We humans love to idealize the past. We imagine historical people as both more honorable and less flawed that we are today.
A case in point is our contrasting views of modern athletes — especially our Olympians — verses how we perceive the athletes of “yore” — particularly the ancient Greek athletes who competed in the original Olympic games.
Rather than do a boring compare/contrast, I’m simply going to give you a few interesting facts about the Olympics the Greeks knew, and reflect upon a few of them. I’ll leave any lessons for our modern world completely up to you. There may not be any! There may be many. Either way, it seems a rather personal thing, so we’ll keep it that.
Greek Olympics: A (Very) Short History
The last official Olympic Games was held in either AD 389 or 393. And while it fell heavily out of favor in the Christian-dominated Europe of the time (seen as just one more pagan ritual in need of extermination), it did live on under different names at Antioch until 530 AD.
Interestingly, despite the eventual stance of the Christians of that era, St. Paul was clearly referencing the Games when he wrote, “I have fought a good fight, I have run the course, I have kept the faith.” I’d argue that he was quite positive on sports.
During the heyday of the Games, every city had a stadium. There were many hundreds of other athletic festivals happening all the time. The Olympic Games were simply the pinnacle.
Greek athletes were ALL male. Like so much that we like to pretend wasn’t true about our beloved Greeks (mine too!), they were remarkably sexists, racist, and xenophobic by todays standards. 1
Greek athletes were free men. They were quite different than their Gladiator counterparts in Rome, who were generally captives or slaves. And unlike the (strange) ideal we impose upon our own Olympians, they got PAID. Greek Olympians were professionals who were paid out in prize money.
Below is a list of payouts (in Denarii) for a festival at Aphrodisias in the 1st century. It’s important to note that this was a tiny festival compared to the Olympic Games. We can only guess how much more they made at that larger event.
For reference, we can estimate that 1 Denarii would equal about $20 buckaroos in American green. (Though, such estimations are understandably dubious!)
- Pankration: 3,000 (similar to todays MMA fighting)
- Boxing: 2,000
- Wrestling: 2,000
- Sprint: 1,250 (roughly a 200 yards dash) 2
- Foot Race: 1,000 (400 yards, ish)
- Long Distance Race: 750
- Pentathalon: 500
- Race in Armor: 500 (I’m not making this shit up!)
While we love to imagine the Greeks as far less violent than the Romans, notice how much more the fighters were paid, and that the highest prizes went to the most violent of their sports. I must say, however, that at least — like our own pro fighters — these were free men who CHOSE to do this, not captives forced into gladatorial combat. That difference is so great it can’t be understated.
City-States competed against one another. Give their propensity to favor the violent sports, it may not come as a surprise that Sparta was considered one of the better of the city-states.
Athens sucked. During the period we consider to be Athens golden age, they won only 4 victories out of 183!
Milo, of progressive-resistance fame, was a real dude, and was also just as awesome as “all that”. He is considered the greatest Greek athletes of all time — their Micheal Jordan. He won the wrestling contest 5 Olympics in a row (they were spaced by 4 years each, just as ours are) and on his last, he carried the sacraficial ox (no shit) around the stadium in a victory lap, then sat down and ate it. Micheal was a bit more gentele.
There you have it. Some random facts about the original Greek Olympic Games to help you ring in the new year.
Now go lift something heavy (like an ox),
- Slavery, and an active slave trade, was strongly at the center of Greek economic life. Though, unlike its American counterpart, slavery wasn’t race-based. In fact, rarely throughout history, and the world, has it been race that was the determining factor in whether you were a slave or free. I’m not sure that makes it better! But, it is interesting, from an anthropological point of view. ↩
- The sprint was 1 stade which is about 212 meters. The Foot Race was 2 stade, or 424 meters. ↩