The Olympiad of 776 B.C. was the first major athletic festival of the ancient world. The Olympic Games, as they are known today, were begun in Olympia, in Greece, to honor the god Zeus. The games were held every four years for about 12 centuries. They ended in the late A.D. 300s on the order of the emperor Theodosius. The destruction of Olympia by an earthquake may have hastened their demise. The Greek writer Pindar credits the mythic hero* Heracles with the inspiration for the Olympic Games—to celebrate his cleaning of the Augean stables, one of his famous Twelve Labors.

The Olympic Games were held around mid-August or mid-September, after the harvest was in. The athletic competitions were open to male citizens from all parts of the Greek world. There were no amateurs or women participating in the events. Competitors were either aristocrats (who had the time and money to train) or professional athletes. The prizes for winning an event were a crown of wild olive, immense prestige, and sometimes political advancement. Winners often were able to build on their success at Olympia in terms of military advancement as well. In fact, the athletic contests were, in a sense, “war games” in which city-states* displayed the might and skill of their male citizens.

The first and only competition at the Olympic Games for many years was the stadion, a footrace of about 200 yards. It was run in the stadium, a place with a track for the runners and seats for observers. By the mid-600s B.C., a core of events had been established. In addition to the stadion, the other events included the double stadion, a 5,000-yard footrace, a pentathlon (a five-event competition consisting of a discus throw, a standing jump, a javelin throw, a footrace, and wrestling), boxing, a chariot race, a horse race, and a pankration, which was an extreme, “anything goes” wrestling match. The games lasted about five days, during which time there were religious ceremonies, social events, and a parade of champions on the final day.

The Olympic Games were remarkable for several reasons. They were an organized, international event whose participants came from every part of the Greek world. The games also provided a respite from the almost constant wars and warfare. To ensure that war would not interfere with the games or with travel to and from Olympia, a truce of one to three months was instituted. During this period, participating states were forbidden to take up arms against each other. The truce guaranteed athletes and spectators safe passage. The truce was violated in 364 B.C. by the Arcadians, a Greek people from the central Peloponnese*. The decline of the games may be traced to that date. In 80 B.C. the games were transferred to Rome.

* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory


The Olympic Games produced many famous athletes whose names and accomplishments have been preserved in the annals of the athletic competition. No ancient athlete impressed the Greek public more than the wrestler known as Milo of Croton, from southern Italy. He won at least six Olympic olive crowns and reigned as Olympic wrestling champion from 532 to 512 B.c His 20-year record has never been broken.

Milo was over 40 when he was finally forced to retire. But his technique, balance, and strength became legendary. Greeks said he could stand on a greased discus and no man could push him off.

The first Olympiad, an organized international competition that drew participants from throughout the Greek world, inspired sportsmanship, goodwill, and community pride— ideals that are still valued in today’s Olympics. The discus throw, which is still included in the Olympic Games, is shown here.

The modern Olympic Games began in 1896 in Athens. They were revived by a French educator, Pierre de Coubertin. (See also Festivals and Feasts; Games, Greek.)

* Peloponnese peninsula forming the southern part of the mainland of Greece

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