Olympic Traditions

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff
Return to: Olympics 2008

The Olympics draws on traditions of war, religion, economy

by David Johnson

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Sports, contests, and physical competition are as old as humanity itself. Sports have been derived from war, religious ceremony, economic activity, and for just plain fun.

If you think the Olympics have changed over the years, take a look at these ancient sport facts.

The Ancient Olympics Were Commercial

Many modern critics contend the Olympics are too commercial. Apparently little has changed. Cheating and bribery were so common at the ancient games that statutes warning against dishonesty were set up along the road to the stadium. Successful athletes were celebrities. Medals and poems were commissioned to celebrate winners. Towns erected statues in honor of their local champions. Around 200 A.D., the leading citizens of Syracuse bribed an Olympic victor, Dikon, into saying he came from Syracuse, when in fact he came from Caulonia.

In 490 B.C. the Persian army attacked the Athenians at the Greek village of Marathon. Pheidippides ran to ask Sparta for help. While Sparta refused, the Athenians won anyway. Pheidippides then ran to Athens to proclaim the victory. After running 150 miles in two days, he collapsed and died. While the Battle of Marathon has become a historical footnote, Pheidippides' achievement survives as the marathon.

Olympic Truce

Dedicated to the God Zeus, the ancient Olympic games were so highly political that they were routinely interrupted by war. The city-state of Elis arranged what came to be known as the Olympic Truce—a general ceasefire. Athletes, spectators, and officials could safely attend. Elis did not always honor its own truce however. In 364 B.C. the neighboring town of Pisa was running the games and the outraged Elis attacked Pisa during the games, setting off a full-scale battle involving thousands of soldiers and lasting all day. Elis eventually regained control of the Olympics, but never accepted the legitimacy of the games conducted by Pisa.

Women's Games

Women were not only forbidden to compete in the Olympics, they were not allowed to watch. They had their own games, dedicated to Hera, the wife of Zeus. Unmarried women were allowed to enter a variety of contests. Like the men, winners received gifts, special privileges, and olive crowns.

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