The tunnel leading to the stadium in Olympia (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Athletics prepares to return to its roots in Olympia

1611 years is a long time in anyone’s timescale. However, when in AD393 the Roman Emperor Theodosius I put an end to the celebrations of the Olympic Games it’s unlikely that even the most pessimistic of the population of Olympia would have guessed their town would have to wait so long for Olympic competition to be revived in their town.

On Wednesday 18 August 2004, as part of the celebrations of the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad of the modern era whose centre is the Greek capital Athens, Olympia plays host to an important piece of Athletics history in the guise of the qualification and finals for both the men’s and women’s Shot Put competitions. After over one and half millennia Theodosius’ decree will have finally been rescinded!

Though the Shot Put was unknown to the ancient Greeks there is no doubt that, with the Games returning to Olympia this summer, the sport of Athletics as a whole is returning to its roots.

Yet no tears should be shed for the demise of the original Games. The purest sporting and cultural ideals which had given birth to the Olympic Games in 776BC had long since been lost by the third century AD. Corruption and bribery had become rife, and the Games had become more of a debauched bacchanalian rite, than a festival of physical prowess.

Re-born in the flames of Zeus

Olympia, set in the territory of Elis in the north west of the Greek Peloponnese, has not been isolated from the Games in the 108 years since their modern reawakening. With the revival of Olympics or more correctly the re-birth of the Olympic ethos as first publicly espoused by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1892, leading to the Games revival in 1896, the site of the ancient Games has become the regular birth place of the Olympic flame. Since 1936, the Olympic flame, which is lit by the sun’s rays in a cauldron on the site of what was once the temple to Olympian Zeus, has become the world famous starting point of the Olympic torch relay.

The ancient Games were inextricably linked to the god Zeus, and even today we have not entirely lost the connection as sporting excellence so often conjures up godlike imagery.

Homeric poems comprise the first written evidence of athletics contests in the Greek world. The Olympic Games was but one of a number of athletics festivals which were born in the ancient Hellenic era, the expansion of sporting contests mirroring that of the wider spread of Greek political and cultural values in the ancient world.

Moral and physical values

Athleticism was an important component in social life and education. The Stadium and Gymnasium were not just the physical places for training and competition but a melting pot of Greek ideals.

The political model of the independent city state in ancient Greece and the inherent rivalry which resulted between each metropolis meant that a victory at the Games was regarded as a major achievement not only for the individual athlete but his city as well. However, the worst side effects of such inter city envy were kept in check with the introduction of a truce, suspending hostilities during the duration of the Olympic festival.

Dedicated to Zeus, the supreme deity, the Olympic Games gradually became the most important of all the Greek festivals, a symbol of Panhellenic unity.

Always a hot spot

Today athletes, officials, media, spectators ritually complain that the Olympics are always held in venues which are too hot, yet the ancient Olympic festival, which like today’s Games was held once every four years - in accordance with the Greek eight-year calendar - was always scheduled in the hottest days of summer - held after the first full-moon following the summer solstice.

The contestants had to follow a common set of rules and conventions to help the organisation run smoothly, with all Greeks allowed to participate except women and slaves. Pottery dating from around 550BC shows men taking part naked.

In the more enlightened times which we live, there will be no slaves present this August and women will be involved as both competitors and spectators, and due at the very least to the need to pin the bib numbers somewhere, all competitors will compete fully clothed!

One day’s competition
By taking place in just one day the 2004 Olympic Shot Put events will follow the oldest of Olympic traditions, as the ancient Games in its infancy also took place in Olympia just as a one-day festival, even though by 472BC the Olympics had expanded to five days of competition.

The first day was devoted to sacrifices to Zeus, and was followed in athletics terms in the following days by the foot race ‘the stadion’ (200m), the main event of the Games, which took place in the stadium, an oblong area enclosed by sloping banks of earth. This site will also be the venue for Shot Put competitions on the 18 August.

By the 14th Olympiad (724BC) a Diaulos (400m) and by the 15th (720BC) a Dolichus (2000m) race were added to the Olympic programme. In the 18th Olympiad (708BC) the Pentathlon (jumping, running, javelin, discus and wrestling) was introduced.

Of the two ancient throws, the Javelin derived directly from everyday life from war and hunting but the origins of the Discus event are well and truly hidden bearing no relation to military exercises or farm life.

A step back in time

When the Shot Put Qualification competitions take place on Thursday 18 August, the athletes will set foot on the site of the original sports stadium. In its present day form it dates back to the early 5th century BC, and has a length of 212.54m with a width of 28.50m.

Celtic origins - symbolic return

The Shot – like the Hammer Throw – has no connection with the ancient Greek world, finding its origins instead in the alternative celtic sporting traditions of northern Europe.

However, the competitions this summer will carry with them the spirit of the Games, a symbolic return to the foundations of Athletics, which can rightly call itself the mother of sport.

Chris Turner
IAAF Editorial Manager

NB. Over the next few weeks in our focus on Olympia we will look back at Olympic Shot Put history, and we will also give some early indications of where the medals may land on 18 August.