The origin of the Olympic Games is linked with many
myths referred to in ancient sources, but in the historic
years their founder is said to be Oxylos whose descendant
Ifitos later rejuvenated the games.
According to tradition, the Olympic Games began in
776 B.C. when Ifitos made a treaty with Lycourgos the
king and famous legislator of Sparta and Cleisthenes
the king of Pissa. The text of the treaty was written
on a disc and kept in the Heraion.
In this treaty that was the decisive event for the developement
of the sanctuary as a Panhellenic centre, the "sacred
truce" was agreed. That is to say the ceasing of
fighting in all of the Greek world for as long as the
Olympic Games were on.
As a reward for the victors, the cotinus, which was
a wreath made from a branch of wild olive tree that
was growing next to the opisthodomus of the temple of
Zeus in the sacred Altis, was established after an order
of the Delphic oracle.
Ancient Olympic Games
The Olympics were held, after the completion of four
years during the month of July or August. The time inbetween
two Olympic Games was called an Olympiad. In the beginning
the games lasted only one day and comprised of only
one event, the running of one Stadion, but gradually
more events were added resulting, towards the 5th century
B.C., in the games lasting for 5 days.
All Greeks who were free citizens and had not committed
murder or heresy, had the right to take part in the
Olympic Games. Women were not entitled to take part,
except as owners in the horse races, while being strictly
prohibited from watching the games.
The athletes presented themselves one month before
the games began at Elis, the organising town, but the
organisation and supervision for the upholding of the
rules was carried out by the Hellanodikes, who were
chosen by lot from the citizens of Elis.
Two days after the beginning of the games, the procession of
the athletes and the judges started from Elis to arrive in Olympia
where it was received by the crowds who had come to watch the
The ceremonies began with the official oath that was taken
by the athletes at the altar of Horkios Zeus, in the Bouleuterion,
swearing that they would compete with honour and respect the
The victors enjoyed great honours and on returning to their cities their
compatriots pulled down part of the walls for them to enter. They were
also given special privileges and high office.
The great historical events that took place in the passing
of centuries within the Hellenic lands, took their toll
even on the athletic ideals of the Olympic Games, resulting
in the gradual fall of the moral values, that was especially
felt from 146 A.D. when most of Greece fell under the
Romans and the Eleans lost their independence.
The institution of the Olympic Games lasted for twelve
continuous centuries and was abolished in 393 A.D. (the
293rd Olympiad) by order of Theodosios I when the functioning
of all idol worshiping sanctuaries was forbidden, and
in 426 A.D., during the reign of Theodosios II, the
destruction of the Altian monuments followed.
The national, racial and spiritual unity of the Greeks
was forged thanks to the Olympic Games. The Olympic
Games combined the deep religious spirit along with
the heroic past of the Greeks thus unifying to the highest
degree body, mind and soul according to universal and
philosophical values, and so projecting the indivdual
as well as the cities, through the highest ideal of
Revival Of The Olympic Games
Efforts for the revival of the Olympic Games in modern
times reached a peak at the end of the 19th century
with the instrumental contribution of the French Baron
Pierre De Coubertin and the Greek Dimitrios Vikelas.
The first contemporary Olympic Games took place with
great glamour in 1896 in Athens, in the Panathenaic
Stadium. The head quarters of the International Olympic
Academy are in Olympia now.
Also in Olympia is the altar of the Olympic flame, which
is transferred every four years to the city that hosts
the Olympic Games. The lighting of the flame takes place
at the altar of the Temple of Hera and it is done with
the convergence of sunlight onto a metal reflector.
This process is part of a ritual combination that includes
the prayer and the hymn to Apollo. The high priestess
enters the stadium holding the lit torch which she then
hands over to the first runner in order for it to start
its long journey to the ends of the earth.
The foot - race
It is the oldest contest that took place in Olympia.
Until the 13th Olympiad (728 B.C.) when the games lasted
for only one day, it was the only event at the sanctuary.
The athletes were running nude, in an area whose length was
determined at 600 feet (192.27m), that is one Stade . It was
this distance that gave its name to the area used for the performance
of the event. These areas, the stadiums, were situated on hillsides
or in small valleys, thus enabling the spectators to follow
the events. Later and as the crowd of spectators grew, artificial
slopes were built and the spectators sat on the ground.
The stadium at Olympia had a capacity of 45,000 spectators.
Only men were allowed to watch the games with the exception
of the high priestess of Demeter Chamyne. The start
and duration of the stadium race were specified by clear
rules and there were set penalties for athletes who
broke them. The rules were clear for all the events
and for the duration of the games there were specific
bodies, the Alytai, who kept the order in all the areas
of performance. The judges and those in charge of the
games were the Hellondikai, who at first were life members
but then appointed by lot from the Elean citizens.
There are no records of the achievements of the athletes
during Archaic times as there were no means of the keeping
of time. What was important was to be the first amongst
the other athletes of the event, and receive the honour
and the glory that followed such a distinction.
Also taking place in Olympia were the Heraia, athletic
games for women in which young girls from Elis partook.
These games were held every four years independently
of the Olympic games. The women ran wearing their hair
loose, dressed in short tunics.
The pentathlon was a combination of heavy and light
events. It included jumping, running, javelin, discus
and wrestling. The pentathlon was considered to be a
very important event because the athlete had to combine
many qualities and skills of the body. In the Olympic
Games running and wrestling were conducted separately,
while the other three events were independent. Jason
was, according to mythology, the inventor of the pentathlon.
It is similar to the long jump. The athlete jumped
into a pit holding halters in his hands. It was accompanied
by flute music.
An event known from Homeric poems and one that the Greeks
loved most. It was part of the pentathlon. A fleeting
moment of discus throwing is captured in the famous
statue of the Discus-thrower by Myron, a copy of which
can be seen in Athens, opposite the Panathinaic Stadium.
One of the favorite events of many mythical heroes.
Seperated into "ekebolon" javelin throwing
which was judged by the distance the javelin was thrown,
and the "stochastikon" javelin throwing where
the javelin was thrown at a specific target.
It is refered to for the first time in Homer's Labours
for Patroclos. It was one of the pentathlon events but
also independent in the Panhellenic games.
One of the oldest events, as shown by the representation
of two children boxing on the mural from Acrotiri in
Thera, and the early reference to the event by Homer.
A combination of wrestling and boxing, it is praised by
Philostratos as the best and the most worthy event for
men in the Olympic games.
The horse races
The hippodrome, a space used for the horse races differed in size from
place to place. An aristocratic event, the horse races comprised of
various events and were conducted with horses, chariots and quadriga.
The most spectacular event was the quadriga race, an
event in which the most prominent historic personalities
had competed. The hippodrome was the main place for
exhibiting wealth and political strength during antiquity.