For over 1000 years, the Olympic games helped mold a common Hellenic outlook linking sports and religion with the art of the great temples and statues that adorned the precincts of Olympia in the northwestern Peloponnesus.
The Olympic Games in honor of Zeus, traditionally founded in 776 B.C., were held every four years thereafter. Eusebius of Caesarea preserved Julius Africanus' list of winners from the founding to A.D. 217. It was probably the tyrant Phaidon of Argos in the seventh century who, seizing the site from the Elians (who Platoin the Symposium claimed practiced pederasty in a more uninhibited physical manner than did other GreeksJ, reorganized the games from one-day contests in track or wrestling to include chariot and horse races ("racing" in the modern sense). However, the competition between runners on foot always remained central to the games. Between 720 and 576, 46 of the 81 known Olympic winners were Spartans, but Athenian, Sicilian, and Italian Greeks as well as ones from elsewhere figure on the lists. After 472 the games lasted for five days, the boys' games (the "junior competitions") falling on the third day. Cities nobly rewarded the victors with expensive prizes, at Athens equaling severa1 years' pay for a common worker, and pensions. They became heroes, they won political power and fame, and the games in some ways resembled beauty contests. Some victors even received divine statues after death.
All these games honored gods portrayed as pederastic from 600 B.C. The legendary aition (cause) of the games was a wrestling match between Heracles and Iolaus, which may be a parallel of the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32:24-32-possible evidence for the origin of the contests in a northwest Semitic athletic tradition. Games were held by the Phrygians and by the Homeric heroes where they pulled each other down by the belt in wrestling-provingthat they competed while clothed. Elsewhere men and boys competed in thenude and women were unequivocally barred from attendance, even as spectators. It was, however, a myth that Orisippus of Megara, a runner in the twentieth Olympiad in 720 B.C., accidentally lost his tunic and thus introduced nudity; it was imported from Crete ca. 600 B.C. Once an erastes (senior lover) rushedup to embrace his bloodied teenaged eromenos (beloved], who had emerged victorin thepankrateia, asort of free-style boxing match and roughest of the five main competitions.
The Olympics were more prestigious than their competitors. The Isthmian Games, where wreaths of cedar leaves were the prize, held every four years at Corinth in honor of Poseidon, owed their origin to amythicalfounding by Sisyphus, king of Corinth, or alternatively by Theseus. The Pythian games honored Apollo at Delphi every eight years until the Amphyctionic Council reorganized them in 582 B.C., to be celebrated in the third year of each Olympiad, with crowns of bay leaves-later apples-as the award (with musical competitions still enjoying greater prestige than the equestrian and athletic contests modeled on the Olympic games, which were added). The Nemean games became pan-Hellenic in 573 B.C. and were eventually managed by Argos on the same lines as at Olympia, the prize being a crown of wild celery. Other contests included kissingmatches held by the boys at Megara and endurance of flogging at the altar of Artemis Orthia in Sparta (in which some boys actually died), which became a tourist attractioninRoman times. Pindar's odes celebrated victors in the Olympic, Pythian, and Isthmian games. Archaic tyrants competed avidly for prizes, usually in the expensive chariot races, which could be compared tomodern trotting races, Dionysius and Agathon of Syracuse being among the victors.
Women's athletic contests were likely more widespread than indicated in the exclusively male sources that have survived. In cultic contests they raced on foot. At Olympia a women's festival honored Hera, paralleling the games for her husband Zeus, with victors receiving an olive crown. The male victors were awarded parts of the animal sacrificed. These may have sprung from races connected with marriage as in the myth of the swift Atalantawhowouldconsenttomarry only the man who could outrun her, or of King Oenomaus who forced suitors to race for the hand of his daughter, won by Pelops, beloved of Heracles and buried at Olympia. But in all sports, male or female, the Greeks competed most aggressively to win, not to overturn records, which with their poor means of timekeeping they could not measure as do modern referees. Nor did they compete to win for their team, as teamwork was foreign to sports at the time and applied only to dance and to the military.
After triumphing under Theodosius, Christians insisted that the religious rites integral to the Olympic games be suspended in 393-94, though the games may have continued until the middle of the fifth century.
The Olympic games, now worldwide, were revived in 1896 at Athens. They bear the impress of modern athletic traditions: the mass physical training of the Turnverein in Germany and the Sokol in the Czech lands, and the aristocratic ideal of the sportsman and gentleman cultivated on the playing fields of the British public schools during the previous hundred years.
The Gay Games of the 1980s were
denied use of the term Olympic by United
States courts responding to a suit of the
American Olympic Committee. Classical
scholars remain reticent about the homoerotic
aspects of the ancient games.
Sansone's theory that athletics and theatre,
which involved masks like those
primitive hunters wore, and males taking
femaleparts, aroseexclusively from primitive
sacrifice and self-enhancing rituals,
can no more be sustained than the hypothesis
of Indo-European initiatory pederasty.
Wendy J. Raschke, ed., The Archaeology of the Olympics: The Olympics and Other Festivals in Antiquity, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988; David Sansone, Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988; Waldo E. Sweet, "Protection of the Genitals in Greek Athletics," Ancient World, 11 (1985),45-60.
William A. Percy