The History of the Olympics

Greek Vase
Olympic runners depicted on an ancient Greek vase given as a prize in the Panathenaea, circa 525 BCE. Picture Post / Getty Images

Like so much of ancient history, the origins of the Olympic Games held in Olympia, a district in Southern Greece, are shrouded in myth and legend. The Greeks dated events from the first Olympiad (the four-year period between games) in 776 B.C.—two decades before the legendary founding of Rome, so the founding of Rome can be dated "Ol. 6.3" or the third year of the 6th Olympiad, which is 753 B.C.E.

The Origins of the Olympic Games

Conventionally, the ancient Olympic games began in 776 B.C.E., based on records of stade-length races. The victor of this first Olympic game was Koroibos of Elis, in Southern Greece. However, because the Olympics originated during an era that is not well-documented, the actual date of the first Olympics is disputed.

The origins of the ancient Olympics interested the ancient Greeks, who told conflicting, history-laced, mythological aitia (origin stories).

The House of Atreus Theory

One Olympic origins story is connected with one of the early members of the tragedy-ridden House of Atreus. Pelops won the hand of his bride, Hippodamia, by competing in a chariot race against her father, King Oinomaos (Oenomaus) of Pisa, in Elis. Oinomaos was the son of Ares and the Pleiad Sterope.

Pelops, whose shoulder Demeter had once had to replace when she accidentally ate it, conspired to win the race by replacing the king's chariot's lynch-pins with ones made of wax. These melted on the course, throwing the king from his chariot and killing him. After Pelops married Hippodamia, he commemorated his victory over Oinomaos by holding the first Olympic Games. These games either expiated his killing or thanked the gods for the victory.

According to historian Gregory Nagy, Pindar, in his first Olympian Ode, denies that Pelops served his son to the gods at the infamous feast where Demeter absent-mindedly ate a shoulder chop. Instead, Poseidon abducted Pelops' son and repaid Pelops by helping him win that chariot race.

The Hercules Theory 

Another theory on the origin of the Olympic games, also from Pindar, in Olympian X, attributes the Olympic games to the great Greek hero Hercules (Hercules or Heracles), who held the games as a thank offering to honor his father, Zeus, after Hercules had exacted revenge on King Augeus of Elis. Foolishly, Augeus had defaulted on his promised reward to Hercules for cleansing the stables.

The Cronus Theory

Pausanias 5.7 says the Olympic origins lie in Zeus' victory over Cronus. The following passage elaborates this and also explains musical elements in the ancient Olympics.

[5.7.10] Now some say that Zeus wrestled here with Cronus himself for the throne, while others say that he held the games in honor of his victory over Cronus. The record of victors include Apollo, who outran Hermes and beat Ares at boxing. It is for this reason, they say, that the Pythian flute-song is played while the competitors in the pentathlum are jumping; for the flute-song is sacred to Apollo, and Apollo won Olympic victories.

A common thread of the stories about the origins of the Olympic games is that the games were instituted following a personal or competitive victory and were intended to honor the gods.

When Did the Games Stop?

The games lasted for about 10 centuries. In 391 C.E. the Emperor Theodosius I ended the games.

Earthquakes in 522 and 526 and natural disasters, Theodosius II, Slav invaders, Venetians, and Turks all contributed to destroying the monuments at the site.

Frequency of the Games

The Ancient Greeks held the Olympics every four years starting near the summer solstice. This four-year period was known as an "Olympiad" and was used as a reference point for dating events throughout Greece. Greek poleis (city-states) had their own calendars, with different names for the months, so the Olympiad provided a measure of uniformity. Pausanias, travel writer of the second century A.D, writes about the impossible chronology of a victory in an early footrace by reference to the relevant Olympiads:

[6.3.8] The statue of Oebotas was set up by the Achaeans by the command of the Delphic Apollo in the eightieth Olympiad [433 B.C.], but Oebotas won his victory in the footrace at the sixth Festival [749 B.C.]. How, therefore, could Oebotas have taken part in the Greek victory at Plataea [479 B.C.]?

A Religious Occasion

The Olympics were a religious event for the Greeks. A temple on the site of Olympia, which was dedicated to Zeus, held a gold and ivory statue of the king of the gods. By the greatest Greek sculptor, Pheidias, it stood 42-feet high and was one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World.

The Rewards of Victory

Representatives of each polis (city-state) could attend the ancient Olympics and hope to win a victory that would confer great personal and civic honor. So great was the honor that cities considered Olympic victors to be heroes and sometimes fed them for the rest of their lives. The festivals were also important religious occasions and the site was more a sanctuary to Zeus than a city proper. In addition to competitors and their trainers, poets, who wrote victory odes for the winners, attended the games.

An Olympic victor was crowned with an olive wreath (laurel wreath was the award for another set of Panhellenic games, the Pythian games at Delphi) and had his name inscribed in the official Olympic records. Some victors were fed for the rest of their lives by their city-states (poleis), although they were never actually paid. They were considered heroes who conferred honor upon their hometowns.

It was sacrilege to commit a crime, including accepting payment, corruption, and invasion during the games. According to Emeritus Classics Professor Matthew Wiencke, when a cheating competitor was caught, he was disqualified. In addition, the cheating athlete, his trainer, and possibly his city-state were fined—heavily.

Participants

Potential participants in the Olympics included all free Greek men, except certain felons, and barbarians, during the Classical Period. By the Hellenistic Period, professional athletes competed. The Olympic games were male-dominated. Married women were not allowed to enter the stadium during the games and might be killed if they tried. A priestess of Demeter was present, however, and tere may have been a separate race for women at Olympia.

Main Sports

The ancient Olympic sporting events were:

  • Boxing
  • Discus (part of Pentathlon)
  • Equestrian Events
  • Javelin (part of Pentathlon)
  • Jumping
  • Pankration
  • Pentathlon
  • Running
  • Wrestling

Some events, like mule-cart racing, loosely, a part of the equestrian events, were added and then not too much later, removed:

[5.9.1] IX. Certain contests, too, have been dropped at Olympia, the Eleans resolving to discontinue them. The pentathlum for boys was instituted at the thirty-eighth Festival; but after Eutelidas of Lace-daemon had received the wild olive for it, the Eleans disapproved of boys entering for this competition. The races for mule-carts, and the trotting-race, were instituted respectively at the seventieth Festival and the seventy-first, but were both abolished by proclamation at the eighty-fourth. When they were first instituted, Thersius of Thessaly won the race for mule-carts, while Pataecus, an Achaean from Dyme, won the trotting-race.
Pausanias - Jones translation 2d cen