What You Didn't Know About the Ancient Olympics
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The Olympic Games are coming up, and much of the world will be enjoying the performances of the very best athletes of today. However, the ancient origins of this modern day event are probably not on your family’s radar. Sure, you know that there were olive wreaths involved, but how much can you share with your child about the Ancient Olympics? Incorporate some learning into the action and excitement by sharing the history of the Olympics with your child. Here’s a cheat sheet about the ancient tournament that’s sure to surprise your young learner!
History The Ancient Olympics lasted about 1,000 years–from 776 BC to AD 395, although the site of the official Games in Olympia had been a sacred place for prayers and festivals for years beforehand. The village of Olympia may seem remote today, but in ancient times it was easily accessible from the sea through rivers and other inland routes. From simple altars of offerings, the site grew to include giant temples, halls, a stadium, swimming pool, and numerous statues—including one of the seven wonders of the world: a gold and ivory statue of the god, Zeus.
The first Olympic Games were religious festivals, held amidst a time of truce in a war-torn land to honor Zeus with festivities and demonstrations of skill in athletics and music. In ancient days, Greece was not its own nation but a collection of city-states often in conflict –if not full out war – with each other and neighboring nations. According to tradition, King Iphitos of Elis, near Olympia, sent a messenger to run the great distance to the oracle at Delphi to ask how to end the destructive wars and disease that were plaguing his people. Her answer was to reinstate a games festival at Olympia, and to declare a truce of all conflicts so that athletes, judges, and viewers could travel safely to and from the games. This truce was extended to three full months every four years to accommodate all those traveling by land and sea to Olympia.
The word “athlete” comes from the Greek, and means “one who competes for a prize”. While some ancient tournaments awarded the winners with shields, woolen cloaks, or olive oil, the oracle at Delphi advised that the winners at Olympia should receive a simple wreath of leaves from the olive trees growing nearby.
The Athletes The ancient Games at Olympia were contests for Greek-speaking men only, and they practiced and competed in the nude. Some say this was to be sure that women did not sneak into the Games as athletes or viewers, and others say this was adopted from the Spartan tradition. In fact, women had their own athletic competitions in ancient Greece, called the Heraia. At Olympia, the Heraia was held every four years to honor the goddess Hera with foot-races as well as prayers, offerings and festivities.
The ten months prior to the Games was a period of intense practice for ancient athletes first in their home city-states, and the last month at a training site in Elis, about 40 miles from Olympia. A strict regime of training and diet was imposed under the supervision of each athlete’s own trainer as well as the officials. Two days before the Games, a parade of judges, athletes, trainers, horses, chariots, owners and jockeys traveled the long distance on the Sacred Road to Olympia.
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