The Ancient Olympic Games was a series of competitions held between representatives of several city-states and kingdoms from Ancient Greece, which featured mainly athletic but also combat and chariot racing events. During the Olympic games all struggles against the participating city-states were postponed until the games were finished.The origin of these Olympics is shrouded in mystery and legend. One of the most popular myths identifies Heracles and his father Zeus as the progenitors of the Games. According to legend, it was Heracles who first called the Games "Olympic" and established the custom of holding them every four years.A legend persists that after Heracles completed his twelve labors, he built the Olympic stadium as an honor to Zeus.
Following its completion, he walked in a straight line for 200 steps and called this distance a "stadion" (Greek: στάδιον, Latin: stadium, "stage"), which later became a unit of distance. Another myth associates the first Games with the ancient Greek concept of Olympic truce (ἐκεχειρία, ekecheiria). The most widely accepted date for the inception of the Ancient Olympics is 776 BC; this is based on inscriptions, found at Olympia, of the winners of a footrace held every four years starting in 776 BC.The Ancient Games featured running events, a pentathlon (consisting of a jumping event, discus and javelin throws, a foot race and wrestling), boxing, wrestling, and equestrian events. Tradition has it that Coroebus, a cook from the city of Elis, was the first Olympic champion.
The Olympics were of fundamental religious importance, featuring sporting events alongside ritual sacrifices honoring both Zeus (whose famous statue by Phidias stood in his temple at Olympia) and Pelops, divine hero and mythical king of Olympia. Pelops was famous for his chariot race with King Oenomaus of Pisatis. The winners of the events were admired and immortalized in poems and statues. The Games were held every four years, and this period, known as an Olympiad, was used by Greeks as one of their units of time measurement. The Games were part of a cycle known as the Panhellenic Games, which included the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games, and the Isthmian Games.
The Olympic Games reached their zenith in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, but then gradually declined in importance as the Romans gained power and influence in Greece. There is no consensus on when the Games officially ended, the most common-held date is 393 AD, when the emperor Theodosius I declared that all pagan cults and practices be eliminated. Another date cited is 426 AD, when his successor Theodosius II ordered the destruction of all Greek temples. After the demise of the Olympics, they were not held again until the late 19th century.
An artist's impression of ancient OlympiaTo the Greeks it was important to root the Olympic Games in mythology. During the time of the ancient Games their origins were attributed to the gods, and competing legends persisted as to who actually was responsible for the Games' genesis. These origin traditions and myths have become nearly impossible to untangle, yet a chronology and patterns have arisen that help people understand the story behind the Games. The earliest myths regarding the origin of the Games are recounted by the Greek historian, Pausanias. According to the story, 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 an olive wreath, which explains the traditional prize given to Olympic champions.  The other Olympian gods (so named because they lived permanently 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. He claims the festival at Olympia involved Pelops, king of Olympia and eponymous hero of the 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. A final myth, also attributed to Pausanias is dated by the historian at 776 BC. For some reason the Games of previous millennia were discontinued and then revived by Lycurgus of Sparta, Iphitos of Elis, and Cleoisthenes of Pisa at the behest of the Oracle of Delphi who claimed that the people had strayed from the gods, which had caused a plague and constant war. Restoration of the Games would end the plague, usher in a time of peace, and signal a return to a more traditional lifestyle. The patterns that emerge from these myths are that the Greeks believed the Games had their roots in religion, that athletic competition was tied to worship of the gods, and the revival of the ancient Games was intended to bring peace, harmony and a return to the origins of Greek life. Since these myths were documented by historians like Pausanias, who lived during the reign of Marcus Aurelius in the 160s AD, it is likely that these stories are more fable than fact.
The games were held to be one of the two central rituals in Ancient Greece, the other being the much older religious festival, the Eleusinian Mysteries.
The games started in Olympia, Greece, in a sanctuary site for the Greek deities near the towns of Elis and Pisa (both in Elis on the peninsula of Peloponnesos). The first Games began as an annual foot race of young women in competition for the position of the priestess for the goddess, Hera and a second race was instituted for a consort for the priestess who would participate in the religious traditions at the temple.
The Heraea Games, the first recorded competition for women in the Olympic Stadium, were held as early as the sixth century BC. It originally consisted of foot races only, as did the competition for males. Some texts, including Pausanias's Description of Greece, c. AD 175, state that Hippodameia gathered a group known as the "Sixteen Women" and made them administrators of the Heraea Games, out of gratitude for her marriage to Pelops. Other texts related to the Elis and Pisa conflict indicate that the "Sixteen Women" were peacemakers from Pisa and Elis and, because of their political competence, became administrators of the Heraea Games.
Being the consort of Hera in Classical Greek mythology, Zeus was the father of the deities in the pantheon of that era. The Sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia housed a 13-metre-high statue in ivory and gold of Zeus that had been sculpted by Phidias circa 445 BC. This statue was one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. By the time of the Classical Greek culture, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the games were restricted to male participants.
The historian Ephorus, who lived in the fourth century BC, is believed to have established the use of Olympiads to count years. The Olympic Games were held at four-year intervals, and later, the Greek method of counting the years even referred to these Games, using the term Olympiad for the period between two Games. Previously, every Greek state used its own dating system, something that continued for local events, which led to confusion when trying to determine dates. For example, Diodorus states that there was a solar eclipse in the third year of the 113th Olympiad, which must be the eclipse of 316 BC. This gives a date of (mid-summer) 786 BC for the first year of the first Olympiad. Nevertheless, there is disagreement among scholars as to when the Games began.
The "Exedra" reserved for the judges at Olympia on the north embankment of the stadiumThe only competition held then was, according to the later Greek traveller Pausanias who wrote in 175 A.D., the stadion race, a race over about 190 metres, measured after the feet of Hercules. The word stadium is derived from this foot race.
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.
Several groups fought over control of the sanctuary at Olympia, and hence the Games, for prestige and political advantage. Pausanias later writes that in 668 BC, Pheidon of Argos was commissioned by the town of Pisa to capture the sanctuary from the town of Elis, which he did and then personally controlled the Games for that year. The next year, Elis regained control.
The Olympic Games were part of the Panhellenic Games, 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 more important and more prestigious than the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games.
Finally, the Olympic Games were suppressed, either by Theodosius I in AD 393 or his grandson Theodosius II in AD 435, as part of the campaign to impose Christianity as a state religion. The site of Olympia remained until an earthquake destroyed it in the sixth century AD.
The "Discobolus" is a copy of a Greek statue c. 5th century BC. It represents an ancient Olympic discus throwerThe ancient Olympics were as much a religious festival as an athletic event. The Games were held in honor of the Greek god Zeus. On the middle day of the Games 100 oxen would be sacrificed to Zeus. Over time Olympia, site of the Games, became a central spot for the worship of head of the Greek pantheon and a temple, built by the Greek architect Libon was erected on the mountaintop. The temple was one of the largest Doric temples in Greece. The sculptor Pheidias created a statue of the god made of gold and ivory. It stood 42 feet (13 m) tall. It was placed on a throne in the temple. The statue became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. As the historian Strabo put it,
"... the glory of the temple persisted ... on account both of the festal assembly and of the Olympian Games, in which the prize was a crown and which were regarded as sacred, the greatest games in the world. The temple was adorned by its numerous offerings, which were dedicated there from all parts of Greece."
Artistic expression was a major part of the Games. Sculptors, poets and other artisens would come to the Games to display their works in what became an artistic competition. Sculptors created works like Myron's Diskobolos or Discus Thrower. Their aim was to highlight natural human movement and the shape of muscles and the body. Poets would be commissioned to write prose in honor of the Olympic victors. These poems, known as Epinicians, were passed on from generation to generation and many of them have lasted far longer than any other honor made for the same purpose. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, one of the founders of the modern Olympic Games, wanted to fully imitate the ancient Olympics in every way. Included in his vision was to feature an artistic competition modeled on the ancient Olympics and held every four years, during the celebration of the Olympic Games. His desire came to fruition at the Olympics held in London in 1908.
Through the 12 centuries of the Olympic Games, many wonderful athletes competed in the stadium and the hippodrome of ancient Olympia's sacred area, moving the crowds with their great achievements. Although mortal, their Olympic victories immortalised them. Of the best athletes who left their mark on the sacred valley of Olympia, some surpassed all limits and became legends by winning in successive Olympic Games and remaining at the forefront of their sport for more than a decade. It is worth mentioning some of their extraordinary achievements, which, even by today's standards, would be the envy of athletes such as Nurmi, Zatopek or Lewis.
All free male Greek citizens were entitled to participate in the ancient Olympic Games, regardless of their social status. Orsippos, a general from Megara; Polymnistor, a shepherd; Diagoras, a member of a royal family from Rhodes; Alexander I, son of Amyndas and King of Macedonia; and Democritus, a philosopher, were all participants in the Games.
Married women were not allowed to participate in, or to watch, the ancient Olympic Games. However, unmarried women could attend the competition, and the priestess of Demeter, goddess of fertility, was given a privileged position next to the Stadium altar.
Astylos of Croton
Astylos of Croton in southern Italy won a total of six victory olive wreaths in three Olympiads (488-480 B.C.) in the stade and the diaulos (twice the stade) events. In the first Olympiad, he ran for Croton and his compatriots honoured and glorified him. In the two successive Olympiads, however, he took part as a citizen of Syracuse. The people of Croton punished him by demolishing his statue in their city and converting his house into a prison.
Milon of Croton
Milon, a pupil of the philosopher Pythagoras, was one of the most famous athletes in Antiquity. He came from the Greek city of Croton in southern Italy. He was six times Olympic wrestling champion. He first won in 540 B.C., in the youth wrestling event, and then five times in men's wrestling. This is a unique achievement even in today's competition context. He also won seven times in the Pythian Games, nine times in the Nemean Games, ten times in the Isthmian Games and innumerable times in small competitions. In the 67th Olympiad (512 B.C.), in his seventh attempt for the championship, he lost to a younger athlete, Timasitheus. There are many accounts of his achievements.
Leonidas of Rhodes
Leonidas of Rhodes was one of the most famous runners in Antiquity. His was a unique achievement, even by today's standards. For four consecutive Olympiads (164-152 B.C.), he won three races, - the stade race, the diaulos race and the armour race. He won a total of 12 Olympic victory wreaths. He was acclaimed as a hero by his compatriots.
Melankomas of Caria
Melankomas of Caria was crowned Olympic boxing champion in 49 B.C., and was a winner in many other events. He went down in history for the way in which he fought. His movements were light, simple and fascinating. He would defeat his opponents without ever being hit himself, nor ever dealing a blow. He was reputed to fight for two days holding his arms out without ever lowering them. He attained his excellent competitive form through continuous and strenuous exercise.
Kyniska of Sparta
Kyniska, daughter of King Archidamos of Sparta, was the first woman to be listed as an Olympic victor in Antiquity. Her chariot won in the four-horse chariot race in the 96th and 97th Olympiads, (396 B.C. and 392 B.C. respectively). In the Olympic Games, it was forbidden for women to be present and Kyniska broke with tradition, since, in the equestrian events, the victory wreath, or kotinos, was won by the owner, not the rider, of the horse.
The ancient Olympic Games were initially a one-day event until 684 BC, when they were extended to three days. In the 5th century B.C., the Games were extended again to cover five days.
The ancient Games included running, long jump, shot put, javelin, boxing, pankration and equestrian events.
The Pentathlon became an Olympic sport with the addition of wrestling in 708 B.C., and included the following:
Running / Jumping / Discus Throw
Running contests included:
the stade race, which was the pre-eminent test of speed, covering the Olympia track from one end to the other (200m foot race),
the diaulos (two stades - 400m foot race),
dolichos (ranging between 7 and 24 stades).
Athletes used stone or lead weights called halteres to increase the distance of a jump. They held onto the weights until the end of their flight, and then jettisoned them backwards.
The discus was originally made of stone and later of iron, lead or bronze. The technique was very similar to today's freestyle discus throw.
This was highly valued as a form of military exercise without weapons. It ended only when one of the contestants admitted defeat.
Boxers wrapped straps (himantes) around their hands to strengthen their wrists and steady their fingers. Initially, these straps were soft but, as time progressed, boxers started using hard leather straps, often causing disfigurement of their opponent's face.
This was a primitive form of martial art combining wrestling and boxing, and was considered to be one of the toughest sports. Greeks believed that it was founded by Theseus when he defeated the fierce Minotaur in the labyrinth.
These included horse races and chariot races and took place in the Hippodrome, a wide, flat, open space.