Games We Play
Greece is the birthplace of the Olympic Games, which most of us love every time they roll around and dominate our conscious for two and a half weeks. You don’t even have to be a sports fan to enjoy the Olympics (it helps, but it’s not needed) which has grown to be the landmark athletic event across the globe. And we have the Greeks to thank for all this physical goodness!
The Olympics, held in honour of the god Zeus, were named as such because they took place in Olympia, dating back thousands of years ago. It wasn’t until 1896 that the modern version of the Games took place, hosted by Athens (featuring 43 events, being contested by 280 athletes from 13 countries). The term Olympiad refers to the four year period between Olympics and became a unit of time measurement for Greeks.
From humble beginnings (the first recorded Olympics only included one event: the stade (where we now get the word stadium from), a 192-meter foot race based on the size of Zeus’ foot), the world’s biggest sporting event now showcases countless sports and within them, a number of different disciplines. The ancient games were said to have been started by Hercules (aka Heracles), who ran a race that he decided should be repeated every four years. I wonder if that story will make it into any of the Rock’s new movies based on the character.
It wasn’t until many years and Olympics later that other events were added to the slate. The diaulos, a 400-meter race and the dolichos, either 1,500 meters or 5,000 meters. Later additions included the petathalon (five events comprised of a foot race, long jump, discus, javelin, and wrestling), boxing, chariot racing, and pankration, a no-holds-barred wrestling and boxing hybrid that sounds like a precursor to mixed martial arts.
The last event added to the ancient Olympics was the hoplitodromos, a 400-800-meter race run wearing full armor, including shields, helmets, and all the other suit pieces. Competitors were likely to have fallen repeatedly thanks to their own outfits, as well as the discarded pieces of other racers. I’d love to see something like this run today, for sheer entertainment purposes. It would be like Wacky Racers for world-class athletes.
Events were originally contested by only freeborn Greek males. Not only were women not allowed to participate in the sports, but married women couldn’t even attend the Olympics. Competition winners received an olive branch instead of a gold medal. I wonder if they still wore it around their neck and received endorsement deals based on their performance. Perhaps Coroebus, winner of the first recorded Olympics ended up hawking used chariots or something.
Prior to and during the Olympic Games, truces were arranged country-wide to let athletes and viewers pass through cities on their way to Olympia unscathed. Capital punishment and acts of war were banned, although there are accounts of these rules being broken, often resulting in the aggressing group’s exclusion from the Games, as well as a hefty fine.
What has now become a nearly three week long cultural event began as five days, with three being dedicated to sport and the other two to celebrations and rituals. The ancient version of the closing ceremony included a feast of 100 oxens… something I’d like to see return to the modern Games. In the years that the Olympics weren’t being held, there were similar competitions known as the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games. The Olympics remained the preeminent sporting event.
Athletes competed nude as a tribute to the gods and much like ESPN’s Body Issue magazine series, so people could appreciate the male body. We get the word gymnasium from the Greek word gymnos, which means naked. Kind of makes you never want to do physical education ever again. Some participants chose to wear a kynodesme, which sounds like a really uncomfortable penis cap. Can you imagine the TV ratings if Olympians still had to compete in the buff!?
After Greece was seized by the Roman Empire, Emperor Nero once entered the chariot race and declared himself the winner, despite falling off his chariot during the running. Later, Emperor Theodosius ended the Games, banning all pagan festivals. The Olympics wouldn’t return for 1,500 years, revived by Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, who also established the International Olympic Committee.
The first Olympic marathon in 1896 was fittingly won by Greece’s Spyridon Louis. It followed the 25-mile path run by a Greek soldier from the city of Marathon to Athens to inform the masses of the Greeks victory over the Persians. Nearly 30 years later, the marathon’s distance was permanently set at 26 miles and 385 yards. No amount of Ouzo could help me through that epic event, but it will nicely wrap up this article!
Greece: Greek Buck
- 1.5 oz Brandy
- Top with Ginger Ale
- Splash of Lemon Juice
- Float Ouzo
- Garnish with Lemon Wedge
One of my greatest pleasures was working for NBC during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. I suppose I still owe the Greeks a debt of gratitude for that wonderful winter month!
Sip Advisor Bar Notes (4.5 Sips out of 5):
I never know how an Ouzo cocktail is going to turn out and this one was pretty damn good. Floating the Ouzo was a really nice touch as first of all, it looked good, like white frosting across the top of the cocktail. Next, getting a splash of Ouzo with each sip, followed by the Brandy, Ginger Ale, and Lemon Juice made each taste a new adventure!