Saturday, July 21, 2012

Ancient Olympic Anecdotes

Ancient Runners
The modern Games of the XXXth Olypmiad are nearly upon us and so, we shall continue with another Olympic-themed post. Whatever the age, ancient or modern, there are always Olympic heroes whose names will echo for all time because of the deeds they performed. Today we remember athletes such as Carl Lewis for his speed, Cuban boxer TeĆ³filo Stevenson for his Olympic ideals, Nadia Comaneci for her gymnastic glory or Jesse Owens for his inspiring victories before Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Games. These are but a handful of examples. Feats of glory and courage are part and parcel with the Olympics themselves.

It is the same with the ancient Games.

A little research into the past will reveal that the ancient Olympics were not without heroes. The gods were indeed honoured by the feats performed at this ancient ritual at Olympia, beside the rivers Alfeios and Kladeos from 776 B.C. to A.D. 394 when they were banned by Emperor Theodosius I.

Ancient sources speak of several competitors who wore the olive crown repeatedly in their day. There is the southern Italian Greek, Milo of Kroton, who was victorious in wrestling no less than six times, once as a boy and then among the ranks of men. Milo’s defeat only came seven Olympiads later in 512 B.C. when a younger challenger wore him out by evading him, not overpowering him. Milo was a legend, a showman, and he performed feats of strength wherever he went, a second Herakles. He was also an excellent warrior and the story goes that when his town of Kroton was attacked, the Olympian joined the battle wearing his crowns and dressed like Herakles, club and all. He led his fellow citizens to victory. Another time, Milo saved a gathering of Pythagoreans whose meeting hall began to collapse. Milo held the central pillar to allow everyone to run to safety before he jumped out himself. That was a man who lived his title every day of his life.

Then there is Melankomas of Caria, a sort of pacifist boxer! He was the victor at the 207th Olympiad in A.D. 49. Melankomas was known for his perfect physique and good looks but with such attributes, he felt the need to prove his courage. And so, he chose athletics as the most honourable and strenuous path open to him. The training was more trying than that of a soldier! His boxing style was to defend himself from the blows of his opponents without striking them. Often, the opponents would get frustrated and lose composure in the face of Melankomas’ endurance; he could apparently fight all day in the summer heat without striking anyone. The others must have just collapsed! At any rate, Melankomas was undefeated throughout his career yet he never once hit an opponent, nor was he himself hit. Unique style, I’ll give him that.

One of my personal favourites is the story of Diagoras of Rhodes, boxer, and victor at the 79th Olympiad in 464 B.C. When the great poet Pindar praises him as a ‘straight-fighting, tremendous man who had himself crowned beside the Alpheus’ (Olympian 7), you know this is a special person. Diagoras was supposedly everything a noble, ancient athlete should be, his character perfectly virtuous. Not only did he win the Olympic crown, but he was also victorious four times at the Isthmian Games and twice at the Nemean Games and elsewhere. And it ran in the family! Diagoras of Rhodes lived to witness the Olympic victories of two of his sons, Damagetos and Akousilaos, in pankration and boxing respectively. After the sons’ victories they hoisted their father on their shoulders while the crowd sang the praises of the entire family. In addition to that shining moment, two of Diagoras’ daughters’ sons were also Olympic victors, making that three generations of the Diagoras family to be crowned at Olympia. No wonder there was talk of their divine ancestry!

Many know that the ancient Olympic Games were closed to women who were not allowed to participate or observe the games, not even to set foot in the sacred sanctuary during the games. However, one of my favourite Olympic anecdotes has to do with the Spartan princess, Cynisca. This young, vibrant and strong woman was the daughter of Archidamus II, King of Sparta and the later sister of King Agesilaus II. Cynisca was also the first woman in history to win in an event at the ancient Olympic Games.

Four Horse Chariot
What’s that? you ask. You said women were not permitted to participate in the games! Yes, that is true, except when it came to the owning and training of horses in the equestrian events. And this is where Cynisca made her mark. According to Pausanias, the princess was an expert equestrian and had ambitions toward the Olympic Games. If anyone could have pulled this off, it was a Spartan. Though Spartan girls did not enter into the brutal Agoge as the boys did, to make them the fierce warriors that they were, Spartan girls were, nevertheless, trained in many sports including riding and hunting. The Spartan view was that strong women breed strong Spartan men. No other Greek women were permitted such a life, most being kept indoors. At any rate, Cynisca’s team went on to win the four-horse chariot race in both 396 B.C. and 392 B.C. She may not have seen her team win, but she was honoured with a bronze statue of a chariot team and one of herself in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. She even had her own hero shrine in Sparta. Both honours were a first for women.

To the Victor!
There were of course, several sacred games held in ancient Greece: the Olympic Games, the Isthmian Games, the Pythian Games and the Nemean Games. How many victor’s stories have been lost to history? Sadly, probably too many. But we should be happy to have some still available to us. The stories, like those of our modern Olympic heroes, are inspiring anecdotes that history has left us. When we walk the ground of ancient Olympia today, or read the histories in ancient texts, to my ears the roar of the crowd still rings true, despite the passage of time. I can hear the crash in the dust as Milo of Kroton throws an opponent, the adoration of the crowd for the Diagoras family, or Cynisca’s victorious yell outside the sanctuary walls as she made Olympic history.

If you are fortunate enough to be watching the XXXth Olympiad in London this summer, take note, take it in. You may be witnessing history in the making. 
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