"And we compel men to exercise their bodies not only for the games, so that they can win the prizes-for very few of them go to them-but to gain a greater good from it for the whole city, and for the men themselves" Lucian, Anacharsis, ca. AD 170
The emergence of city-states in the Greek world was paralleled by an expansion of organized athletic activities. Greeks organized special festivals in order to hold athletic events: these ranged from small-scale contests to national-wide games. Among the latter, Olympic and Pythian festivals were in the top rank, attracting people from almost all Greek cities. Hostilities were suspended during the Olympic festival which added glory to the games and ensured its fame throughout the Greek world. Every city-state was ambitious to claim as many Olympic victors as it could and this resulted in issuing several laws to encourage athletism. Above all, the Olympiad was a sacred festival, and not simply a series of athletic performances, as it is today.
Why did the Olympic festival and being victorious in the games become the symbol of spirit and unity in Antiquity?
Firstly, to gain victory became a major achievement that gave credits not only to the athlete but to his city as well. Not long after Homer's times, personal achievement could not be envisaged without the contribution and acknowledgment of the athlete's city. Athletic victory became inextricably linked to the victory of his city and the city became the only collective body with rights to assign glory and awards.
Secondly, it was the credit to the personal achievement and the wide recognition of the athlete's physical and moral virtues. "Kartereia", or the degree of endurance an athlete demonstrated during the long training period and performance became a major virtue. The athlete's ability to suffer in silence and exhibit patience in training and practicing was one of the most important virtues that an athlete could gain and develop in his athletic years of life. "I won at boxing thrice by my skill and the endurance of my hands" says an ancient boxer in his inscription, being excessively proud of his accomplishment. Cicero notes that often eager but not well-trained boxers could bear the blows more than the heat at Olympia! The main concern of those competing, however, was not to develop one specific physical ability at the expense of others, but to succeed a balanced development of all physical and moral values.
Then, it was the moral reward that made the victory worthy of all efforts and physical pain. The Olympic victors shared in the divine splendor and imperishable fame of the first mythical heroes. Victory was the highest honor for a mortal to attain, for his fame became immortal thanks to the gods who preferred him and helped him to win. The favor of the gods and the wide recognition the victor gained by his city was the highest prize that made the obsessive passion of Greeks for contest ("agon") worthy of all efforts.
Lastly, it was the challenge for the Greek world to promote cooperation and exhibit political unity. Thanks to the truce, all Greek cities could send their official missions ("the theoriai") to attend the games. All cities attached great importance to the sanctuary as shown in the missions they sent and the treasuries they erected at the site. It is here that the famous Greek philosophers, poets and historians read their works in front of the public. These national gatherings became famous Panhellenic festivals, that promoted cultural consciousness and strengthened Greek identity.
Changes in the Athletic Spirit
The spread of the Hellenistic culture and the new economic, political, and social conditions following the campaign of Alexander the Great, led to important changes of the athletic spirit and the ideological content of the games.
The number of athletic festivals and institutions increased at the new Greek centers. New games were established in different city-states of the Hellenistic world: the Ptolemaea at Alexandria, the Nicephoria at Pergamum, the Heracleia at Chalkis. The number of professional athletes coming from Alexandria and the east increased and monetary prizes became a common rule.
Athletism became an important component in social life and education. The Greeks who lived in Asia and Egypt, in an effort to hold on to their culture, built athletic facilities and continued their athletic traditions. The gymnasium was not only the physical place for training, but a place where Greeks could meet, thus preserving their language and customs throughout Asia.
The bond between religion and the athletic ideal ceased to exist and the games now turned into secular events. Victory was more linked to the athlete's personal effort and less to the assistance of gods.
In the Roman period, the athletic ideal changed once more. For the Romans, the contests were spectacles, performances (ludi) and not competitions among all citizens. Usually the athletes were slaves or gladiators. The higher class Romans were unwilling to display themselves publicly which displayed a negative attitude towards athletism.
Olympia ceased to be the center of the ancient world and the games were now
instituted in honor of the Roman emperor.
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