Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Athletic Flashback: Ancient Olympics

As the world readies itself for another round of summer Olympics, take a few moments to remember the ancients who started it all, more than 2500 years ago, as a tribute to their top god, Zeus.

While today's athletes may get more world-wide exposure via television than those in the original Olympics, it was the ancients who were truly exposed - as in naked. Yes, athletes of old wrestled, boxed, sprinted, jumped and threw javelins in the nude.

Due in part to this most casual of dress codes, married women were prevented from attending the games on the premise that they should not be gazing longingly upon that which they could never have. Wives caught attempting to crash the party were tossed over a cliff. Single women, however, were allowed to attend because it was thought that young virgins should see the best that the male gender had to offer and then aspire to win such a man for herself. 

In contrast to the modern games, quashed three times so far because of war, a general truce was announced before and during each of the ancient Olympics, to allow visitors to travel safely to Olympia. During the truce, wars were suspended, armies were prohibited from entering the area, and legal disputes and the carrying out of death penalties were forbidden.

In the pankration - a cruel combination of boxing and wrestling- punching, kicking, choking, finger breaking, and blows to the genitals were allowed; only biting and eye gouging were prohibited.

In horse races, jockeys rode without saddle or stirrups and, subsequently, were sometimes thrown from their mount. One independent equine bumped his rider off at the beginning of the race but went on to complete the course, cross the finish line first and be declared the winner.

In "the kalpe," an equestrian event that never quite made it to the moderns, the rider would dismount on the last lap and, while holding the reins, would ran alongside the horse to the finish.

Women were allowed to enter their horses into equestrian events but were not permitted to act as their own jockeys or charioteer.

While females did not actively participate in Olympic events, girls and young unmarried women were allowed to run foot-races at Olympia as part of a separate festival for Hera, the wife of Zeus. Their uniforms, somewhat more modest than the men's, consisted of short tunics which revealed the right shoulder and breast. Their hair hung loose down their backs.

The ancient games ended with a race in which each competitor wore full armor and carried a shield as he ran, a reminder that the truce was about to end and that wars would soon resume.

The Olympics were held in Olympia every four years for about 12 centuries. After an extended 1500-year time-out, they resumed in 1896. If the modern Olympics enjoy such longevity, they will continue until at least the year 3000.

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