorious pentathlete of the eighteenth Olympiad in 708 b.c., timed his discus and javelin throws to the rhythm of flute music.

After the great sacrifice to Zeus on the morning of the third day, the boys’ events took place. These consisted of some of the same events staged for older athletes: the stade race, wrestling, boxing, and the pankration, a mixture of boxing and wrestling. The fourth day of the Olympiad saw a return to adult competition, with three different types of foot races, upright wrestling, boxing, a pankration, and the hoplite race (a race in armor).

On the fifth day, the victorious athletes processed to the great Temple of Zeus and exchanged their palm branches for olive crowns. The enormous gold statue of the god was also crowned with olive leaves to salute his victory over the old gods at Olympia. A banquet for all the victors ended the festival, with the main course consisting of the hundred animals that had been sacrificed to Zeus on the third day of the Olympiad.

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