The Olympic Games

For the ancient Greeks, the Olympic games existed since mythical times, but no definitive time of their inauguration can be identified with any certainty. The first Olympiad was held in 776 BCE, and this is the year that provides the first accurate chronology of Greek history. That's because after that date, the names of all Olympic winners were officially recorded. Koroibos, a cook from Elis, had his name saved for posterity as the first winner of the games in the one-stade race. The athletic games were held every four years during the second (or possibly the first) full moon in August, and the festivities lasted five days.

Only free male Greeks were eligible to participate in the games, and they came from all corners of the Mediterranean, including colonies from Magna Grecia and the Pontus. Athletes competed nude, in an atmosphere of respect for for their opponents and above all, reverence for the rules. Slaves and women were banned from the sanctuary under penalty of death. Women however were allowed to sponsor events, teams, athletes, and votive offerings. In addition, maidens competed in their own athletic competition in Olympia which also was held every four years, and a competition with exclusive events for boys were introduced in 632.

In essence, from their conception in the early days, the Olympic games reflected the values that were to characterize Greek civilization for the next five hundred years. First, during the games warring Greeks had to cease all hostilities because it was mandatory to participate in peaceful assembly. To this end, officials from Olympia traveled ahead of time throughout Greece to announce the assembly and to proclaim the ekecheiria, the ceasing of all hostilities (for up to three months) so all participants can find safe passage to the sanctuary.

More importantly, the games reflected the Greek's ideals that have won them admiration for millennia to come: the free individual who aspires to achieve excellence through an agon (struggle, or contest) governed by just laws. Just like the games, Greeks in their everyday lives competed intensely with each other in the political realm, in the economy, and in the battlefield. They competed by placing enormous importance on the value of the individual, and by respecting the rule of law that was above all.

Initially, the games were a local affair and the only event was the sprinting race, but in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE wrestling, boxing, and equestrian events were added, as well as the pentathlon (an event that combined running, long jump, discus and javelin throwing, and wrestling), and the pancration which was a vicious form of boxing with little to no rules. The Olympics in ancient Greece also included poetry and writing competition, and it provided a peaceful ground where Greeks discussed and forged agreements on military, commercial, and political matters.

Olympia declared the games and chose a group of hellanodikai (game officials) who supervised preparations of the event and the athletes. Competitors prepared for the events for ten months, and they resided and trained in Olympia during the last month before the games began. During the games, thousands of visitors traveled to Olympia, creating a crowded scene with folk camping wherever they could find a space to spread their blanket. Most did not even get to see the athletic events since the limited capacity stadium was completely occupied by the early squatters.

While the modern Olympic games are a sort of crowded circus, improved infrastructure in transportation, sewage, architecture, and crowd control make them an almost bearable affair for the spectators. The ancient gathering however must have been a very visceral affair, vividly described by Epictetus (chapter 6):

"But you may say, 'There are some things disagreeable and troublesome in life.' And are there none in Olympia? Are you not scorched? Are you not pressed by a crowd? Are you not without comfortable means of bathing? Are you not wet when it rains? Have you not abundance of noise, clamour, and other disagreeable things? But I suppose that setting all these things off against the magnificence of the spectacle, you bear and endure."

Winning an Olympic event bestowed fame and great honor to an athlete. The winners were announced by a herald following each event, and they were rewarded with a humble wreath. At the conclusion of the games, all the winners were honored at the Prytaneion and those who had won in three events were allowed to dedicate a sculpture of their likeness in the Altis. The reverence for the winners extended to their extended family and their city of origin. The home cities of these winners basked in the fame of their Olympionkikes (the winners at the Olympics) and bestowed honors and privileges upon them, such as providing them with free dinners for life. Tradition holds that cities will welcome back their Olympic winners by symbolically demolishing part of their defensive walls.

In Roman times, Tiberius won the chariot race in 4 BCE, and in a scandalous turn of events, the 211th Olympiad was postponed until 69 CE so emperor Nero could compete in a special music competition and in the chariot race. He won the race by fielding ten horses while all competitors could use four. In the end he was declared a winner even though he had abandoned the race, but the records were later expunged.

Because the games were integrated with the worship of Zeus--a Pagan god-- they were not approved by the Christians of the late Roman empire, and were banned in 393 CE by emperor Theodosius I in his drive to purge all Pagan festivals. He also ordered the destruction of the temples of Olympia, and soon that the sanctuary along with the Olympic games were forgotten.

But 1500 years after Theodosius' ban, the modern Olympic revival began in 1896, when the first modern Olympics convened in Athens with the patronage and leadership of Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France. For the occasion, the Hellenistic Panathenaic stadium was renovated to host the games in Athens. The first Greek to win the modern games was Spyridon Louis, a water seller who won the Marathon event.

Since 1896, the Olympics have occurred every four years in different countries (interrupted only by the two World Wars), and they have become one of the largest sports entertainment events in the world, drawing billions of dollars in revenues, and enjoying wide participation by the vast majority of nations. As a tribute to their ancient roots, before each Olympic event the Olympic flame is initiated in ancient Olympia, in the temple of Hera. In an imaginative choreography that depicts the ancient Vestal Virgins, the olympic torch is ignited by sun rays concentrated by a concave mirror on its tip. From Olympia then this flame travels in a festive relay to the country which holds the games and eventually lights up an elaborate cauldron to mark the start of the games. The flame burns for the duration of the Olympics, and its extinquishing marks their closing.

Athens, Greece hosted the Olympics again in 2004. During these games the "shot put" event was held in ancient Olympia.


Also see:
History of Olympia

Olympia Archaeological Site and Photos


Ancient Greece map