What the Olympics looked like in the Middle Ages

The Olympic Games are a significant historic event

Due to the global coronavirus pandemic, the Olympic Games have been postponed. They finally took place this year, despite a huge amount of controversy and scandalous moments. The 2020 Games opened in Tokyo, Japan on July 23rd. It seems that the Olympics are a fairly modern invention. Someone thinks that it is rooted in antiquity, citing Ancient Greece as an example.

In fact, only the history of the Olympic Games is a modern invention. The roots of this competition are heavily mythologized. In the current version, the so-called "Dark Ages" are completely absent. This period simply disappeared from the history of the Games. The real history of the Olympics and sports in general is much more complex and multifaceted.

Ancient olympic games

These sports began around the 8th century BC. Popularity and fame came to them a century later. From all parts of Ancient Greece, people came wishing to compete at the Hellenic religious sanctuary of Olympia on the Peloponnese. In the end, this event was framed in a certain cycle of athletic festivals, which takes place every four years. Soon, perhaps due to the fact that Olympia was associated with the veneration of Zeus, the Olympic Games became an outstanding event. It began to attract a huge number of not only participants, but also spectators. People flocked to watch the action in droves.


The Olympics were held even after the Romans conquered the Peloponnese. Rome was actively involved in the process, not only participating, but also sponsoring the event. Everything has changed only that the place of Zeus was taken by Jupiter. The city began to grow. Temporary buildings were replaced by permanent ones. The Romans also built many private villas for wealthy spectators. The infrastructure has been expanded and improved. More stadiums were built. Among other things, representatives of other nationalities were now allowed to the Games, and they themselves began to last a day longer.

For a long time, historians believed that the end of ancient sports competitions was associated with the rise of Christianity. For example, the Roman emperors who converted to Christianity considered Olympias to be a relic of polytheism. But even then, as now, the real story can be learned by monitoring financial flows.


New research in this area has shown that the Olympics lasted until the 5th century. Then an economic recession followed, funding for such entertainment from the state fell. For some time, private sponsors supported the Games, then cultural preferences began to change. Here the spread of Christianity was partly to blame. Over time, sporting events were gradually canceled or postponed so as not to take place again. This tradition finally disappeared by the beginning of the 6th century.

Did the Middle Ages kill sports?

This is where some historians decided that the Middle Ages killed the Olympic Games. The fallacy of this conclusion lies in the fact that the name has disappeared, yes, but the event itself, somewhat modified, remained. Chariot races and knightly tournaments were especially popular.


In the Byzantine Empire, chariot races remained the central event in sports life for a long time. This sport existed until the 11th century. Athletes formed teams and competed with each other. Stadiums gathered to watch this spectacle. The participants were mostly slaves from all over the Mediterranean coast. It was a very dangerous sport, many participants died during these races.

This added a special spice to the spectacle. But there were also those who could become famous and fabulously rich. As it happened, for example, with a certain athlete named Calpurnian. He managed to win over a thousand races in the 1st century AD.

Is sport out of politics?

Then, as now, politics had a huge impact on sports. For example, the same chariot races could play a very important role in the fate of an entire empire. As it happened in 532 AD. Then a riot broke out at the stadium in Constantinople. The fans of the two competing teams united and opposed the Emperor Justinian. He was so scared that he decided to run away. He was stopped by his wife, Theodora, with the words: “Think for a minute, once you escaped to a safe place, would you gladly trade such safety for death? As for me, I agree with the proverb that royal purple is the noblest shroud. "

As a result, the emperor stayed. He ordered his army to quell the riot. This ended with one of the most terrible bloodshed in history of this kind - about three tens of thousands of people died.

Real spectacles


In the western part of Europe, races quickly lost their popularity, giving way to knightly tournaments. These spectacular competitions continued until the 16th century. The participants traveled to all European countries, participating in various tournaments. Then the term "wandering knight" arose.

The 2001 Hollywood film A Knight's Tale with Heath Ledger did not stray too far from historical reality. In these competitions, riders in armor tried to shoot down their opponents with a spear and shield. It was also possible to fight on foot with blunt (but still dangerous) weapons to determine who the best warrior was. And all these spectacles to cause a roar of delight from the crowd of spectators.


These were truly theatrical performances! Each tournament was accompanied by lavish opening and closing ceremonies. Just like the modern Olympics! For example, in the 13th century autobiographical collection of poems, the knight Ulrich von Lichtenstein, dressed as a woman, specifically the goddess Venus, travels through Italy and the Holy Roman Empire. He unconditionally defeated all rivals in all knightly tournaments and hand-to-hand combat.


On another occasion, Jean Froissard, a late 14th century chronicler, wrote of an unusual competition. Froissart enjoyed the special patronage of the Queen of England. He traveled extensively during the Hundred Years War. Then in France in Saint-Inglever, which is not far from Calais, there was a certain calm at the front.

Three French knights decided to organize a competition. They learned about this in England. The British were extremely anxious to put the French in their place. As a result, the tournament lasted a whole month. The knights fought with dozens of people who wanted to. When it was over, both sides were more than happy with each other and parted as friends.


Sport is like a mirror of times

From all that has been written above, the following conclusion can be drawn: as in ancient times, so now the Olympic Games were primarily spectacles. They were organized not as military exercises, but as entertainment. The competitive spirit obliged each participant to develop individual skill.

The history of sports is an important part of human history and culture. They formed by reflecting the time in which they were spent. After the 16th century, the nobles spent less and less time participating in battles. Horseback riding and various competitions continued to exist, but the knightly tournaments ceased.

The Olympic Games reappeared in the late 19th century, largely due to the growing popularity of nationalism in Europe. In addition, emphasis began to be placed on the physical education of the younger generation. They were first officially held in Athens in 1896. The next were four years later in Paris, then in St. Louis and so on. Today the Olympics are taking place in Tokyo. It has changed, but the spirit of sports is still the same. Despite all the vicissitudes, sport is an important part of the history of human civilization. And it has always been that way.


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