The modern Olympic Games are a mega global event – the mega global event – whose only close rival is perhaps soccer’s FIFA World Cup. In the most recent games, the 2020 (or 2021) Tokyo Olympics hosted more than 11,000 athletes from 205 nations, plus the International Olympic Committee’s Refugee Olympic Team. All of them were eager and primed to compete over a seventeen-day stretch for glory and medals in 339 events, divided between 33 sports and 50 disciplines. The difference between that and the original Olympics is stark, to say the least.
The variance between the scope and scale of today’s Olympics and the original event would probably astonish and amaze ancient Greek participants and audiences. They simply could not have imagined what their competition would one day become. When the Olympic Games were first inaugurated in 776 BC, and for over half a century through 724 BC, there was only one athletic event: the stadion. It was named after the building in which it was held, which became stadium in Latin, and from which the English word stadium is derived.
3. Ancient Olympic Runners Differed From Modern Ones
The sole athletic event in the early ancient Greeks’ Olympic Games was the stadion. It was named after a building that was big enough to contain 20 competitors, who ran an approximately 200 yard or 180-meter sprint. The first few races might have been slightly longer, however, as the original stadion in Olympia had a track that was 210 yards or 190 meters long. The athletes lined up, and games officials were positioned at the jump-off blocks to keep a sharp eye out against false starts.
Modern runners take off from a crouch, but ancient Greek sprinters took off from an upright position, with their arms stretched out before them. They were also naked. It is unclear how the original start line was marked, but by the fifth century BC at the latest, there was a stone start line, known as the balbis. In due course, a set of double grooves about four to four and a half inches apart were carved into the balbis for runners to place their toes and get some leverage to launch themselves at the start of the race.
2. The Ancient Greeks Based Their Calendars on the Olympic Games
Ancient Greek stadion sprinters awaited the start of the race, muscles coiled and ready to take off down the track. Behind and to their sides hovered Olympic Games officials to ensure that nobody left the start line too early. Before them lay a packed earth track, at the end of which awaited another set of games officials, whose task was to decide the winner – and spot and disqualify any cheaters. If it was too close and the officials determined that it was a tie, there would be a do-over, and the race would be rerun. Finally, the signal to start came – a sharp trumpet blow. The competitors exploded into action, took off, and within a few frantic seconds, the race was over.
Because the stadion was the original Olympics’ sole competition, those few seconds encapsulated the entirety of the athletic portion of the original Olympic Games. However, it is hard to grasp today just how important those few seconds were to the participants. The ancient Greeks often dated events not by a numbered calendar like we do today, but by four-year Olympiads, and the Olympiads were named after the winner. So the winner of the original stadion race literally won a place in the history books.
Because the ancient Greeks dated events based on four-year Olympiad cycles, the winner of the stadion race – the only competition in the first half-century of the Olympic Games – achieved a degree of fame and prestige difficult to grasp today. Since the Olympiad was named after him, from then on out, people would include his name whenever they referred to all that happened in the four-year cycle of his victory. Something along the lines of: “such and such happened in the first (or second, or third, or fourth) year of [Olympic Winner’s Name] Olympiad“.
Eventually, more athletic events were added to the competition, such as wrestling, boxing, javelin, discus, long jump, and chariot racing. However, the stadion still held pride of place as the Olympic Games’ most prestigious competition, and the four-year Olympiad cycles continued to be named after its victor. Because of that, historians today are able to name just about every stadion winner. The first of them – and thus the first Olympics champion, was a cook from the city-state of Elis named Coroebus, who won the stadion in 776 BC.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading