When thinking about fitness throughout history, the first thing many people think of are the ancient Greeks and the first Olympic games, which is exactly what we are going to explore today!
The first recorded Olympic games were held in Elis, Greece (outside of Athens) in 776 BC and grew in popularity quickly within the culture of ancient Greece. It is widely believed that the Olympics were at least 500 years old at that time, but had not been officially recorded until 776 BC! Prior to the first Olympics games, however, fitness was still highly valued in the ancient Greek Civilization, even as early as 2500 BC! The importance of health and fitness throughout this society is one that remains unparalleled in history. This is in part because they believed that one’s physical well-being was absolutely necessary for one’s mental well-being (which modern science supports!).
Many of the founding medical practitioners, including Hippocrates (the namesake of the Hippocratic oath), facilitated the growth of fitness throughout Grecian culture. This was so important to the ancient Greeks that gymnastics (which included running, jumping, and wrestling) was considered the most important subject in classrooms, along with music, and it was widely taught to students “exercise for the body and music for the soul” from a young age. Unfortunately, at that time, Greece was a male dominated society, and only men were allowed to participate in structured training.
The men that did train in gymnasiums (any male that was able-bodied enough to do so), which were public open-air areas for men over the age of 18, did it a little differently than we do today- they were all nude! In fact, the word gymnasium is derived from the word for “nude”. The practice of participating in sports and training completely naked was said to encourage appreciation for the male body and was considered a tribute to the gods. And not only were they all nude, but they also rubbed themselves in oils, generally olive oil, a practice that was so expensive that it was often subsidized by the government. (Read that again… naked men rubbing themselves in expensive oil was funded by the government, oh boy have things changed). Anyone could watch them train, as the earliest gymnasiums were in open spaces, not the walled buildings that we often use today.
By the 5th century, as the Olympic games were widely popularized, contestants came from more than 100 cities throughout the Grecian Empire. Games consisted of foot races, boxing, horse and chariot racing, military competitions, the long jump, discus and javelin throws, and of course, wrestling (which again, all of these were done naked). Games were held to honor Zeus every four years and coincided with religious festivals.
Unfortunately, with the rise of the Roman Empire, who viewed the Olympics as a pagan practice, Olympics games were abolished. Roman Emperor Theodosius I, a Christian who wanted to suppress such pagan practices, outlawed the Olympics in 393 AD. It wasn’t until April 6th, 1896, that the Olympics were reborn in Athens, Greece 1,500 years later! 60,000 spectators and athletes from 13 different countries came to watch and participate and rose over the years in global popularity! Now 206 countries participate in the global Olympics, and spectators tune in around the world!
While we no longer participate in Olympic games in the nude (thankfully), or believe them to be a tribute to Zeus, we can all agree that the Olympics push the boundaries of what the human body is capable of and remind us that sports are not only fun to watch, but fun to participate in!
What is your favorite Olympic sport? Do you prefer the summer or winter Olympics? Let us know below! And take a moment to check out this highlight reel from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (plenty of female representation in this one!).