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Ancient Judges (Hellanodikai)

The amazing stability and success of the ancient Olympic games over a period of more than 1,000 years was due in large part to the organizers/judges of the Games, called Hellanodikai. It was their sacred duty to preserve the rules, traditions, high standards, and legacy of the Games.

The Hellanodikai
Originally, it was the organizer of a particular athletic festival who supervised their execution. This was the case with Pelops, Hercules, and King Iphitos . When the Olympics outlived its original patrons, the job was passed down and took on a life of its own. Originally, the title was "agonothetai" (game organizers), but soon became "Hellanodikai" literally, "the judges of the Greeks."

In the beginning there was only one Hellanodikos. Eventually this number grew to and stabilized at ten (in 348 BC, the 108th Olympiad), where it remained until the end of the Games. Three of the Hellanodikai supervised the pentathlon, three the equestrian events, and three organized the remainder of the competitions. The senior Hellanodikos acted as the overall supervisor.

The Hellanodikai were Eleans, since Elis was responsible for the Games. During the first century the office was for life and was hereditary, but from the sixth century on, they were elected from all the citizens of Elis. For each Olympiad, one member from each of the tribes of Elis was chosen by the drawing of lots.

The job description of the Hellanodikai was extensive. Besides serving as judges and umpires, they were general organizers and officials, they presided over every Olympic ceremony and event, for the month before the Games they took on the role of trainers, and they were expected to police the Games as well.

Ten Months in Elis
For the ten months prior to the Games, the Hellanodikai lived in their own special residence in Elis. Called the "Hellanodikaion," this building was specially constructed for this purpose and was close to the gymnasiums where the prospective Olympic athletes spent the final month in training before the Games. During their stay, the Hellanodikai were trained by the "nomophylakes" (guardians of the law) in the regulations and provisions of the Games.

One Month in Training
In the last month before the Games, the Hellanodikai supervised the training of the athletes. This was a kind of trial period during which the judges were free to select those who had been well trained or single out those with unsatisfactory training. Although the athletes' trainers were required to be present, they could not interfere with the Hellanodikai, under penalty of flogging. The training was renowned for its harshness: the athletes had to observe a strict diet, carry out a grueling regime, and obey every word of the Hellanodikai. If they did not, they could be flogged or excluded from the Games.

The Hellanodikai did not judge only the physical condition of the athletes, but also their behavior. Those that were not considered to be properly prepared were excluded. The character and the morality of the athletes were evaluated, as well as their power, resistance, endurance, and generally their ability to perform in front of a panhellenic audience at a level keeping with the fame and the history of the Olympic sanctuary. In addition, any prospective competitors who were found to have committed a crime or robbed a temple were automatically excluded.

During this month, the Hellanodikai also classified the competitors into categories for various events. They verified parentage and Greek descent, and checked whether the contestants had been registered in the special list called "leukoma."

Two days before the beginning of the festival, those who were approved to participate left Elis for Olympia along the Sacred Road in a procession headed by the Hellanodikai.

Five Days in Olympia
During the five days of the Olympic games, the Hellanodikai presided over the festival. On the first day, the Olympic oath ceremony was held in front of the statue of Zeus Horkios (Zeus of the Oaths). The athletes and their trainers had to swear that they had been trained for the last ten months and that they would obey the rules of the Games. The judges then had to swear that they would judge fairly and treat in confidence anything they had learned about a competitor.

The primary responsibility of the Hellanodikai was, of course, the judging of the various events. The Hellanodikai wore robes of purple, the royal color, severing as a reminder of the time when King Iphitos controlled the Games and officiated as the sole judge. A platform at the southern edge of the stadium supported seats for the judges; however, the seats were essentially honorary. Since the judges had to rely on eyesight to determine a winner, they would undoubtedly have stood at the finish line. There was no photo finish or instant replay-decisions of the Hellanodikai were final and irrevocable. In the case of a tie, the crown was presented to Zeus. They also set the order of events and had the right to change that order, even at the last minute, if they considered it necessary.

The Hellanodikai enforced the rules and kept order with the "alytes" (Olympic police force). The penalties were harsh: both competitors and trainers who failed to comply with instructions could be publicly whipped by the "mastigophorai" (whip-bearers) or the "rabdouchoi" (rod-bearers). For certain violations, fines were levied. If an athlete could not afford to pay the fines, his city would pay in order not to be excluded from the games. The revenue from the fines was used to make the statues of Zeus, called the Zanes, which lined the wall of the Altis along the north.

The most senior Hellanodikos had the privilege of crowning the victors at the awards ceremony at the conclusion of the Games.

A Millennium of Impartiality
Throughout the ages, the Olympic judges were renowned for their fairness. The Olympic games had a permanent home, so there were no inducements offered to the judges and official by would-be hosts. The awe and respect in which the Hellanodikai were held was tremendous. Although there were many documented cases of cheating and bribery among the participants, only one case of possible corruption in the Hellanodikai occurred in over 1,000 years: after a Hellanodikos won two equestrian events, such was the passion for impartiality in the Olympic administration that it was decided to ban judges from any participation, even their horses, to avoid any hint of compromise. This almost-spotless record leaves a powerful legacy for the Olympic officials of today.

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