Like most of you, it's been fun watching the Olympics. But what were the original Olympics like? National Geographic has a fascinating interview with a historian that discusses what it would have been like to have seen the Olympics 2000 years ago. It's riveting. Here are some highlights, but read the whole thing.
The Olympic Games were held every four years from 776 B.C. to A.D. 394, making them the longest-running recurring event in antiquity. What was the secret of the games' longevity?
Today's Olympics is a vast, secular event, but it doesn't have the religious element of the ancient Olympics, where sacrifices and rituals would take up as much time as the sports. And there were all these peripheral things that came with the festival: the artistic happenings, new writers, new painters, new sculptors. There were fire-eaters, palm readers, and prostitutes.
This was the total pagan entertainment package.
How popular were the male athletes?
They were as close as you could get to being a demigod in the mortal world. You would gain incredible prestige and wealth from an Olympic victory. You never had to work again.
Officially, the winner was given an olive wreath. But your home city would give you piles of money, honors like front seats at the theater, lifetime pensions, vats of olive oil, maybe even priesthood. Your name would be passed down from generation to generation. You became part of the very fabric of history.
What was it like for the spectators?
To be a spectator at the Olympic Games was an incredibly uncomfortable experience. It makes modern sports fans seem like a pretty flaky bunch. First of all, if you came from Athens, you had to walk 210 miles [340 kilometers] to get to the site.
Olympia is in the middle of nowhere. It's a beautiful place, very idyllic. But it's basically a collection of three temples and a running track, with one inn reserved for the wealthy.
The organizers had it pretty easy in ancient times. They only had to chase a few sheep and cattle off the running track and temples. Everyone just turned up and had to look after himself. If you're rich, you put up a tent and you had servants. But the rank-and-file spectators plunked down anywhere.
In the high summer it was incredibly hot. The two rivers that converge at Olympia dried up. Nobody could wash. There was no drinking water, and people collapsed from heat stroke.
There was no sanitation, so the odors were quite pungent. Once you got into the stadium, there were no seats, only grassy banks. The word stadium comes from the Greek stadion, which means "a place to stand." But it was an incredible atmosphere with an amazing sense of tradition. People were standing on the very hill where Zeus wrestled his father [according to legend].
How many people showed up?
There were an estimated 40,000 spectators, and probably as many hangers-on, like vendors, writers, artists, prostitutes, and their shepherds.
They didn't have some of the things that we associate with the games today, like the torch relay.
The torch thing was really devised for the 1936 Nazi games. Hitler was fascinated with the ancient Greek world. He had all these theories that Spartans were this Aryan super race. Carl Diem, a sidekick of his, came up with this idea of carrying the torch from Olympia to Berlin.
But the torch and the opening ceremony transcended those rather sordid origins, and it became this wonderful tradition.
Running was the oldest event, but what about the marathon?
The ancient games didn't actually have a marathon. The three-mile [five-kilometer] dolichos was the longest running event in the early ancient games.
The marathon is a Victorian invention, based on a story about the Battle of Marathon. A courier, Philippides, who fought in the battle, dashed from the battlefield to bring news of the Greek victory to Athens. Once there, he collapsed and died.
The 26.3-mile [42.3-kilometer] distance from Marathon to Athens is the length of the modern marathon races around the world.