Olympic Games

Ancient olympic games
Ancient olympic games

The Olympic Games of the ancient world were one of four athletic competitions associated with four ancient Greek religious celebrations.

In addition to the Olympic Games, which were held every four years in Olympia in honor of Zeus, these athletic competitions included the Nemean Games, held every two years in Nemea also in honor of Zeus; the Pythian Games, held every four years in Delphi in honor of Apollo; and the Isthmian Games, held every two years in Corinth, in honor of Poseidon.

By the fifth century b.c.e. these biannual and quadannual athletic celebrations formed an athletic circuit, in which the most outstanding athletes of the ancient world competed.


The Olympic Games were the oldest and the most significant of these athletic festivals. While the origins of the Olympics are unknown, the Greeks developed several legends celebrating physical strength, competition, and skill.

These include Hercules founding the games in honor of his own physical prowess. Others contended that the games celebrated Zeus’s defeat of Cronus in their battle for the hills overlooking Olympia, and yet others claimed the games commemorated Pelops, who won a beautiful bride in a chariot race contested in Olympia.

Legends aside, Olympia became a shrine for Zeus in c. 1000 b.c.e., and it is then that historians believe the athletic competition associated with the religious celebrations in honor of Zeus began. At the beginning of the games the athletes pledged to compete fairly in the name of Zeus, otherwise suffer significant fines, which went to the erection of statues and shrines to the god of Olympia.

chariot race
chariot race

The first recorded Olympic competition was in 776 b.c.e.; the footrace of approximately 200 meters (656 feet) long, the stade, was the only competition held at that time.

In 724 b.c.e. the games expanded to include a double race of approximately 400 meters (1,312 feet). A long-distance race of 4,800 meters (15,748 feet) was added in 720 b.c.e., wrestling and the pentathlon in 708 b.c.e., boxing in 688 b.c.e., and a chariot race in 680 b.c.e.

From 632 to 616 b.c.e. footraces, wrestling, and boxing were added for adolescent athletes. Finally a 200-meter race in armor was added in 520 b.c.e. Until 550 b.c.e. these events were held in open spaces at the foot of the hills surrounding Olympia.

In that year construction began of a hippodrome, a stadium with the capacity to seat 40,000 spectators, a gymnasium, and a palaestra. Footraces were held in the stadium, the inside length of which equaled the distance of the stade.

wrestling
wrestling

In 472 b.c.e. the format and order of the Olympic Games were standardized over five days, of which only two and a half were devoted to sport. Religious ceremonies, pledges, sacrifices, and singing took place on the first day.

Athletic competition started on the second day with the chariot race and the pentathlon, an event consisting of the discus and javelin throws, standing broad jump, a 200-meter race, and wrestling. The longer footraces were held on the third day.

Heavy events took place on the fourth day, which included wrestling, boxing, pancratium, and the 200-meter race in armor. Prizes—wreathes of olive branches to the winners— were distributed on the fifth day, in addition to religious celebrations, praises to Zeus, and a banquet of meat from sacrificed animals.

Every four years before the Olympic Games started, three heralds left Olympia, traveled throughout the Greek world, and declared a sacred truce in honor of Zeus. Athletes, coaches, trainers, and spectators embarked to Olympia, allowed free and unrestrained travel through regions ravaged by war, and arrived about a month before the start of the games.

Athletes had to verify that they were Greek citizens and that they were not slaves or criminals. They then swore to Zeus that they had trained for at least 10 months before reaching Olympia. The final month of training, the most rigorous of the athlete’s preparation, was conducted under strict supervision of judges. During this period elimination rounds were held in most events.

For the most part the ancient Olympians were wealthy aristocrats, who could afford to spend their time training for sport, could hire coaches and trainers, and owned horses and chariots. In 450 b.c.e. athletes from the lower classes began to compete in the Olympic Games and the other periodic contests.

Wealthy patrons from the Greek city-states financed the training and travel of these athletes, who represented the Greek city-states. While Olympians may have been amateurs in the sense that they did not receive material reward for their athletic achievement, the Olympic movement was a great commercial enterprise.

Moreover, the Olympic Games were not open to women athletes or spectators, but women had their own athletic competition at Olympia—the Heraean Games—in honor of Hera, the sister-wife of Zeus. Held in celebration of fertility, the Heraean Games predate the Olympics, reflecting the matriarchal character of early Greek society.