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The Ancient Olympics

Author Malini Roy
Air Date 8/4/2004

The Ancient Olympics Transcript

In the movie, Troy, we are repeatedly informed of ancient Greece’s obsession with winning glory through victory in war. In the Olympics to be held in Athens later this month, we will be regaled with another Greek way of winning glory — through athletics. This is a legacy of peace — for the original Olympic games in Greece, all the warring city-states used to honor a truce. This tradition continues today in the international display of sportsmanship.

Indeed, from the record we have of the ancient Olympics, through artifacts like sculpture and paintings on pottery, the ancient Greeks seem to have been obsessed with sports. For them sports was related to the concept of the perfect human body, an expression of kalokagathia, spiritual and moral beauty. Just visit any gym today, and you will see this ideal still sweating to realize itself on treadmills and weight machines.

With such a strong sporting culture, the Greeks naturally believed in catching them young. For example, the toys of both boys and girls had athletes and athletic events painted on them. The same symbol, an olive wreath, was used to depict an Olympic winner and the birth of a young boy.

The Olympic games, as we know, were held every four years from 776 BC to AD 393. Thousands gathered from all over Greece, braving the dust, heat and crowds for the sake of this visual spectacle. From as early as the 6th century BC, boys of 12-18, called paides, were allowed to participate in some of the events. Mostly, these were contests that called for a lesser degree of physical endurance and strength. Hence these adolescent athletes were excluded from long-distance running and the pankration, a vicious combination of boxing and wrestling. It has been claimed that in the later stages, the Olympics also included some events for girls, like races.

Training for the Olympics was a long and arduous process that formed part of the paides’ education. Those who could afford it were coached by private trainers called paidotribes in gymnasia. Of course, in this brilliant display, lies the humble history of scores of unnamed slave boys who contributed silently to this sporting culture. Some of them were documented on vase-paintings by an artist from Brygos. He depicted several of these young boys holding athletic equipment and looking silently on at their masters perfecting their bodies.

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