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Last Updated: Monday, 9 August, 2004, 02:29 GMT 03:29 UK
Death before defeat in the ancient games
By Verity Murphy
BBC News Online

In 564BC Arrichion of Phigaleia, the new Olympic champion in the pankration - a cross between boxing and wrestling - received his victory olive wreath posthumously.

Competing for his third Olympic crown, Arrichion had found himself being choked in a stranglehold from behind. Unable to free himself from the ferocious grip, Arrichion managed to grip his opponent's ankle and twist it until it broke.

In agony his opponent submitted, but by then the damage was done - Arrichion's throat had been crushed and even as he was proclaimed the winner, he breathed his last.

All-consuming desire

Click here to learn about the events of the ancient Olympics

Although Arrichion's death occurred in a particularly dramatic way, tales of athletes giving their lives for Olympic glory were not unusual in ancient Greece.

Competitors in the brutal pankration, where choking, finger breaking and blows to the genitals were all permitted, were particularly vulnerable, often succumbing to their wounds days after the games had ended.

But what was it about the ancient Olympics that sparked such desire to win that athletes would accept death before defeat?

According to legend, the Olympics started in 776BC with a single race, a 192-metre dash held at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia. Then, a runner named Koroibos sprinted ahead of the field to become the first Olympic champion.

Greatest show on earth

The games, just one part of a quadrennial religious festival held in honour of Zeus, continued for over 1,100 years before they were axed in 393AD by Emperor Theodosius, who insisted the event was too pagan.

Stadium at Olympia
Field of dreams: By the fourth century BC the stadium at Olympia held 40,000

Over time more disciplines were added until there were 10 in all, divided into men's track and field and equestrian events, and spread over five days.

Over time the Olympics also grew in prestige and fame, completely surpassing similar games held in other cities.

"As in the daytime there is no star in the sky warmer and brighter than the sun, likewise there is no competition greater than the Olympic Games," the Greek poet Pindar said of the games in the 5th century BC.

Like the spectacle about to be unveiled in Athens the ancient Olympics were the largest event in the world. They were open to all free Greek males, and later Roman citizens too, drawing competitors from Spain to the Black Sea.

Olympic truce

Every four years heralds travelled throughout the Greek world proclaiming a sacred truce giving safe passage through any state for athletes and spectators travelling to and from the games. During the competition the truce extended to the city-state of Elis, near Olympia, as well.

For the most part the truce was carefully observed, although in 420BC the Spartans were banned from the games for attacking a town in Elis' territory during the truce and in 364BC the Arcadians and Eleans fought a pitched battle for control of the games inside the sanctuary itself, while the pentathlon was in full swing.

Competitors went to Olympia on their own initiative and at their own expense, but the romantic notion that they were noble amateurs competing simply for the glory of winning is a myth, largely sparked by the emphasis on amateurism in the modern games.

When the Olympics were revived by Pierre de Coubertin and other enthusiasts in 1896 it was decreed that only amateurs should be allowed to compete. But this decision owed more to Victorian class divisions, rather than a desire to copy the ancient games.

Material rewards

Although the only prize on offer at Olympia was an olive wreath, it is known that victors commonly received other more lucrative rewards when returning to their home city. In 600BC Athenian Olympic victors could expect a cash prize of 500 drachmas from the city, the equivalent of $300,000 today.

Competitors were not even above switching city states for money. The travel writer Pausanias tells us of a Cretan long-distance running champion, Sotades, who became an Ephesian having been offered a bribe by the people of Ephesus.

Entrance to stadium at Olympia
Athletes would wait in the bench-lined entrance to the stadium

Athletes received precious gifts, free meals and even made appearances for cash. Such benefits, in tandem with fame and adulation that bordered on worship, unsurprisingly fuelled the desire to win at all costs and athletes were not above cheating to do so.

Although, like their modern counterparts, the athletes swore a sacred oath to abide by the rules, some sought unfair advantages.

False starts and illegal manoeuvres were punished with public floggings and expulsion from the games. By the fourth century athletes caught lying, cheating or involved in bribery were also fined and the money used to erect a statue to Zeus along the route to the stadium - an everlasting testament to their shame.

The most breathtaking example of race rigging occurred in AD67 when the Roman emperor Nero took part in a 10-horse chariot race, an event added just for his benefit.

Despite falling from his chariot and not completing the race Nero was declared the winner - although years later after his death Nero's name was symbolically deleted from the champions list.

The mind of a champion

The clash between the lofty ideals of the Olympics and political acts or commercialism is a mark of both the ancient and modern games, but perhaps the element that most closely links the two is the pursuit of what the Greeks called arete, or excellence.

This is a pursuit understood by ancient and modern Olympians alike, encapsulated in the motto of the games today: "Citius, Altius, Fortius" - the desire to go faster, go higher and be stronger than anyone before.

In one of his celebrated speeches the Greek orator Aeschines asked why any man would be willing to compete at the Olympics in an event like the pankration.

The answer? "Because of the competition and the honour, and the undying fame that victory brings, men are willing to risk their bodies, and at the cost of the most severe discipline to carry the struggle to the end."

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