The Ancient Olympic Games were athletic competitions conducted every four years in honor of Zeus, the main deity of the Greek religion, at Olympia, a sacred location in the western Peloponnese. From 776 BCE to 393 CE, athletes and spectators came from Greece and outside to participate in the games.
The Olympic Games, which took place for 293 straight Olympiads, were ancient Greece’s most significant cultural event. The Games were so important in ancient times that they even served as the foundation for the calendar.
Origins of the Games
Historically, sporting activities have been linked to burial rites, especially those of heroes and soldiers who have died in action, as in the case of Patroklos’ games in Homer’s Iliad. Particularly at Olympia, some legendary tales attribute the commencement of the Games to Zeus to commemorate his triumph over Kronos, while others claim the Games were started by the hero Pelops in honor of Oinomaos. It is hardly surprising that organized athletic tournaments would eventually be developed, just as they had been in the previous Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations, as sport, a healthy physique, and a competitive spirit were significant components of Greek education.
In honor of Zeus, the first Olympics were staged starting in 776 BCE at the first full moon following the summer solstice, which fell in the middle of July. Koroibos of Elis took first place in the first and only competition, the stadium footrace. From that point on, every winner was noted, and each Olympiad was named after them, giving us the first precise chronology of the ancient Greek world. An Olympiad was the name of both the actual event and the time between the games. Athletes and as many as 40,000 spectators traveled from all across Greece to Olympia to compete in the Games during a three-month pan-Hellenic ceasefire. Later, additional competitions would be held in other holy locations, like Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea, but the Olympian Games would continue to hold the top spot.
The procession from Elis, the host city, to Olympia was headed by the Hellanodikai (judges), and when it arrived at Olympia, all competitors and officials took an oath to uphold the specified competition regulations and to participate honorably and respectfully. The sacrifice of 100 oxen, known as the hecatomb, to the altar of Zeus after the sports activities was the most significant religious ceremony of the day.
From Elis, spondophoroi were dispatched around all of Greece to announce the arrival of the Games. Visitors arrived from the islands of Ionia and Magna Graecia as well as the Greek mainland. To make it easier for competitors and spectators to move around and to honor the religious significance of the Games, a sacred truce (ekecheiria) was declared across Greece. The ceasefire initially lasted one month, but it was eventually increased to three. No one was to be hindered in their trip to the games from wherever they came from or whatever land they had to cross, including spectators, athletes, or theoriai (official missions representing individual cities). Warfare was also forbidden, and carrying arms was not authorized on the territory of Elis.
The Olympia site must have been delightfully humming during a Games with large throngs of enthusiastic spectators camping in temporary campsites (accommodation for the guests was not given till later) and appreciating the abundance of beautiful statues and structures at the site. Food sellers, artisans, singers, poets, and philosophers all used the throng to their greatest advantage to advertise their products or thoughts. We do not know exactly how many spectators saw each game, but we do know that 45,000 men, slaves, and foreigners watched from the stadium’s embankments where the main competitions were held. Through their raucous encouragement of the competitors and their post-event showering of flowers and laurel leaves on the winners, spectators actively engaged in the competitions.
Although little girls were allowed in the crowd, women were not allowed to witness or participate in the festivities. The priestess of Demeter Chamyne was the sole exception to this prohibition. The Kallipateira case was a well-known exception to the men-only norm. She had trained her son Peisirodos, and when he triumphed in his race, the crowd saw his mother loosening her clothing and showing her sex. Due to her Olympic-winning ancestry, she was spared the death penalty; but, to prevent such incidents in the future, all trainers had to wear nothing but their underwear.
A professional trainer (gymnastes) or physical trainer (paidotribes) who knew how to best strengthen certain muscles, the optimum nutrition, and the proper quantity of exercises to be done oversaw athletes while they trained. The placement of a monument honoring the trainer at the location was a common way for their more accomplished athletes to express gratitude. Additionally, athletes had an aleiptes who massaged and oil-rubbed them both before and after exercise.
To have total freedom of movement, the competitors competed nude. All free Greek men were eligible to participate in events, and the list of winners shows how truly Pan-Hellenic the Games were. In Roman times, the no-foreigner restriction for athletes was loosened. All-around winners were those who defeated their rivals. Records of the times and distances covered by champion athletes are nearly nonexistent since they were simply not thought to be significant; the goal was to place first among the best, not to break records.
The Stadion Footrace
The stadium footrace was the only competition throughout the first 12 Olympic Games, and it remained the most prestigious competition throughout the Games’ existence. The race was conducted over one stadion, or length, of the stadium track, which is equivalent to 192 meters or 600 feet in ancient times. Heat winners advanced to the final. For the sake of fairness, athletes were paired up by lot, just as pairings were done for the other events. The final winner of the stadium would even donate his name to that specific Games, making him immortal.
Competition Rules & Judges
Athletes were required to arrive in Olympia for training one month before the Games and to certify that they had been in training for at least ten months. Participants were not allowed to be non-Greeks, slaves, murderers, anyone guilty of defiling temples, or anybody who had broken the truce. Cities, like Sparta around 420 BCE, may be included in the latter group.
The Hellanodikai (or agonothetai), trained judges from Elis, oversaw the proceedings. They had several aides, including alytai (police officers), as well. There was just one judge throughout the first 49 Olympic Games, but over time, more judges joined him, and at one point, there were twelve judges overseeing all the activities. The position was once hereditary and permanent, but judges were eventually chosen from Elis by lot. Athletes who violated the regulations may be disqualified and fined by the Hellanodikai, who were granted special seats in the stadium and awarded their purple cloaks. The rulings of the Hellanodikai could never be overturned, but the judges may be penalized if an athlete successfully appealed, and they were also subject to review by a council of elders.
Rules were seldom ever breached, and when they were, punishments ranging from exclusion to fines to whipping were meted out. Both the sanctuary and the offended athlete received fines. If a violator did not pay the fine, the city he represented would be banned from the following Games. Many of the zanes, or sculptures of Zeus, whose bases can still be seen at the location, were built using the money collected through fines.
Each event winner received a victory crown (kotinos) made of wild olive leaves from the Hellanodikai as well as an olive branch (Kallistephanos) cut from the revered tree. The olive was significant since Hercules was thought to have initially planted the Olympian trees. A red woolen ribbon that was worn around the head or the upper arm was another possible award, particularly for chariot racers as the horse’s owner was the one who earned the olive crown.
After the Games, winners were greeted in their hometowns as heroes. The winners would often approach the city in a parade in a four-horse chariot and would be honored with lavish banquets as well as invitations to join the political elite and tax exemptions. Victories in the Games gave cities prestige as well, and as a result, they occasionally provided cash rewards for athletes, such as Solon’s 500-drachma medal (a significant figure given one sheep cost one drachma at the time).
Glory, renown, and, in a very genuine sense, historical immortality were the actual rewards for sportsmen. This was accomplished by fame while the person was still living, and it was continued after death through victory lists, individual sculptures, and victory odes.
Many outstanding athletes achieved fame and triumph in numerous Games. From 488 to 480 BCE, Kroton from southern Italy won three straight stadium competitions. The station, the diaulos, and the race in armor were the three events that Phanas of Pellene managed to succeed in the Olympics in 521 BCE. Even better, between 164 and 152 BCE, Leonidas of Rhodes won all three events in four straight Olympics.
Hermogenes of Xanthos, often known as “the horse,” who won eight running events during three Olympics between 81 and 89 CE, nearly accomplished the same feat. Between 532 and 516 BCE, Milon of Kroton won the wrestling tournament five times. Astylos of Kroton won six gold medals in the three Olympic games in 488, 484, and 480 BCE. Incredibly, from 328 to 292 BCE, Herodoros of Megara won 10 straight trumpet championships.
Famous athletes from outside of the athletic world competed in the Games due to their fame. In 416 BCE, three chariot races were won by Alcibiades, a famous Athenian commander and statesman. The horse race was won by Philip II of Macedon in 356 BCE, and he continued his winning run in the chariot races of the Games in 352 and 348 BCE. In 65 CE, Nero, the Roman emperor, was known for winning every competition he took part in. These strong political figures even tried to capitalize on their achievement at Olympia by minting coins to mark the occasion.
Kyniska was the first female to receive the crown of victory in 392 BCE. Women were not allowed to compete, but they were allowed to possess horses, and it was the owner of those horses who took home the olive crown award. Many more women followed Kyniska’s example, and Spartan women in particular achieved success in the equestrian competitions at Olympia.
End of the Games
As additional structures were constructed on the site, more amenities were provided for the spectators, and the athletes’ professionalism and event specialization increased, the Games persisted into the Hellenistic period. Despite significant modifications to tradition throughout the Roman era, such as Sulla’s relocation of the 80 BCE Games to Rome, the Games remained popular and gained in stature under Hellenophile emperors like Hadrian. However, it was Emperor Theodosius who eventually ruled that all religious activities, including the Games, must cease. As a result, the final Olympics, which had previously been staged 293 times over more than a millennium, were held in 393 CE.
The Olympic Symbol
Pierre de Coubertin came up with the idea for the flag, which features a white backdrop and five different colored interlocking rings. The six colors of the flag—blue, yellow, black, green, red, and white—still have symbolic meaning today, over a century after they were first used.
Five interlocking rings are a representation of the unity of the five continents and of the Olympic Games, which bring together athletes from all over the world.
In conclusion, the roughly 12-century-long Ancient Olympic Games, which were staged in Olympia in honor of Zeus, were a significant manifestation of Greek culture and athletics. Despite coming to an end in 393 CE, their influence continues today in the form of the five interlocking rings that stand for both world peace and the ongoing spirit of rivalry between nations.