Frontiers

Game Face

Associate Professor of Classical Studies Thomas Tartaron discusses the evolution of the Olympic Games.
July 2012

Imagine flipping on the television after a long four years, hungry for Olympic coverage, and after one 192-meter race, the closing ceremony begins. It would be a huge letdown; but in 776 B.C., this single event was the talk of the town, says Thomas Tartaron. An associate professor of Classical Studies, Tartaron has spent decades in Greece studying the culture and excavating ancient sites. Though most large Greek city-states held their own games, the Panhellenic games—which were held at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia, but drew visitors from Greece and beyond—was the centerpiece. And because the Olympics were originally tied to major religious festivals, they did not lack spectacle.

“It was a huge feast that included sacrifices on an ash altar dedicated to Zeus, whose gold and ivory cult statue ruled over a nearby temple,” Tartaron says. “Unlike with later churches, this all took place outside in the open air.”

The games’ itinerary quickly evolved from the single stadion race, eventually expanding to include the pentathlon, comprised of wrestling, long jump, sprint, discus and javelin (the event has since evolved to include target shooting and fencing). The ancient games even had their own version of mixed martial arts called pankration, which is limited by only a few rules—eye gouging, for instance. “If there were to be any casualties,” Tartaron says, “it was going to be in pankration, because a victor wasn’t decided until someone surrendered.”

"The American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the resulting boycott by the Soviet Union of the 1984 Los Angeles games. This allows us to trace a lot of important historical moments back to the games.” - Thomas Tartaron

Like today’s games, Tartaron says a major portion of the event lent itself to money making. Feasting was a constant over the span of five days, punctuated with athlete fanfare and victory processions. Greeks came by land and sea to attend the games, which translated into financial gain for those offering food and lodging. In addition, attendees bought dedications and offerings to put on the altars. Attendance was initially limited to males. The one exception was young virginal females, who were encouraged to participate in their own activities and games. The reasoning for this, Tartaron says, is that once women were married, their roles automatically changed, and it would not have been appropriate for them to appear in that forum.

The ancient games saw their end in A.D. 395 after Theodosius I, the Christian emperor, outlawed them because of their tie to pagan rituals. The Olympics were resurrected in 1896 in Athens, when it transitioned to an international event. “The Olympics have provided us countless important landmarks, many of which were political in nature,” Tartaron says. “For example, the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the resulting boycott by the Soviet Union of the 1984 Los Angeles games. This allows us to trace a lot of important historical moments back to the games.”

Tartaron’s work in Greece is in full swing. The book he is working on, tentatively titled Maritime Networks in the Mycenaean World, is due out in 2013 and will chronicle decades of archaeological research and findings by his SHARP (Saronic Harbors Archaeological Research Project) initiative, under which he traced the seafaring Mycenaeans’ travel and trade routes to Egypt, Israel, Syria, Turkey and Italy—all the great powers of the day.