Sports and Fitness in Ancient Greece

Hippocrates Supported Physical Fitness

Training  of Mind  and  Body
Credit: Glyn Baker

Ancient Olympic Games

Foundation of the Modern Olympic Games



   The Olympic Games  originated  in ancient Greece at the time when Greece was at the forefront of civilization.   The Olympic Games were established in  776 B.C. to honor the god, Zeus.   Athleticism and fitness were highly valued by the ancient Greeks,  therefore, athletic events were considered an honor that was fitting for their highest god,  Zeus.  The ancient Greeks believed that Olympic Games were started by Heracules (not Hercules), to honor his father, Zeus. The facts and myths about gods and athleticism in ancient Greece underscore the importance that the ancient Greeks placed on fitness, and the  respect they had for their gods.    

 Importance of Fitness in Ancient Greece

 Ancient Greece spanned the period between 2500 to 200 B. C.  The profound interest in exercise and fitness  during this period provided the background for the inception of the Olympic Games.  Throughout Greece, physical training was considered an integral part of education.  Consequently. schools were built throughout the region to train the mind and body. 

 Training of mind and body was strongly advocated by some prominent people of that time, including people like Hippocrates (noted for establishing the ethical standards for medical practice as was embodied in the Hippocratic oath) and Galen (noted for his work on the anatomy of the circulatory system). The ways they integrated fitness in their educational programs are profiled  by the ways students were trained in three prominent city-states of Ancient Greece,  Sparta, Athens and Olympia.   

 A City-state is a group of people who had the same laws and customs.  There were over 100 city-states in ancient Greece.  A person's identity and citizenship were tied to the city-state, not to Greece.  Greece was not a country at that time, but an aggregation of city-states.  The common  factors that united the people as Greeks were that all of the city-states had the same gods and the same language.

  Sports and Fitness in Sparta

 The fervor and intensity of the exercise and fitness programs in Sparta  are remarkable.   Spartans saw exercise and fitness as an indispensable asset for military strength and successes in the battle fields.  Every citizen of Sparta was required to be physically fit.  At the age of seven, boys and girls were taken away from their homes  by the city-state and trained to be physically fit.  Boys were trained to be great warriors  and girls were trained to assure that they would produce great warriors.

  The city-state government of Sparta required each person to  pass a stringent physical fitness examination before being granted the  citizenship of Sparta.  It is not surprising that the Spartans are considered the fittest people in human history. This Spartan attribute for fitness remains unchallenged, and there are no indications that it will be challenged in the foreseeable future.

 Sports and Fitness in Athens

 In  the city-state of Athens, sports, exercise and fitness were embraced with a more balanced fervor compared to the Spartan way where fitness was used primarily for the development of a formidable military force.  To the Athenians art, beauty and spirituality were an integral part of exercise and fitness.  They often combined exercises with music.   A common saying  in Athens was that exercise is for the body and music is for the soul.  Great leaders like Hippocrates played important roles in nurturing the interest and fervor for fitness.

 Sports and Fitness in Olympia

 In Olympia, exercise and fitness were embraced with the same fervor and  overtones as the Athenians. Spiritual dimensions to sports and fitness were evident at Olympia, and the legend of Heracules as the establisher  of the Olympic Games was well-known by the people of Olympia. 

  Olympia is the origin of the Olympic Games.  Games and sports events were held as ceremonies to honor Zeus, the most powerful god. Athletes from various regions of Greece came to compete at Olympia every four years. The Olympic Games were highly respected during the early years of the Games.  The importance of  these games  is underscored by the point that all wars and conflicts in the region were suspended during the Olympic games to assure the safety of all athletes who traveled to the games

 Gods in the Lives of the Ancient Greeks

 The gods were important in the lives of the ancient  Greeks.  This conclusion is extracted largely from the Greek mythology which presumably  reflects the concerns, the thoughts and aspirations of the ancient Geeks.  According to  mythology, the gods and goddesses lived on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in ancient Greece. All of the twelve major deities but Hades lived on Mount Olympus.   Hades preferred his underworld domicile.  Zeus, the most powerful of all the gods, was the king of all the deities.  He was the ruler of the skies and the   Devine Kingdom of Mount Olympus.  Some of the  gods and goddesses are profiled below.

 l  Hera –  Zeus's wife,  the queen goddess and goddess of marriage

l  Hades – Zeus's brother and god of the underworld. The only god who did not live on Mount Olympus.

l  Poseidon -  another brother of Zeus and lord of the seas

l  Athena   -  Zeus's favorite daughter and goddess of wisdom

l  Aphrodite – goddess of love and beauty

 The ancient Greeks loved and respected their gods and goddesses.  Temples and statures were built to honor them.  When it came to giving more  honor to the king of all gods, Zeus,  the Greeks wanted something that had more value than temples and golden statures.  That thing of highest value turned out to be the Olympic Games. To the ancient Greeks, the greatest value that was suitable for the king of the gods was the Olympic games.

 Legacy from Ancient Greece

 The modern Olympic games is a legacy from the ancient Olympics Games. Our interest in sports  and the importance we attach to exercise and fitness are largely rooted  in the ancient Greeks and their   culture that  recognized and appreciated the physical and spiritual dimensions  of fitness. This legacy of athleticism is now ours because the ancient Greeks took time to honor their god, Zeus.

Religion and Sports in Ancient Greece

Statues in Honor of the Gods and Goddesses

Olynpic Games in Honor of Zeus(110125)
Credit: dAVID dIXON