Sunday, May 27, 2012

Olympics: The Curse of Myrtilus

The origins of the Ancient Olympic Games remain shrouded in mystery but some historians believe it may have been to celebrate a foot race organized by the guardians of the infant Zeus. Others think the ancient games arose as a celebration of Pelops defeat over King Oenomaus in a chariot race. The prize was the hand of Princess Hippodamia. However not entirely out of character, Pelops cheated in the chariot race which resulted in the death of Myrtilus the charioteer. With his dying breath Myrtilus cursed Pelops and many believe the curse of Pelops is the main reason for the many misfortunes which are associated with both the ancient and modern games.

The first organized games took place in Greece in 776 BCE. The ancient games were part of a religious festival honoring Zeus and were the scene of great political rivalries. They were also the sites of many controversies, boasts, public announcements and humiliation. Held every four years for nearly 1,100 years they ran from 776 BCE to 393 AD. At first there were four Pan-Hellenic games. The Pythian Games were held in Delphi in honor of Apollo. The stade was 177.5 meters long and the winners were given a crown of laurel leaves. The Nemean Games were held in Nemea in honor of Zeus. Champions were given garlands of fresh wild celery. The Isthmian Games were held in Cornith in honor of Poseidon where pine branches were given to the champions. The most famous were the Olympics held at Olympia in honor of Zeus. The Olympic stade was 192.28 meters and champions were given olive leaves to commemorate their victories. The games alternated so there was an athletic festival every year. Ancient Greeks kept calendars by "Olympiads" or four-year spans to correspond with the games.

The ancient games took place at the first moon after the summer solstice and victors became heroes. Winners were presented with an amphora (two handed vessel) full of the finest olive oil. The vessels were decorated with scenes of the particular event. Originally the athletes were amateurs but eventually they received prize money and even appearance money. The Olympics were the one exception.

The stade was the only Olympic event for the first thirteen Olympic Games, until the diaulos was instituted in the fourteenth Olympics. The dolichos was then instituted the following year, for the fifteenth Olympic Games. The Hoplitodromos, or the race in armor, was not instituted until the sixty-fifth Olympiad.

Because the ancient games were a celebration of the gods they were held in one of the oldest religious centres in ancient Greece, Olympia. This was at the site of a great temple. The settling was practical in that it was a venue with easy access. Travelers from distant parts of Greece travelled to compete in the games. An international truce among the Greeks was established for the month before and after the games to allow the athletes and judges to reach Olympia safely. Judges had the power to fine and or disqualify entire cities for breaking the truce. The games grow in popularity and competitors came from far and wide. At first, non Greeks could not compete but Greeks came from as far as Spain and the Ukraine. After the 2nd century AD, the Roman Empire brought more competitors to the games. Greeks boys were trained for the competition from early in their schooling. Like today's serious athletes their sport required mental dedication, top conditioning, and outstanding athletic ability in order to make the grade. The Greeks believed rigorous training should not commence until after three years of study and the child had reached puberty. Athletes had to take an oath they had trained for 10 months prior to competition.

Competitors were naked which remains a mystery but two plausible theories include competitors may have tripped over their long shorts and died during competition and the other was to ensure no women could compete. Married women were forbidden to travel to the Olympic Games and only men and unmarried girls were allowed to attend. Women began to complete around AD 200. The only sporting event was a short race.

Cornith had a thriving sex industry and it is likely the athletic games provided an ideal opportunity for men to indulge in extramarital sex. The first games were staged near a big olive tree dedicated to the father of the gods and men. From it, athletes received their glorious prize - a garland of olive leaves said to give magical properties to the victors of the station, or stadium. The first Olympian was a cook Koroibos from Elis, the home of Zeus's sanctuary and the ancient games. Records and timing did not exist nor did gold, silver and bronze medals. Only the winner mattered in the ancient games and stood to gain considerably from their efforts. In Athens once a winner was declared champion they received free meat for life. Cities lured successful athletes to live within their boundaries so they could represent their interests on the competition. Some athletes were known to receive appearance money.

Married women had their own sports festival and these were dedicated to goddesses Hera and Demeter protector of agriculture and fertility.

Olympians were gods and had fans as well as statues and songs and poetry written in their honor. Scandals were as frequent then as they are today and the first bribery scandal was in 388 BC. A boxer bribed two opponents to throw their fights and was caught, fined and banned from the competition. Athlete who transgressed during the ancient games was publicly whipped by the adjudicators. Judges themselves were held accountable for their behavior and as early as 396 BC two were fined for showing favoritism.

Under the Roman emperors, the games deteriorated into professional carnivals and circuses and Emperor Theodosius (347 – 395) eventually banned them in 394 A.D.

Guhl E Koner W 1994 The greeks:their life and customs London:Senate
Rancier L 1997 The sex chronicles Santa Monica: General Publishing Group

Reviewed 1/02/2016

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Olympics: Origins of the footrace

The Greeks were the first ancient nation to acknowledge the importance of corporeal exercise. Athletic games and religion became the central parts of the lives of the ancient Greeks and a key ingredient of many religious festivals. Distance was important and the human foot was key in all measuring systems.

The ancient Egyptians had used a "step" for a measurement and a two-step stride was equivalent to two yards (1.8 meters). The ancient Greeks adopted this and a distance of 100"steps" (about 200 metres) became a stade. This was a popular distance for foot races and runners sprinted for 1 stade.

Amphitheatres where foot races were held were called a stadium and were 192m long and 32 m wide.

The ancient running course was a rectangular field marked off at each end by stone blocks set into the ground in a line or sill called a balbis. The balbis usually had parallel grooves carved along its length, as well as sockets at regular intervals for posts. The posts in the balbis served a dual purpose, as part of the starting gate and as turning posts (kampteres). The grooves marked the positions for the runners' feet. Runners had a standing start with the left foot slightly ahead of the right. The back end of the starting grooves was vertical to allow the runners to grip with their toes and shove off, whereas the forward end was bevelled toward the track to keep the runners from stubbing their toes.

In the city of Corinth, they experimented with the form of the starting line in their stadium, built ca. 500 B.C. The balbis was curved so that in races with turns the runners on the outside did not have to run farther than those on the inside. Also the runners placed their toes into individual toe grooves, not a continuous groove along the sill. The front and rear grooves were two or three feet apart, indicating the runners employed a wide starting stance. Races were started with a trumpet blast or auditory cry. The starter had a whip with which to beat the athletes who started too soon or broke the rules.

To prevent cheating circa 450 BC foot races started from mechanical starting gate or hysplex. Between poles at each end of the balbis, ropes were stretched to form a barrier. Using torsion from twisted ropes, the gate was lowered to the ground, then raised against the tension and kept in a vertical position by a ring and cord fastened to larger stationary posts at each end. The rings were also attached to ropes and held by an official standing behind the runners. At a jerk of the ropes, the rings slipped off the poles, and the gate slammed forward, allowing the runners to spring onto the track. Footraces included a double stade (or diaulos) in which runners raced up the field, turned around a post, and returned; the dolichos, (literally the "long race"), was seven to 24 stades in length (1,400 to 4,800 meters). In the diaulos runners had individual turning posts and two lanes for the run up the track and back. Coloured dust was used to mark off the lanes. For the dolichos the runners turned around single posts at each end.

In the stadium at Nemea (circa fourth century BC) there was a stone block with a socket hole 5.3 meters on the track side of the balbis and 3.4 meters to the west of the central longitudinal north-south axis. The socket hole held a turning post, and a similar one must have existed at the other end of the stadium. It is surmised runners clustered to their right as they approached the posts at each end.

An armed race or hoplitodromos was used as part of military training. Runners ran a diaulos with full body armour (estimated 25kg), including helmet, shin guards and carrying a shield. The 200metre (656 ft), foot race was the only event in the first 13 Olympiads. Runners wore loin cloths but later appeared naked. Any tricks bribery, or force employed by competitors to gain advantage upon others were strictly prohibited.

As time passed the Greeks added different events with the pentathlon and wrestling first introduced at the 19th Olympiad. Later in Roman times a Roman mile or mille passum (1000 double paces or strides) measured about 5000 feet or a little short of today’s mile (5,282 feet). In the beginning competitors ran barefoot but as the Greek Empire extended more athletes from colder climates came to races wearing sandals. At first spectators and barefoot competitors treated these as a novelty and sign of parochialism. As soon as shod athletes became winners then public opinion changed and the wearing of sandals was viewed with great suspicion and associated with cheats.

Eventually once it was recognized the sole of the sandal increased ground traction and propelled the leg forward with greater efficiency most athletes adopted the running sandal. The sole of the sandal needed to be securely attached to the foot and this necessitated leather thong wrapped to the ankle and sometimes above.

References Guhl E Koner W 1994 The greeks:their life and customs London:Senate
Hanna A 1985 Design in strude: Explorations in shoe design Industrial Design Jan/Feb pp40-45.

Reviewed 26/01/2016