The first Olympic Games were held way back in 776 BC, when a bunch of ancient Greek guys decided to figure out who was really the toughest, roughest dude among them.
And while a lot of the events were fairly similar to those in the modern Olympics—including running, the shot put, javelin, discus, long jump, boxing, wrestling, and horseback riding—a few of the old-school events (like chariot racing) have since fallen by the wayside, mostly because they were just way too gory and/or intense.
Don’t just blame the modern Olympics for behing a behemoth of spectacle, with corporate sponsors and corrupt bureaucrats spoiling the fun for everyone. No, the Ancient Games were straight-up hardcore. Some athletes died. Some events were contested with body armor and shields—making the old competition a lot more badass and more dangerous than today.
Here are some of the most amazing facts from the Ancient Olympic Games:
MMA has origins in Ancient Greece
Imagine fighters like Conor McGregor or UFC legend Chuck Liddell duking it out for Olympic gold in a no-holds-barred martial arts contest with barely any rules. That’s basically pankration—the name literally means “all force”—an Ancient Olympic competition introduced in 648 BC. Fighters could basically do anything except gouge eyes, bite each other, or aim “below the belt”—but kicking, punching, choke holds, body slams, and wrestling moves were all approved. It was a spectator favorite, with successful pankratiasts claiming the most prize money except for equestrians.
Meet Leonidas of Rhodes, the most dominant Olympian—until Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps is the modern king of the Olympic Games, but before “the Baltimore Bullet” ever hit the water, there was Leonidas of Rhodes. Until Phelps’s turn in Rio, Leonidas held the record for most individual Olympic wins with 12 after winning three different foot races in four straight Olympics—the stadion (about 100m dash), the diaulos (about 200m), and the hoplitodromos (a race in armor) in 164 BCE, 160 BCE, 156 BCE, and 152 BCE. Just like Phelps, who competed in Rio at the age of 31, Leonidas also kicked Olympic butt into his 30s, winning his final event at the age of 36. The record stood for over 2,100 years before Phelps came along—that’s quite the legacy.
Phelps' 13th individual gold moved him past Leonidas of Rhodes, who'd held the record since 152 BC … 2,168 years! pic.twitter.com/QiA3ldvizz
— ESPN (@espn) August 12, 2016
The first Olympic event winner ever was a cook
Talk about amateurism. Coroebus of Elis, the first recorded event winner in Olympics history, was a cook, a baker, and a pretty good athlete. Hailing from Eleia, Coroebus was technically the first “gold medal winner” in Olympic history—but since the Ancient Games gave out olive branches instead medals, he took home a few leaves after winning the stadion race at the first Games in 776 BC.
Runners in the Hoplitodromos competed with 50 pounds of gear
The hoplitodromos was quite the display of physical strength and athletic ability. Athletes competed with 50 pounds of gear as part of the event, wearing and carrying the helmet, armor, greaves, and bronze shield of a hoplite, the main infantry of Greek armies. (Aside from the armor, though, they were nude.) The event made its debut at the 65th Olympics in 520 BC, in which the competitors competitors charted around 350-400 meters.
The Ancient Olympics put a hold on wars, battles, and military campaigns
Peace and love—that’s the Olympic way. The Ancient Games brought people together from far and wide, and during this time period there were plenty of wars and battles raging—but the Olympics put a pause on all that bloodshed. During competition, countries respected what was called the “Olympic Truce,” which allowed athletes and spectators to travel, compete, and watch the Games without fear of being attacked. No armies were allowed into Elis, where the Olympics were held, and during this time wars were put on hold and “death penalties” were disallowed—all in the spirit of athletic competition. The tradition was brought back to the modern Olympics in the 1990s.