Depiction of foot racing
None of the other three Games (Pythian,
Nemean, Isthmian) ranked in importance with the Olympic Games held every four
years. Olympia, the most prestigious of the four centers, became the quadrennial
meeting place for the entire Greek world; the preeminent athletic center where
sportsmen contended for the most coveted prize of the ancient world—the
olive-wreath crown. Olympia was a force that literally unified the Greek world
every four years, and exerted a tremendous control on the people. So subtle and
strong was its influence that a pilgrimage to Olympia made the visitor a person
of importance upon his return home. An Olympic victor was a hero for life.
No institution, no event in history has had a longer unbroken record than the
Olympic Games, held continuously from 776 B.C. to a.d. 393, nearly twelve
centuries. No other human event can equal that record!
Women were not allowed to attend the Olympic Games. The only female present was
the priestess who presided over the altar of Demeter, Mother Earth. And the eyes
of the priestess were closed to the action of the Games as she chanted her
prayers. The taboo against female presence at Olympia was strict; it was decreed
that should a woman invade the precinct she would be immediately judged and
hurled to certain destruction from the high Tymparian Rock into the death gorge
However on one recorded occasion, officials relented when a woman attended the
Games. She was Kallipatera from the island of Rhodes and a member of the
Diagoridai family famous for athletic and artistic achievements. She accompanied
her son, Peisidorus, to Olympia where he was to compete in the boys' boxing
events. Disguising herself as a trainer, the mother stole into Olympia and
watched her son win the olive-wreath crown. At his victory, Kallipatera shrieked
in a piercing female voice, and thereby unmasked herself. Because Kallipatera
was the mother, sister, and daughter of Olympic victors, the officials had no
honorable choice but to pardon her.
Olympic Games were held in the late summer or early fall after the grain harvest
and the olive picking. The exact date was determined by the full moon. According
to tradition, the Olympic Games were scheduled for the second or third full moon
after the summer solstice, falling either in the month of Apollonius (August) or
Parthenos (September) . Due to the movement of the celestial bodies, the Games
were held one year in August; the next time, forty-nine or fifty lunar months
later, in September.
Six months before the Games, the priests and officials at Olympia sent out
spondophores, heralds, to proclaim to all men that the Olympic truce was
declared, and to announce the fixed dates for the five-day festival. From the
time the spondophores began their truce-trek, travelers were under the
protection of Almighty Zeus, the Thunderer, and could proceed with safety even
through the areas infested with the most villainous robbers. Anyone who broke
the truce was accountable to Zeus and to the officials at Olympia, who levied
fines against truce breakers.
When the spondophores reached a town there was celebration with banquets in
honor of the forthcoming Games. When the heralds left, the city engaged in
intensive athletic training that mounted as the time approached for the
selection of those athletes who would represent the city at Olympia.
Knowledgeable judges, appointed by the Boule, watched each day as the fairest
and finest young men vied with each other. Finally the day of climax, long
awaited, arrived: the judges announced the names of those who would contend at
the Olympic Games. Hearts were broken or hearts were warmed, depending on who
lost and who won the honor of competing for his city. After their selection, the
nominees sacrificed each day to the gods, and intensified their training.
Every city selected an Embassy, the official group including political leaders,
scholars, artists, musicians, poets, and merchants who would travel to Olympia
in splendor as representatives of their city.
At Olympia, with the approach of the Games, priests and officials prepared the
Hellenodikai, the judges for the Games, putting them through a training period.
The Hellenodikai purged themselves of any wrongdoing, and vowed to judge each
event on the merits of the individual competitors. The temples were cleaned and,
if necessary, repainted. Maintenance crews worked on the stadium, the palaestra,
the gymnasium and the hippodrome. Musicians accompanied the workmen who sang as
they labored. Pressure mounted. Sacrifices were made every six hours. Excitement
increased by the day. The date of the Olympic Games was approaching.
About two months before the scheduled Games, depending on the distance to be
traveled, the Embassy and athletes of each city departed for Olympia, The night
before departure, the city was in festival spirit. Mammoth bonfires burned
bright, and the young men of the city danced around the flames. Lambs were
roasted for banquets honoring the athletes; sheep were sacrificed to the gods.
Revelry continued throughout the night.