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For athletes, the Olympics are the ultimate test of their worth." Mary Lou Retton

The Ancient Olympic Games

 

Although the ancient Olympic games were first recorded in 776 BC, they originated at least a century before that and possibly as early as the 13th century BC.

 

One Greek legend said that the great Herakles (Hercules, in the Roman form) won a race at Olympia, a plain in the small state of Elis, and then decreed that the race should be re-enacted every four years. Another said that Zeus himself had originated the festival after defeating Cronus for the sovereignty of heaven.

 

 

 

Olympic Gymnasium 776 BC

 

 

The more likely story is that the Olympic festival was a local religious event until 884 BC, when Iphitus, the king of Elis, decided to turn it into a broader, pan-Hellenic festival. To accomplish that, he entered into a temporary truce with other rulers, allowing athletes and others to travel peacefully to Olympia while the festival was going on.

 

The Greeks based their chronology on four-year periods called Olympiads, and the Olympic festival marked the beginning of each Olympiad. Evidently, the festival was reorganized in 776 BC, which was considered the start of the first Olympiad.

 

The festival was basically a religious gathering to celebrate the gods worshipped in common by all Hellenes, primarily Zeus. There were three other major pan-Hellenic festivals, the Pythian, the Nemean, and the Isthmian, all of which included fairs, but the festival at Olympia became pre-eminent by 572 BC, when Elis and Sparta entered into an alliance under which Elis was in charge of the event itself while Sparta enforced the sacred truce.

 

A single foot race was the only athletic event until the fifteenth Olympiad. The race was the length of the stadium, approximately 200 yards. As time went on, the games associated with the festival expanded and became increasingly important. A race of two stadium lengths was added in 724 and a long-distance race of 24 stadium lengths (about 2.5 miles) was added in 720.

 

Other types of sports followed quickly: Wrestling and the pentathlon in 708, boxing in 688, chariot racing in 680, and the pancratium, a combination of boxing and wrestling, in 748. At one time or another, there were 23 Olympic sports events, although they were never all held at the same festival.

 

 

Olympic Games Greek chariot racing

 

Greek Chariot Racing

 

 

A branch of wild olive was the only official prize for an Olympic winner, but there were also usually some unofficial prizes awarded by his city-state. For example, Athens allowed an Olympic champion to live free of charge in the Pyrtaneum, a special hall set aside for distinguished citizens. Other city-states exempted winners from taxes for an Olympiad, and in some cases citizens contributed to a cash award.

 

Athletes had to arrive in Elis a month before the games to undergo spiritual, moral, and physical training under the supervision of the judges, who then decided which of them were genuinely qualified to compete. Each competitor had to swear an oath that he was a free-born Greek who had committed no sacrilege against the gods.

 

At first, the games took up only one day of the festival. That was extended to two days in 680, with the addition of chariot racing, and to five days in 632. However, only three of those days were actually devoted to competition. The first day was devoted to religious sacrifices, the registration of athletes, and the taking of the Olympic oath. Prizes were awarded and thanksgiving sacrifices were offered on the fifth day.

 

Athletes usually competed nude. They originally wore shorts but, according to one ancient writer, Pausanias, a competitor deliberately lost his shorts so that he could run more freely during the race in 720 BC, and clothing was then abolished.

 

Women were not allowed to watch the games, but that had nothing to do with the nudity of the male athletes. Rather, it was because Olympia was dedicated to Zeus and was therefore a sacred area for men. The chariot races, which were held outside the sacred precinct, were open to women spectators. (Women had their own sacred festivals from which men were banned, most notably the Heraean festival at Argos, which included a javelin throwing competition.)

 

 

Olympic Games gold coin

 

Olympic coin

 

 

At its peak during the 4th century BC, the Olympic festival drew crowds not only from the Pelopponesian Peninsula but from colonies as far away as Libya and Egypt. Poets and other writers recited spontaneously, sculptors worked on statues while surrounded by spectators, vendors sold food from stalls, traders from throughout the peninsula sold horses.

 

Traveling to Olympia took on the nature of a pilgrimage, which attracted some of the greatest names of Greece's classic period. Plato attended the festival when he was seventy. Demosthenes, Diogenes the Cynic, Pythagoras, and Themistocles all visited Olympia at one time or another. The young Thucydides was in the audience when Herodotus, the "father of history," read from his works.

 

Even after the glory that was Greece vanished, the Olympics lived on, but in a debased form under the Romans, who replaced the traditional games with their own gladiatorial contests, in which slaves replaced free-born Greeks as the competitors.

 

In 394 AD, Theodosius the Great decreed an end to the Olympic Games. But they had lasted more than a thousand years, perhaps as long as 1600 years, and certainly longer than any other secular institution in history.  And they left behind an ember that was to burst again into flame in the late 19th century.

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