The Olympics have dominated much of our interest and attention recently: volunteer Bill Gray takes a closer look.
The coverage of the Olympic Games this month left me realising I knew very little about their origin. I have been able to partly rectify this thanks to books to be found in Innerpeffray library. A brief mention of the beginning of the ancient games, or Olympiads, in 776 BC is given in volume v of Isaac Newton’s works. The Games continued to be held every four years until 393 AD. Thereafter a gap of 1500 years followed until the founding of the Modern Games in 1894 AD. However the real illumination of the Games is to be found in the marvellous collection of original Scots Magazines in the library of Innerpeffray. In the volume dated 1754 on page 481 there is a delightful description of these ancient games which also confirms the ancient start-up as 776 BC. This (1754) is of course more than 100 years before their late nineteenth century resurrection after that no-action period of nigh on 1500 years. It seems the original purpose of the games was to stop the warring between city-states in ancient Greece, the argument being that non-fatal competition was a more civilised and more enjoyable way to demonstrate a 'country's' superiority.
The Games took place every four years (an Olympiad) and the sports to be seen have a familiar resonance today. The site where the games took place was called a ‘Stadium’. There was the 'Pentathlon' which comprised a foot race (running),wrestling, quoiting (discus), jumping and darting (javelin). The participants were, unsurprisingly, known as 'pentathletes'. Another sport was the 'pancratium',or boxing to us. It was interesting to read that, pre-empting the Marquis of Queensbury, biting and gauging were not allowed. Another popular event was the chariot race which closely resembled the one shown in the film Ben Hur. Seemingly it was as dangerous as is shown in that film and, even in that male oriented society, women could take part as charioteers. Events were organised in heats when there were many entrants and knock out competitions were run, leading to quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals. These ‘exercises’ were distinguished by the name of ‘Gymnastics’.
The rewards for the victors also have a familiar ring. There was great acclamation, applause and cheering. Flowers were thrown and everyone wanted to touch the athletes and shake their hands. Victory parades were given to the winners and banquets were held in their honour. Laudatory odes were composed and statues erected. Today’s victors might get a gold painted post-box erected in their home town. But the greatest accolade was reserved for the homecoming victor. The city walls were broken down to allow him (there were no female athletes) free access to the city. Victors were forever after honoured with the first and best seats at all public spectacles.
It all seems a bit familiar.