From the eBook: Inventing Fitness Pt I The Greeks, a Society, and it’s Strength on Amazon
“Songs lord of the lyre, what god, what hero, what man shall we celebrate” – From Pindars 2nd Olympian Ode
Hermes, the god of athletes and gymnasiums was believed to have the ability to move freely between the mortal and the divine worlds. For this, he was also the god of boundries and travelers. As Pindar’s Ode suggests, one surefire way to manifest good was to honor the gods with an athletic competition. With their obsession for the human form combined with a deep compulsion to succeed, the greeks of the late Geometric Period formed the first Olympic Games in 776 BCE.
On your mark
The word athlete, derived from the greek words athlon “a prize” and athlos “contest” can be traced as far back as the Iliad and the Odyssey. Again, battle’s, strife and general chaos kept the ancients busy.
The Games, in honor of Zues, were held around his temple the largest in the Peloponnese region. His spectacular statue carved in ivory and gold plate over wood, was also one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. To the nirtheast of this site sits the gymnasium and it’s Palaestra. Our traveler Pausanius has reached the city of the Olympia:
“In the gymnasium of Olympia it is customary for pentathlete’s and runners to practice, and in open made a basement of stone.”
Excavated ruins show a massive complex measuring 393 feet in length including various rooms. Regulation NFL fields of today measure 360 feet in length. To the south sits the Leonidion, the housing for visiting athletes. Measuring 245 x 265 feet this hotel, this hotel large as it was, still would not have accomodated all who made the pilgrimage. Many competitors likely slept outdoors in the grass during the warm, august months.
From their inception until the 14th games in 724 BCE, the stadion race was the only competitive event held in Olympia. Named after the building where it was held, it was done so in the nude and covered in olive oil.
As a way of warming up the muscles, this habit was a precursor to the pre-event sports massage. Galen, the greek physician speaks of lightly rubbing the skin; “…..but not bruise it.” A gleaming, toned physique was someting to take pride and care of. Today’s physique competitors and bodybuilders shave all their hair, self tan, and oil their frames specifically to accentuate muscle definition. Hair conceals muscle and bright stage lights wash out skin color. In the 6th century you would have had you’re own regimen and interestingly enough terra cotta dust was thought to open pores. After hours of sweat, dust, and dirt an athlete used an iron device called a strigil to scrape away the layers.
It is important to note that during this time there were no teams – only individuals. No team athens, no team troy, an athlete came with his father, brothers, and his trainer. These athletes were considered preeminent and a win here meant honor to your family and the polis in which you hailed.