ER,  Greece,  Western Europe

The First Olympics

Olympic scene drawn on this 5th century B.C. vase. Photo Credit- Getty Images
Olympic scene drawn on this 5th century B.C. vase. Photo Credit- Getty Images

Our news feeds are filled with gold medal winners and world records broken lately.  However, we are experiencing games that are a part of the resurgence of an ancient tradition.  The modern Olympic games began in the 19th century, but the games as a whole are much older.

The original Olympic games were held as part of a religious festival honoring Zeus by the ancient Greeks.  The festival and games were held at the plains of Olympia in the western Peloponnesos near Mt Olympos, and the site lent the games their name.  On the Olympian plain were temples, and shrines as well as athletic facilities.  The landscape was dominated by a large temple to Zeus with a temple of Hera parallel to it.  Legend said that Heracles, son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene, founded the games in honor of his father.  The first Olympic games were dated to 776 BCE.  A cook named Koroibus won the only event, a 192 meter foot race called the stade to become the first Olympic champion.  However, there is some evidence that the games were held as early as the 9th or 10th century BCE.  The games were held every four years, and ancient historians began to measure times by the intervals between the games or Olympiads as they were known.

According to many literary traditions, the stade was the only Olympic event for the first 13 Olympic games.  After this, other events were added – the diaulos, a 400 meter race, and the dolichos, a 1,500 meter or 5,000 meter event.  In 708 BCE, the events were expanded past running as the pentathlon was added.  This consists of five events, a foot race, a long jump, discus and javelin throws and a wrestling match.  From there more events were added, boxing in 688 BCE, chariot racing in 680 BCE and the pankration.  This was a combination of boxing and wrestling with no rules.  The marathon was not included as an Olympic event until modern times.  The tradition of the Olympic flame is a modern one as well.

Greek athletes from every corner of the Greek world journeyed to be a contestant in the games.  Some came from as far away as Iberia, or Spain, in the west and the Black Sea in the east.  The athletes were freeborn males only.  There were no women’s events and married women were prohibited from attending the competition.  Nudity was common for the athletes by the late 8th century BCE.  There are two legends about how this started.  One says that the Spartans introduced the tradition of competing nude.  Another says that Orsippos, a runner from Megara, lost his shorts during a race in the 720 BCE Olympics, but kept going.  

The Greek Empire was conquered by the Romans in the mid-2nd century BCE, but the Games continued.  However, the quality and standards of the Games went into decline.  One notable example of this is in 67 CE, Emperor Nero competed in an Olympic chariot race and declared himself the winner even though he fell out of the chariot.  Who was going to argue?  Things went downhill from there.  In 393 CE, Emperor Theodosius I, called for a ban on all “pagan” festivals including the Olympic Games.    The Games ended after 12 centuries, and were not revived until the mid 18th century.


Sources available on request