Imagine sitting down on the couch on a Sunday in early February, but instead of turning on the Super Bowl, you are stuck watching reality TV. Without Ancient Greece’s influence in sport games, there would not be sports like there are in modern times. That’s right; say goodbye to the beloved World Series, March Madness and definitely the Summer and Winter Olympics. From the span of 800 B.C. to around 100 B.C., the emergence of sports occurred in the city-states of Greece.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, by creating some of the first gyms and sport rules, they were creating a phenomena that would continue to grow for thousands of years.
The most significant part of athletics is its ability to link those who are athletic with those who like to be entertained. “Sports are a universal element in every society from the least to the most sophisticated. The omnipresence of play likely stems from some deep universal human need that can find expression and satisfaction in no other way” (Koumoulides).
What the Greeks discovered was that athletics were completely unrelated to wealth or status- it was simply a matter of devotion and skill.
The people of Greece created the first gymnasiums around 750 B.C. Also during this time, Homer wrote the Iliad and expressed his admiration of the Greek athlete through his many poems (Tipton). In addition, as observed by Tipton, Homer explicitly expressed admiration towards those who compete, specifically in chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, discus, spear throwing, and archery contests.
The Greeks who were widely influenced by the Iliad followed by Homer’s ideals and sought to become the best athlete they could be. Without Homer’s work, there would not have been as much of a popularity of sports in Greece at this time. The expansion of athletic competition relates to the elite’s focus on ‘heroic excellence’, but this mentality does not explain why the elite should have rejected the old Homeric ideology, of natural skills being the most important factor behind athletic success (Kennel).
Athletics in Greece was formed on the basis of achieving a healthy mind and a healthy body. It was important for parents to teach their children from a young age the sacrifices they have to make to train to be an athlete and uphold the ideals of the society. This was for two reasons- to create a healthier race, and to provide good, strong soldiers to defend the city-states of Greece (Koumoulides). Even in schools, every child was taught athletics along with art, literature and science to “create that ideal of all Greeks—an excellent mind in a beautiful
body” (Koumoulides). By teaching children athletics from a young age, it influenced them to strive for success not only as a scholar but as an athlete. Children of the city-states grew up worshipping the older athletes in the city around them, and dreamed of competing the Olympics.
It can be observed that the earliest signs of competition are all in a war-like setting. During the Trojan War, the Greeks would compete in order to distribute property (Crowler). Not long after, special buildings were created for athletes to train, with special equipment and exercises as well as diet regimens for the athletes to follow (Koumoulides). As described by Homer, these buildings paved the way to the start of athletic competitions in Greece and around the world.
Sports were also performed as a way to appease Greek Mythology. In Ancient Greece, the citizens in each and every city-state idolized and worshipped the Greek Gods. Each of these gods were viewed as the image of perfection: flawless in every way and physically fit. According to Sahaj, these gods were immortalized in ancient sculptures and were an inspiration to all of the Greeks. This created the ideology for them to strive for a perfect body like these gods. In order to achieve this, they participated in sports. In addition, before exercising, each citizen completed a series of ablutions to honor the gods (Sahaj). This shows that exercise was strongly influenced by their religion and was very important to the Greeks.
For the reconstruction of the ancient Athenian sporting life of the sixth to fourth century BCE in particular, the images on the black- and red-figured Attic vases provide the most important background on the introduction of sports into society, specifically showing images depicting warriors, runners (shown above), wrestlers, trainers and other athletic activities (Kraztmueller). Based on the images in these vases, it is apparent that a person’s social status was greatly influenced by their success in athletics. A person’s physical form and fitness level was assessed just as much as their wealth when deciding how high of status a person was (Sahaj). In some city-states- Sparta in particular- those who were physically fit were regarded as higher status than the elite. Exercise and sports were practiced by children from a very young age and throughout their entire lives, which was organized by a child’s parents or by the state.
In the Greek society, if you were not physically fit you were viewed as undesirable or unimportant. In some cases, one who was too unfit would be killed. Athletes were worshipped so much, that there were wooden statues of athletes that were found from the second half of the sixth century B.C. (Kennel). From a young age, especially in the Sparta city-state, children were trained to be warriors. “At the age of seven, a Spartan male was “educated” to become a physically fit warrior who devoted the majority of his time performing endurance and strenuous exercises or participating in combative athletics or games. Not surprisingly, Aristophanes claimed that the Spartan citizen was ‘addicted to exercise’” (Tipton). Because kids grew up constantly exercising, it became common for them to continue doing so into their adult lives. And not only would they work out, they would engage in many individual and team sports as well. Consuming a healthy diet and competing in athletic events was seen as a norm, and is consistent with what we see in modern times.
There were many different types of sports that were created at this time in Greece. In many cases, exercise was recommended by doctors to treat disease and achieve an internal balance to keep them mentally and physically healthy. A daily regimen included long walks, running, walking, wrestling, and boxing (Tipton). These athletic tasks were performed by many of the city-states within Greece on a daily basis. Additionally, in the city-state of Sparta, team sports began emerging. Within different districts of the city-state, there were two main team sport games, one that had a ball and one that did not. The goal of these was to serve as an initiation into the military (Crowther). Prior to Sparta’s influence, war was considered to be the only team game. The major individual sports included foot races, pentathlons, boxing and wrestling (Crowther). Many of these events resulted in the victor gaining various prizes, usually vases filled with valuable olive oil. Runners competed in races separated into heats, much like typical modern running races. It was believed that the philosopher Plutarch believed that all of these individual sports were originally military exercises (Crowther).
Perhaps one of the biggest impacts that the Greeks made on the world- ancient or modern- was the Olympics. The very first one occurred around 776 B.C. The goal of the Olympics was to have each city-state compete against each other in various sports. Contrary to popular belief, these games existed for much more than simply athletics. They served as a pause from war, as well as a religious and social output.
The Olympics resulted in a time of temporary peace, since there was a truce that enforced a pause in war immediately prior to and following the competition, lasting up to 3 months. This was enforced so that the athletes as well as the spectators could travel safely to and from the games. There was an incredible amount of people who would show up to compete and observe each year: “Every four years the games brought together as many as 40,000 spectators, athletes, politicians, merchants and cultural figures to a festival that celebrated not only sports but also religion–since it honored Zeus and other gods” (Crowther).
This image shows what the Olympics looked like, with a big stadium and thousands of spectators watching and cheering the competitors on. It really depicts how exhilarating this event was, by showing the crowd sanding and clapping in excitement. The Olympics was the biggest gathering that existed at the time, people came from all over Greece to compete and watch the event. Since the first Olympic Games, the physical body of a citizen, especially an athlete, was strongly marked or judged by the society (Sahaj). According to Zbigniew Krawczyk, “‘The competitors’ bodies of the Olympic Games entered the reality of the sacred world with a double meaning: instrumental – as a tool of success offered to 385’” (Sahaj). The entire Greek population idolized those that were competing, giving them a certain status that was based solely on skill as opposed to money or wealth.
Up until about 146 B.C., the only participants in the Olympics were the Greeks themselves. However, as we know, this didn’t last forever. As word spread of these highly anticipated and popular competitions, people from around the world soon began showing up with the hopes that they could participate as well. The modern Olympics that began in 1896 in Greece included athletes from countries around the world. The people of Greece had no concept of international sports, they were solely interested in keeping their competitions national. They were widely unaware of any international sports that were occurring during this time, and it had no impact on their ability to create an athletic empire. At this time, many males were apart of the military or had some influence of the military in their daily lives. “The philosopher Philostratus claimed the athletes made war a training for sports, and sports a training for war” (Crowther). Since training for the military and training for sports was equally as difficult and strenuous, they were seen as interchangeable in Greece. Some of the best athletes even became leaders of their city-states in battle, including Olympic wrestler Milo of Croton, who led troops against a rival city-state (Crowther).
Overall, Greece made a lasting impact on the modern sports world. The Greeks built some of the first gyms for working out in, and taught their children from a young age the importance of exercise. Without the spirit and determination the Greeks, it is likely that competition wouldn’t have occurred as commonly as it did. The Olympics made a lasting impact, as they began the first major competitions that later led to an international phenomena that is largely anticipated by people across the world today. Greeks additionally began the earliest signs of sportsmanship and healthy competition, as well as establishing some of the basic sporting rules we see today. It is safe to say that if the Greeks had not staged the first Olympics, sports would not have become as wildly popular or as enjoyed by people today. Greece made a lasting impact on the world by uniting those who perform sports and those who are entertained by sports.