Olympic Games: the gods of ancient stadiums

Exploits, glory, sweat, rivalry, cheating, doping, scandals… The cocktail that made the success of the Olympian events has lasted until our modern Olympic Games. With one big nuance: the ancient competition took place in honor of the gods.

Male race on a 5th century BC Greek vase. J.-C.
Male race on a 5th century BC Greek vase. J.-C.

In 1896, Baron de Coubertin restored the tradition of the Olympic Games, during competitions symbolically disputed in Athens. Pedagogue supporter of the practice of sport in the French school system, he first disseminated his projects via the Athletic Review, before creating, in 1894, the IOC (International Olympic Committee). The ideology that presides over this renaissance is that of eugenics mixed with misogyny and colonialism; the ultra-virility extolled by Coubertin finds a natural echo in the Nazi years, and the Olympic restaurateur even recorded a speech for the Berlin Games in 1936. This dark ceremony of elitist propaganda, praising the superiority of the Aryan race, is a far cry from the celebration of the ancient games: of course, the Greeks also cultivated a fascination for the perfect athletic body, but the events were held in an open, peaceful and eminently religious setting.

A peaceful emulation

Participating in the Games at Olympia was as much a matter of piety towards Zeus as of Pan-Hellenic sociability, which brought together Greeks from all walks of life who shared the spirit of agon, this positive emulation characteristic of Hellenic contests, whether political, military or sports.

If the historical date of the creation of the Olympic games is 776 BC. J.-C., various stories circulate on their origin. According to the poet Pindar, Heracles would have celebrated with games the success of the cleaning of the stables of Augeas, scoured thanks to the Alpheus, whose course borders Olympia. But it is also said that it is for Pelops, a local hero who delights the heart of Princess Hippodamia after a chariot race, that sports competitions are established.

So that the athletes and their public flow without hindrance towards the region of Elis, then in the Altis, the sacred enclosure of Zeus and Hera, three heralds travel the Greek world and announce the forthcoming holding of the games, as well as the “sacred truce”. Respect for this truce is framed by a regulation kept in the temple of Hera at Olympia: no army should set foot on the soil of Elis, and any offender is fined. This is how Alexander the Great had to compensate an Athenian attacked by one of his mercenaries on the way to Olympia! Arrived safely, either by road or by boat carried by the then navigable Alphée, the competitors lodged very close to the sanctuary, in a hotel, while a fair and an ocean of tents unfolded around the Olympic domain.

Divine punishment for cheaters

Athletes must first take an oath in the Bouleuterion, the Council Chamber, under the stern eye of Zeus Horkios (“protector of oaths”). Anyone who evades the rules attracts the wrath of the gods and the judges of the games, the “hellanodices”, assisted by the “mastigophores”, quick to use their whips. After having suffered the blows of the rods, the cheaters must pay a fine reinvested in the erection of statues of Zeus, the Zanes, which mark out the access to the stadium and on which the names of the culprits are clearly inscribed. This is the case of the boxer Eupolos who, in 388 BC. J.-C., buys the defeat of its three competitors.

If it is forbidden to bribe the judges or to pluck the eyes of the adversary from the pankration, doping does not seem to be among the reprehensible offenses. Recent archaeological excavations, on the Turkish site of the ancient Magnesia of the Meander, have even revealed a space reserved, in the stadium of the city, for mandragoreitoi: the latter provide the athletes with a potion made from mandrake roots, an analgesic effective, also inhibiting bouts of melancholy which could affect athletes under pressure.

Théagène, the boxer with 1,300 victories

Because it is an immense popularity that awaits the great athletes. Antiquity has remembered the names of Milo of Croton, with almost divine strength and insatiable appetite, six times Olympic winner and savior of the Pythagoreans whose only arms he held back the roof of the collapsing school. . We also celebrate Theagenes of Thasos, pugilist and pancratiast with 1,300 victories, honored by a statue on the agora of his city. Or Léonidas de Rhodes, a specialist in stadium races, double stadiums and arms races, capable of winning three events in one day.

Among the other sports practiced are the pentathlon (discus and javelin throwing, jumping, running and wrestling) and horse racing, where quadrigae, biges and mounted horses set off. The six days of competition alternate trials, sacrifices and banquets in honor of Pelops, Achilles and Zeus, for whom the artist Phidias completed, in 436 BC. J.-C., one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the statue of the god reigning over Olympia from the top of its 13 meters of gold and ivory. It is still in this framework of widespread piety that the winners receive as the reward for their effort a crown of branches taken from the wild olive trees that Heracles would have, according to legend, brought back from the country of the Hyperboreans.

Athletes on a diet

It’s no small feat to match the strength and endurance of this legendary hero. Eleven months of training precede the games, under the watchful eye of the “gymnasts”, who apply a precise medical and nutritional protocol to their foals, known from the writings of Hippocrates, Philostratus and Galen. An ancestor of the sports coach, attached to both mental and physical preparation, the gymnast does much more than train: he accompanies the athlete at every moment of the day. Sweets are banned, and walks punctuate the daily life of the sportsman, most often a wealthy young aristocrat: “Fast walks after exercise, slow walks in the sun after dinner, lots of walks in the morning: start them slowly, progress to at a brisk pace and finish them slowly,” advises Hippocrates in his Regime.

In order to conserve energy, athletes abstain from sex. Plato thus evokes Iccos of Taranto, who “in the heat of his training, touched neither a woman nor a young man”. As for Galen, he recommends sleeping with a lead plate on the kidneys, in order to avoid nocturnal emissions of sperm… After the quality of sleep and bedding, the table of the future champion is also meticulously examined by the coaches. : Philostratus offers a menu of barley bread, bran unleavened bread and beef, bull, goat and antelope meat. Among comic authors, athletes thus become bellies on legs, like Theophilus’ pancratiast, who swallows snout, ham, pig’s and beef’s trotters, heaps of figs and pure wine as lunch… Euripides also makes fun of the brood of athletes, slaves to their jaws and a scourge that strikes Greece, responsible for having accustomed them too much to futile gloriole.

Naked in the stadium

The athletic body is thus slowly sculpted by long months of diet and exercise, to be put to the test even before the start of the games: a two-day march, covering the 57 kilometers between Elis and Olympia, allows competitors selected to leave their last place of training and enter the temple of competitions, already teeming with thousands of spectators. And it is in the simplest way that athletes exhibit their talent: athletic nudity is a shared value of ancient Hellenism. According to Pausanias, the runner Orsippos of Megara would have been the first to drop his belt, to be more comfortable!

The ancient historian Thucydides points to the Spartans as the introducers of nudity and the use of body oil in stadiums. The oil, mixed with the sand, also protects against summer sunburn which lights up the play season. A passionate spectator of gymnastics, the scholar Thales of Miletus is said to have succumbed to sunstroke during a heat wave, around 550 BC. Another nuisance, flying insects, against which we rely on Zeus Apomyios, who hunts flies harassing the public and athletes, whose skin is particularly exposed.

Pagan games abolished by Christians

There is hardly any sense of shamelessness in the nudity of the competitors. Witness the presence of young girls in the stands and, in the front row of the spectators at Olympia, the priestess of Demeter Chamyne. She is the only married woman tolerated during the games; Olympia appears here as an exception in the Greek world, where wives attend competitions, especially in Athens and Delos. If Zeus presides over the men’s events contested in his sanctuary, Hera, his wife, is not left out: every four years, the Olympia stadium also hosts, during the Heraia, a women’s race organized by 16 wives of the Elis. The winners of each age group receive an olive crown and a share of the heifer sacrificed for Hera.

Gaia, Zeus, Hera, Pelops… It is a whole line of deities who occupy, alongside pilgrims and athletes, the Olympic space. In 395 AD. J.-C., the Christian emperor Theodosius castigates pagan polytheism and prohibits the holding of games. Earthquakes and — according to a recent hypothesis — tsunamis share the responsibility for the burial of the site, which will be reborn under the brush of German archaeologists in the 19th century, before Pierre de Coubertin gets busy rehabilitating the games according to ideological principles that , even if they are fruits of their time, are still controversial.



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