The ancient Olympic Games were primarily a part of a religious festival
in honor of Zeus, the father of the Greek gods and goddesses. The festival
and the games were held in Olympia (see 'Did
you know' in the glossary), a rural sanctuary site (model shown here,
courtesy of the British Museum) in the western Peloponnesos.
The Greeks that came to the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia shared the same
religious beliefs and spoke the same language. The athletes were all male
citizens of the city-states from every corner of the Greek world, coming
from as far away as Iberia (Spain) in the west and the Black Sea (Turkey)
in the east.
The sanctuary was named in antiquity after Mt. Olympos (see 'Did
you know' in the glossary), the highest mountain in mainland Greece.
In Greek mythology, Mt. Olympos was the home of the greatest of the Greek
gods and goddesses.
ancient Olympic Games began in the year 776 BC, when Koroibos, a
cook from the nearby city of Elis, won the stadion
race, a foot race 600 feet long. The stadion track at Olympia is shown here.
According to some literary traditions, this was the only athletic event
of the games for the first 13 Olympic festivals or until 724 BC. From 776
BC, the Games were held in Olympia every four years for almost 12 centuries.
Contrary evidence, both literary and archaeological, suggests that the games
may have existed at Olympia much earlier than this date, perhaps as early
as the 10th or 9th century BC.
that, you ask?
A series of bronze tripods have been found at Olympia, some of which
may date to the 9th century BC, and it has been suggested that these
tripods may in fact be prizes for some of the early events at Olympia.
Source: Deutsches Archaologisches Institut, Athen
The marathon was NOT an event of the ancient Olympic games. The marathon
is a modern event that was first introduced in the Modern Olympic Games
of 1896 in Athens, a race from Marathon northeast of Athens to the Olympic
Stadium, a distance of 40 kilometers.
The race commemorates the run of Pheidippides, an ancient "day-runner"
who carried the news of the Persian landing at Marathon of 490 B.C. to Sparta
(a distance of 149 miles) in order to enlist help for the battle. According
to the fifth century B.C.ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Pheidippides
delivered the news to the Spartans the next day.
The distance of the modern marathon was standardized as 26 miles 385 yards
or 42.195 km. in 1908 when the Olympic Games were held in London. The distance
was the exact measurement between Windsor Castle, the start of the race,
and the finish line inside White City Stadium.
NUDITY AT THE GAMES?
There are two stories relating to the question of nudity at the ancient
Olympic Games. One story states that it was a runner from Megara, Orsippos
or Orrhippos who, in 720 B.C. was the first to run naked in the stadion
race when he lost his shorts in the race. Another tradition is that it was
the Spartans who introduced nudity to the Olympic Games in the 8th century
B.C. as it was a Spartan tradition. It is not clear if the very first recorded
victor at Olympia, Koroibos, who won the stadion
race in 776 B.C. wore shorts or not. It seems fairly clear that by the late
8th century nudity was common for the male contestants.
FROM ANCIENT TO MODERN
Although the ancient Games were staged in Olympia, Greece, from 776 BC through
393 AD, it took 1503 years for the Olympics to return. The first modern
Olympics were held in Athens, Greece, in 1896. The man responsible for its
rebirth was a Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who presented the
idea in 1894. His original thought was to unveil the modern Games in 1900
in his native Paris, but delegates from 34 countries were so enthralled
with the concept that they convinced him to move the Games up to 1896 and
have Athens serve as the first host.
THE OLYMPIC FLAME
The idea of the Olympic torch or Olympic Flame was first inaugurated in
the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. There was no torch relay in the ancient
Olympic Games. There were known, however, torch relays in other ancient
Greek athletic festivals including those held at Athens. The modern Olympic
torch relay was first instituted at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
The Olympic Oath was introduced in 1920.
Additional athletic events were gradually added until, by the 5th
century BC, the religious festival consisted of a five-day program.
For a complete list of events, click here.
For a complete list of modern Olympic Game location sites, click here.
Shown here is the stadium entrance at Olympia.
Any Winter Games?
The first modern Winter Olympic games were held in 1924 in Chamonix,
France. There was no winter Olympic festival in ancient times. Separate
Winter Games were first authorized in 1911 to be held in 1916, but
due to World War I they didn't occur until 1924, in Chamonix.
Starting with Lillehammer in 1994, it was decided that every other
year will be an Olympic year (with Summer and Winter Games alternating),
rather than holding Summer and Winter Games every 4th year. This was
done to accommodate TV networks and audiences.
The Modern Olympic flag of five linked rings, each with a primary
color used in the flags of the nations competing in the games, was
introduced in 1908. There is no ancient basis for this modern symbol.
Detail from an Attic Red Figure Kylix, ca. 490-480 BC, depicting two
men wrestling. Above them hang a discus in its bag and a pair of
jumping weights called 'halteres.' Long jumpers used the weights to
increase their competition distances by vigorously swinging them forward
at the moment of takeoff. The coach or trainer stands to the left
of the wrestlers, leaning on his staff and holding a long forked
branch. Museum Object Number: MS 2444 .