Athletic Events in Prehistory

Hippias of Elis, a sophist of the fifth century BC, was the first to compile the initial victor list of the Olympic games. From him we learn that the first athletic contest, the foot race, was held at the sacred place of Olympia, in western Peloponnese, for the first time in 776 BC, in honor of the Olympian Zeus. Later ancient sources inform us that the Olympic festival gained considerable importance, ranked among the largest and most famous Panhellenic festivals by the time of early 5th century.

Was the athletic competition always organized?
And what did athletic competition mean to the earlier cultures of the Mediterranean?

Ancient Egyptians and the people of Mesopotamia had a long tradition in athletic activities, as shown by the reliefs depicting athletic scenes carved on the tombs of their kings and their nobles. They did not hold regular festivals, however, and when they did, it seems that these were only attended by kings and the higher class.

The Minoans showed special concern in gymnastics. Bull-leaping and tumbling became their favorite sports, as indicated by the frescoes decorating their palaces. Other Minoan sports included some track-contests, wrestling and boxing. From what we can tell, such activities were practiced in places near the palace, probably by members of the noble class.

The Myceneans adopted all Minoan games, and introduced chariot-racing and more track contests. The Myceneans used the chariot not only for hunting and war purposes, but for religious and funerary ceremonies too.

The Homeric poems comprise the first written evidence of athletic contests in the Greek world. In his great poems, Homer gives vivid descriptions of the athletic contests held as part of the funerary ceremonies in honor of the dead hero, Patroclus, or in other occasions.

The emergence of the first city-states caused a rapid development in athletism: a number of local contests were set up in these cities, held in festivals of religious character. Athletism became an institution, providing vehicles for recurring competition among the members of the polis.

Olympia soon became an important religious place, where a series of athletic contests were held. Modern research focuses on understanding the origins of this great religious celebration that became the symbol of political and cultural unity of Greeks in the historical period. Were the Olympics always a big festival, and was Olympia always a sacred place? Why did the games develop as a Panhellenic institution at this particular part of the western Peloponnese, and how did this institution change throughout the course of the years? Ancient Greeks and later writers describe their myths for the origins of the first games at Olympia, whereas archaeologists spend great efforts in reconstructing the history of the festival through finds in excavations.

Despite the considerable amount of academic work devoted to the investigation of the above issues, the modern reader would be surprised by the number of different opinions, rooted often in the contradictory nature of the available archaeological and literary evidence. The following text, a full index of athletism and its origins, is dedicated to the anonymous reader who wants to explore further the origins of athletism and understand its various meanings in different times.

Egypt & Mesopotamia | Minoan Crete | Mycenean Greece

Homeric Age | Athletism & Polis | Why Olympia?

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