Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Olympics during Alexander’s Time

For Illustrative Purpose Only
WITH the modern Olympic Games out in full swing at Rio, it may be a good time to understand better the fascinating history behind these games. The Olympic Games in the modern context represent unity of purpose between the different nations and the pinnacle of achievement by the human body and mind. The modern games are held every four years and drawn their inspiration from games held at Olympia in ancient Greece. Hence the name: Olympics. But the modern Olympics are a far cry from the games that were held during the time of Alexander.

The ancient games were held in the honor of Zeus, the Greek god. The start of the games predated Alexander by almost three centuries, the first game being generally considered to be held in 776 BC. The nature of the games were vastly different than today’s. Firstly, it was more of a religious celebration as well as an athletic one. Also, the events were quite limited and mostly consisted of running races, chariot races, discus throw, jumping and running with armor. In later years, boxing, wrestling and other combined athletic events were added .There were no team events at all.  Interestingly, one of the most anticipated events in these games was a running race of about 190 meters signifying the length of the feet of the mythical Hercules. The race was called at the “stadion” race and always drew enormous crowds. This race is the origin of the word ‘stadium’.

Only free men who spoke Greek were allowed to compete in the games. The rule was quite strictly enforced. The Macedonian king Alexander I (494-454 BC) who predated Alexander the Great was not allowed to compete as a Macedonian. He had to prove his Greek ancestry and only then was he allowed to participate in the games. He was one of the rare Royals to have taken part in the games. The Roman emperor Nero who competed in the chariot race in 67 AD was thrown from his chariot but was declared a winner!! The logic being that he would have won if he had completed the race!!

All participants had to take an oath in front of Zeus that they had practiced at least for 10 months for the sport that they were competing in. Another interesting aspect of the ancient games was that all the athletes competed fully nude!!  This tradition of athletic nudity was called “gymnos” and modern gymnastics and gymnasiums owe their origins to this tradition. Since the contestants were in the nude, married woman were not allowed to be spectators at the games. And this was an offence punishable by death!!

The winners were given olive branches and olive branch crowns. The city State and the villages where they came from further give prizes and money to the champions. Poets would write poems and songs in their honor. Their athletic body would be used by painters and sculptors as models of human physique.

The Olympic Games were also an economic tool. The congregation of all the rich people of all the various city states proved to be a fertile ground for traders of all sorts of luxuries. It was also an excellent place for painters and sculptors to sell their services and get commissions. The whole city would transform to become one huge culturally rich diverse and beautiful city.

Another aspect of the games was the political stability and truce declared during the games. Various city states in ancient Greece would keep the wars on hold and let the games be played. This allowed the various athletes, kings and traders to travel beyond the borders of their own city states safely and without fear of being robbed or captured.

The games also provided a fertile ground to announce all sorts of political alliances. From wedding announcements to treaties between kingdoms to long-term truces, the games were as much a tool of foreign policy as it was for athletic achievement.

Alexander the great was a great fan of the games but could never compete in one. There is no historical evidence of him attending the games personally. But, he understood the importance of such athletic contests in keeping up spirit of his troops.  In his entire conquest towards the east from Macedonia he had organized various games at different locations for his army. Alexander the Great, was also a suave politician.  His conquests were always announced at the games keeping the wider Greek Empire aware about this fierce king. At the Olympic  games held in the year before his death. Alexander announced that all  people exiled from the various cities in Greece by the local chieftains would be allowed back in. As Emperor he would ensure their return. This was a masterstroke. It ensured that in every city he had a good number of personal supporters of his Empire. In some city states this decision created a minor civil unrest with the local chieftain feeling threatened but in the end Alexander’s hold on power was strengthened.

In ancient India such athletic games were held from time to time. One of the most famous examples is that of the games held among the Kauravas and Pandavas held at Hastinapur. It was these games that cemented the chasm between the two families and made Karna a bedrock of the Kaurava camp. 

Continuing in that tradition, even Chandragupta Maurya encouraged games as a way of expressing battle readiness. It was in one such competition, that adversity fell like a lightning on to Rudra pitching his whole life into turmoil. What was this adversity, who is Rudra, does he overcome this adversity? To know more you need to grab a copy of the upcoming book “The Indus Challenge”. Soon to hit the bookstores….

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