We’ve all seen movies like Hercules, with the Ancient Greek Olympics on in the background while they sing some songs. If you’re into archery, you’ve probably imagined yourself competing with ancient warriors. So the big question here is: Was archery in the ancient Greek Olympics? Were Hercules or Achilles competing in the events?
Sadly, no, it was not. Archery was first introduced to the Olympic curricula in the 1900 Summer Olympics at Paris. Before that, The Greek Olympics did not have Archery as one of the events.
This means that those ancient heroes could not compete in archery since it wasn’t part of the Olympics, but this is probably raising many other questions, let’s try to answer most of them about the ancient Greek Olympics, and when archery appeared on the Olympic podium.
When did archery became an Olympic Sport?
Archery first appeared in an Olympic Games was in 1900, at the Paris Summer Olympics. 153 archers participated, but they were from only 3 different nations: Belgium, France and the Netherlands. The were all men, woman first competed in archery in the next summer Olympics of 1904.
After 4 Olympic appearances (1900, 1904, 1908 and 1920), archery was rejected from the Olympics competition by the IOC Session. It was no longer considered an obligatory sport at the Olympics. The 54th IOC Session held in Sofia removed the idea of obligatory and optional sports from the Olympic calendar and created a single list of sports to compete in the Olympic Games, including archery. After those dark years, archery reappeared in 1972 at the Munich Olympics after a 52 year wait. From that year onwards, it has been a regular feature at the summer Olympics.
What games where in the Olympics in ancient Greece?
We’ve established so far that archery was not a competition in the Ancient Olympic Games in Greece. When I found this out I was shocked. Imagine a kid with a huge fascination in the Greek and Roman world that just realizes there were no archery in the Olympics. I started digging on that, the ancient Olympics were not disappointing at all but they had far fewer sports than the modern games. Let’s check the Ancient Olympics list.
The pentathlon included 5 different sports/disciplines: Running, Jumping, Discus Throw, Javelin Throw and Wrestling.
There were 3 contests: The Stade Race, which was mainly a speed race of 200 meters; The Diaulos, a 400 meters foot race; and The Dolichos, a race between 7 and 24 stades.
Athletes used stone jump weights to increase the length of their jump to see who might jump further.
This sport hasn’t changed much. Just like us, the ancient Greeks considered the rhythm and precision of the throw as much as the distance to decide who the winner is.
This competition hasn’t changed a lot over the years either, only now we use specialized javelins, as opposed to wooden javelins created for hunting and war reasons. As a side note, I did try this sport before archery. It’s good fun to learn, unfortunately I wasn’t even close to making the school team. I felt the modern javelin was way too heavy for me.
Just like in our modern wrestling, athletes needed to throw their opponents on the ground and keep them there for some seconds.
Boxers used to wrap straps around their hands to keep their fingers steady and prevent them from suffering any damage. Later on they started to use leather around their hands, which protected their fingers a lot more from breaking.
This was considered a primitive form of martial art. It combined wrestling and boxing. One of the toughest competitions they had and according to mythology, founded by Theseus, the brave hero who defeated the minotaur.
These included horse and chariot races which took place at a hippodrome. The Ben Hur movie got a great scene of a chariot race, but in roman times, still it is a pretty good reference to have some kind of idea of the competition.
What were the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece?
The ancient Olympic games were mainly a religious festival in honor of Zeus, the father of the Greek Gods. It took place in a sanctuary site called Olympia, named like that after Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in that area of Greece. In Greek mythology, Mount Olympus is the home of the Gods.
The first known Olympic game to took place was in 776 B.C. A man called Koroibos (Also known as Coroebus) won the 600 feet long stadion race. According to some literacy work, this race was the only competition for the first 13 Olympic festivals held every 4 years. There is some evidence that placed other Olympic games at the 10th century B.C but it is not conclusive, so we are going to stick to the traditional stories of Koroibos.
Who participated in this Games?
Well, it was not even close to the idea of Olympic Games we have nowadays. Only men could participate, specifically, free men from the Greek city-states. Obviously, these men should be in great shape and physical conditions to participate. Most of them where warriors for their city-states and hunters during times of peace. In other words, Greece had all the medals for a long period of time!
Several stories talk about nudity on the games. In fact, many pieces of artwork recovered at vessels and other historical artifacts show they used none or few clothes. Some other historians claimed that Spartans are the ones who started competing naked; some others say it was Koroibos himself who won the first Olympic game by running naked. The only thing we know for sure is that there was nudity in the Ancient Greek Games.
The rest of the sports came over the years, until the Roman Empire conquered the Greek States. This is when their standards, quality and traditions declined over the following years. In 67 A.D. Emperor Nero decided to compete in the chariots race, falling from the chariot and declaring himself the winner even though he never crossed the finish line. At the end, Emperor Theodosius I banned the Olympic games in 393 A.D. declaring it a “pagan” festival. They games stayed forgotten until 1892 when Coubertin proposed the idea of bringing them back and founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Fun Fact: The Olympic Flame
As a kid, we used to play our own School Olympic Games across all grade and ages. Our ceremony to start the games was a run through the entire school with our Olympic Flame. It was a beautiful and powerful scene to watch as a kid. Teachers told us the tales around the Olympic Flame, as a flame that has never extinguish through the ages. Since I always loved Greek and Roman history, I thought for a long time that this flame lived ever since the first Olympic game in Hercules times. Well, it wasn’t quite like that.
Imagine my disappointing when I found out some years ago that the idea itself of the Olympic Flame first appeared in 1928 at the Amsterdam Olympic Games. A little bit far from the Greek warriors I imagined carrying the flame. This idea was inspired by the sacred flame the Ancient Greeks kept burning through the entire Olympic Games inside the temple of Hera. Nevertheless, I believe it is a beautiful act and ceremony for this huge event. I grew up watching it, and I will do every four years, with the hope of one day competing in one. As an archer of course.
These games are an inspiration for us all. I hope you all had a good time reading and learning about this topic, about the festival, which is the Mecca for every archer, and a really nice topic of conversation when you’re at the club or teaching some kids about archery. Keep learning, keep your inspiration sources close as I do with the Olympics, and practice until you’re able to become an Olympic Archer.