Naked fisticuffs, whip-wielding referees – it seems today’s athletes have got it easy compared to the original Olympic heroes. Here we reveal how the games have changed since their BC birthdate…
Let The Games Begin
The Olympics kicked off in Olympia in 776BC. Back then, they were a religious event honouring Zeus. And they were deemed so important that wars were halted so athletes could get to and from the games in one piece. Apparently, Christian Roman Emperor, Theodosius, decided they were a bit pagan, so the Olympics were banned about 1,500 years ago – ending 12 centuries of the games.
Picking Up The Baton
In the late 1800s, a Frenchman called Pierre dropped by the Wenlock Olympian Society in Shropshire, where he found athletes doing all sorts, from 100-metre sprints to wheelbarrow races. Bizarrely, it prompted him to revive the Olympic Games. 1896 saw the first official games, and Athens was the natural choice of venue. Things took a while to get to the fully-formed Games we see today. Women couldn’t compete until 1900, electronic timing didn’t arrive until 1912, and the Olympic rings waited in the wings until 1920.
On Your Marks
The Greeks were running a ‘stadion’ race – a 200-yard dash – for over 50 years before they thought to add a second event. The maddest one was pankration – anything-goes fighting. Things often got violent, and the ref was allowed to whip any contestants who tried eye-gouging. Meanwhile, boxing had no rounds – it stopped when a fighter was knocked out cold. If a fight lasted too long, opponents took turns punching each other in the head until someone collapsed.
Tug of war and croquet are just two in a back catalogue of 16 failed events at the modern Olympics. Also on this list is tennis – it didn’t get a look-in between 1924 and 1988. Violence features in the modern games, too. In 1956, Hungarian and Russian water polo teams came to blows, and the crowd tried to join in. Only the speedy appearance of the police stopped a full-blown riot.
Heroes Of Old
Forget protein shakes – athletes of times gone by started out on a diet of cheese and berries before moving on to an Atkins-style approach. In terms of kit, they ditched their togas, preferring to go au naturel. And competitors were all male – women couldn’t even watch. The first winner was a chef, and other champions have included two Roman emperors. Death wasn’t always an obstacle – in 564BC Arrhachion of Philgaleia was crowned victor of pankration even though he was dead.
Today’s sportsmen have rigorous training schedules and highly-controlled diets (although Usain Bolt did famously eat chicken nuggets before breaking the 100-metre world record in Beijing). As such, the modern games have seen some extraordinary people, like gymnast George Eyser. He won three gold, two silver and a bronze – with a wooden leg. Jim Thorpe, on the other hand, thought one sport wasn’t enough and won the pentathlon and the decathlon in the same year.
Thomson Cruises’ Pearls of the Aegean itinerary is spot on if you’re an Olympics fan. The ship calls in at Katakolon, gateway to Olympia where you can check out what’s left of the original stadium. There’s also a stop in Athens, home to the amphitheatre-esque Panathenaic Stadium that kicked off the first modern Olympics. www.thomson.co.uk/cruise
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Author: Joe Beaumont
Published: February 28, 2012
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