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The ancient Greek considered sports to be an essential part of children's education. Since in their eyes education lasted until someone's forties, you could say sports was an essential part of most Greek people's life.

Typical ancient Greek sports were athletics and combat sport. Some say it were the Greek who invented athletics, but others deny this. E. Norman Gardiner (the authority on ancient Greek sport a century ago) states that all sports practiced in ancient Greece originates from there. There is, he says, absolutely no indication that athletics could spring from Mycenae or Crete. But his successor H.A. Harris thinks it's reasonably certain the inhabitants of Mycenae practiced sports and he criticizes Gardiner's "indignant and dogmatic denial of a possible Cretan origin of Greek athletics".

Even for children, combat sport was important. The perfect physical condition children received through competing would be very important for real combat and war in a later stage of their lives. On most athletics events, there were seperate youth games. Some editions of the Olympic Games included two, three and even five age categories.

Although everyone backed the importance of combat sports, in some regions people were horrified by the bloody fights. Combat sports were clearly more bloody then we could stand now, it was even a recommendation. Combatting till death wasn't exceptionally rare. An inscription celebrating Greek boxer Agathos Daimon, who died during the ancient Olympics, says: "Here he died, boxing in the Stadium, after praying to Zeus for either the crown or death, aged 35. Farewell".

The Games
The status of the modern Olympic Games probably seduces anyone to the thought that this festival would have the same impact in ancient times. Other cities had similar events that were possibly at the same level: the Isthmian, Pythian and Nemeian Games, maybe also those of Delphi. The latter might have been equal in size or prizes, but the first four Games had proven status. An athlete that would manage to get a win under his belt on every of these 'Grand Slams' would receive the honorary title periodonikes. Literally this means something like circuit victor.

Five sports were present at practically every event: boxing, wrestling, pankration, foot race and pentathlon. The latter is a combination of five contests (just like the decathlon consists of ten), namely javelin, discus, long jump, foot race and wrestling. Pankration was mix of boxing and wrestling. Kicking was allowed, even in the genitals, which was in fact a popular tactic. You might agree with me that it's quite typical that Greek considered wrestling a way "to picture the triumph of civilisation and science over barbarism and brute force", as Gardiner puts it.

In case you're wondering: yes, the Greek really practiced sports in the nude. That is to say, this started around 700 BC but no expert can give a clear view on the underlying reasons for this.

The athletes
The Muhammed Ali's and Bob Beamon's of ancient times were Milo of Kroton, Diagoras of Rhodos, Theogenes of Thasos, Kallias of Athens and Euthymos of Lokri. Of course they earn their fame thanks to written tradition (like that of Homer and Herodotus), which could exclude maybe even better athletes. Little is known about women events. It is common knowledge that the Games were just for men. Women weren't even allowed to watch. The Games of Hera (the wife of Zeus) were meant especially and exclusively for the ladies and some sources mention sporadic mixed events. During the Hera festival, unmarried (!) girls competed in a foot race. And oh no fellows, no nudity here!

Decline and fall
As has been common since Gibbon, regarding ancient Greek sports historians also point out a decline and fall. The essence originally lay with the athletes' pleasure. Starting somewhere around the fifth century BC, introducing price money changed this. Foul play and corruption took over and sports became monopolized territory of professionals. A win in the insignificant Games of Aphrodisias would earn a wrestler approximately 2000 day's wages and a pankration athlete even 3000.

Sources: E. Norman Gardiner, Greek athletic sports and festivals.
H.A. Harris, Greek athletes and athletics.
Donald G. Kyle and Gary D. Stark ed., Essays on sport history and sport mythology.
David Matz, Greek and Roman sport.
Oxford Classical dictionary.
Michael B. Poliakoff, Combat sports in the ancient world. Competion, violence and culture.

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