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The Origins of the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece

Three runners featured on an Attic black-figured Panathenaic prize amphora. The footrace was the first event in the Olympic Games in ancient Greece. Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC BY 2.5/Wikipedia

The history and origins of the Olympic Games take us back into Ancient Greece and the legends of the heroic athletes visiting the city of Olympia every four years to take part in one of the most important athletic competitions of the ancient world.

Held in honor of the father of the ancient Greek gods, Zeus, written records show that the Olympics first took place in 776 BC and were celebrated for more than a thousand years until the Emperor of Byzantium Theodosius I suppressed the Games as a pagan spectacle since they were dedicated to Zeus.

In the Olympic Games of 776 BC, a cook named Coroebus from Elis won the only event in the competition—a 192-meter (630-foot) footrace called the stade (the origin of the modern word “stadium”) thereby becoming the very first Olympic champion of them all.

In comparison to the modern Games, the Olympics in ancient Greece were both a religious celebration and an athletic panhellenic meeting, which featured artistic competitions as well. Sculptors and poets would congregate at each Olympiad to display their works of art to would-be patrons. In addition, there were fewer athletic events than there are today.

Early Olympic Games

Ancient Greece Olympic Games
The palaestra of Olympia, a place devoted to the training of wrestlers and other athletes during the ancient Olympic Games in Greece. Credit: Bgabel, CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikipedia

The first competition held during the ancient Olympics, according to the Greek traveler Pausanias who wrote in 175 AD, was the stadion race, a race of about 190 meters (623.36 feet) supposedly measured after the feet of Hercules.

Gradually, in 724 BC the two-stade race (384 meters) was introduced, and four years later, a long-distance run which ranged from seven to twenty-four stades (1,344 meters to 4,608 meters). The fourth type of race involved runners wearing full armor, which was a two to four stade race (384 meters to 768 meters), used to build up speed and stamina for military purposes.

In 708 BC, the pentathlon and wrestling were also included in the Games. Boxing was added to the Games in 688 BC while the tethrippon (a race carriage with four horses) was introduced in 680 BC. Some 32 years later, horse racing also became another exciting part of the Olympics. Over time, more and more sports were added to the Olympics while their duration expanded from one to five days.

The Olympic Games were always held at Olympia rather than alternating at different locations while other Games were held at other religious sites across Greece, including Delphi and Nemea.

In 648 BC, pankration, a combination of boxing and wrestling, which had virtually no rules, debuted as an Olympic event. Only free-born Greek males were allowed to participate in the ancient Olympic Games; not only were there no women’s events, but married women were even prohibited from attending the competition.

The Discobolus olympic games
The Discobolus is a copy of a Greek statue from c. 5th century BC. It represents an ancient Olympic discus thrower. Credit: Livioandronico2013 , CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons

However, there is one particularly well-known case of a woman called Kallipatira, who disobeyed the strict rules and was the first woman ever to set foot in the Olympic Stadium.

Being the mother of an athlete, Kallipatira naturally wanted to admire her son’s performance and therefore dressed up as a man to be able to enter the Stadium. Her admiration finally betrayed her gender, but she was not punished by the Hellanodikes because of her family’s tradition in winning the Olympics.

Ancient prizes for winners

The prizes for the victors were wreaths of laurel leaves instead of money, and city walls would even be demolished for them to enter. Their names were praised, and their deeds were heralded and chronicled so that future generations could appreciate their accomplishments.

Homer’s epics provide the earliest and greatest description of athletic competitions in Western literature, while the earliest myths regarding the origin of the Games are recounted by the Greek historian, Pausanias.

According to him, the dactyl Herakles (not to be confused with the son of Zeus) and two of his brothers raced at Olympia. He crowned the victor with a laurel wreath, which explains the traditional prize given to Olympic champions.

List of winners
Ancient list of Olympic Games victors in Greece from the 75th to the 78th, and from the 81st to the 83rd Olympiads. Public Domain

The other Olympian gods (named after their permanent residence on Mount Olympus), would also engage in wrestling, jumping, and running contests.

Another myth, this one occurring after the aforementioned myth, is attributed to Pindar. It was claimed that the festival at Olympia involved Pelops, king of Olympia and eponymous hero of  Peloponnesus, and Herakles, the son of Zeus.

The story goes that after completing his labors, Herakles established an athletic festival to honor his father. Pelops, using trickery and the help of Poseidon, won a chariot race against a local king and claimed the king’s daughter, Hippodamia, as his prize.

As far as their early history is concerned, the first Games began as an annual foot race of young women in competition for the position of priestess for the goddess Hera in Olympia, a sanctuary site for Greek deities.

The Heraea Games, the first recorded competition for women in the Olympic Stadium, were held as early as the sixth century BC. By the time of the Classical Greek culture, however, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the Games were restricted to male participants.

Olympic Games part of the Panhellenic Games

Model ancient Olympia
This model shows the site of Olympia, home of the ancient Olympic Games in Greece, as it looked around 100 BC. Credit: Carole , CC BY-SA 2.0/ Wikipedia

The Olympic Games were part of the Panhellenic Games with four separate games held at two- or four-year intervals but arranged so that there was at least one set of games every year. The Olympic Games were the most important and prestigious ritual in ancient times, followed by the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games.

Besides boosting the athletic spirit, the Olympics provided a common means of counting time in ancient Greece. The historian Ephorus, who lived in the fourth century BC, is believed to have established the use of Olympiads to count years and put an end to the confusion among city-states when trying to determine dates.

The Greek tradition of athletic nudity was introduced in 720 BC either by the Spartans or by the Megarian Orsippus, and this was adopted early in the Olympics, as well. This is perhaps one of the reasons why women were not allowed to enter or watch the Games. The word “gymnasium” comes from the Greek root “gymnos” meaning nude; the literal meaning of “gymnasium” is “school for naked exercise.”

Leonidas of Rhodes, the Greatest Ancient Greek athlete of them all

Unfortunately, little is known about Leonidas of Rhodes, a runner who won the laurel wreath in three categories at the Olympics in the years 164, 160, 156, and 152 AD. Leonidas is notable not only for his long career, winning his final championships at the age of 36, but also for his versatility.

He won fast-twitch sprint races such as the stadion and diaulos but then went on to victory in the “hoplitodromos,” which as its name implies, includes long-distance feats associated with soldiers, including running in a helmet and armor while carrying a heavy shield.

Leonidas of Rhodes has gone down in history as winning a total of twelve different Olympic victories, an athletic feat that has incredibly never been equaled in either the ancient or modern competitions even with all the technology and training methods available today.

The American swimming star Michael Phelps earned a whopping eleven individual Olympic golds during his successful career, but as the Olympic motto goes, Leonidas’ gargantuan accomplishments still stand as a goal for those who always want to go higher and faster.

Decline of the ancient Greek Olympic Games and the modern revival

The Olympics continued for some time after the Roman Empire conquered Greece in the mid-2nd century BC, but their standards and quality fell away to the point that the Roman Emperor Nero entered an Olympic chariot race in the year 67 AD and declared himself the winner although he had fallen out of his chariot while racing.

In the year 393, Emperor Theodosius I, who was a Christian, called for a ban on all pagan-oriented festivals, bringing an end to the ancient Olympics after nearly twelve centuries.

But 1,500 years later, the Olympics would be revived, eventually growing into the global spectacle that we enjoy today.

France’s Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who lived from 1863-1937, was mostly responsible for the restoration of the ancient games onto the stage of the modern world, staging them in Athens in 1896.

Early in the afternoon of March 25, 1896 (April 6th by the new calendar) on the day commemorating the Greek War of Independence, the games began in the renovated stadium that was crowded with spectators.

The stirring “Olympic Anthem,” with lyrics by national poet Kostis Palamas and music by Spyros Samaras, was heard for the very first time ever.

A total of 241 athletes from Greece and thirteen other countries, including the USA, Germany, France, Great Britain, Hungary, Switzerland, Australia, and Chile participated in these first modern-day Olympic Games.

Female athletes were not allowed to participate at that time. As a protest, a young Athenian, Stamata “Melpomeni” Revythi ran the marathon—alone—one day after the triumph of Spyros Louis.

The vast majority of the athletes were Greek, winning 46 medals (10 gold-17 silver-19 bronze), against 20 by the USA (11 gold-7 silver-2 bronze), which came in second place in the medal count.

The winners received a silver medal, an olive branch, and a commemorative diploma while the runners-up received a bronze medal, a laurel branch, and the diploma.

Those who came in third place, unfortunately, did not get a medal at all. The International Olympic Committee later decided to award gold, silver, and bronze medals to the first three athletes in each event, which was done for the first time at the St. Louis Olympics in 1904.

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