Olympic Games Are First Recorded Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Olympic Games were established as one of four Panhellenic (all-Greek) games and helped provide unity in a region otherwise isolated into competing city-states.

Summary of Event

It is unknown whether the date 776 c.e. represents the first Olympic Games or the first recorded celebration of the Olympic Festival. If the former, the Olympic Games arose at the end of the Greek Dark Ages, a period of roughly four hundred years extending from the fall of Mycenae (c. 1100 b.c.e.) until the dawn of the Archaic period. If the latter is true, however, the year 776 c.e. represents the point when writing returned to the Greek mainland, allowing people to begin preserving records of a celebration that began centuries earlier. Whichever of these is true (and evidence seems to support the second alternative), winners of each Olympic Festival were recorded from 776 b.c.e. until 217 c.e. in a list appearing in the writings of the chronographer Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-339 c.e.). Winners of the earliest recorded events were thus roughly contemporary with the founding of Rome (April 21, 753 b.c.e.) and the earliest settlements on the Palatine Hill (c. 750 b.c.e.). Pindar Phidias Theodosius the Great Theodosius II

Olympia is located in the region of Elis, roughly 10 miles (16 kilometers) inland from the Ionian Sea in the west-central Peloponnese. The festival celebrated there was, along with a common language and shared religion, one of the few aspects of Greek life promoting unity among the highly disparate city-states. Divided by local traditions, variant dialects, and diverse forms of government, the Greek poleis (singular: polis), or city-states, were often rivals. At the Olympic Games, however, a truce was declared for the duration of the festival, and political disputes were not allowed to interfere with the celebration. The Greeks believed, probably without foundation, that the Olympic Festival had been proposed by the Delphic Oracle as a means of promoting peace.

Men participate in a foot race at the Olympic Games.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The Olympic Games were one of four Panhellenic Festivals or all-Greek athletic competitions held periodically in Greece. At the Pythian Games honoring Apollo at Delphi, the prize awarded to victors was a wreath of bay leaves gathered in the Vale of Tempe. The Nemean Games were held in honor of Zeus at Nemea, with winners receiving a wreath of wild parsley. At the Isthmian Games dedicated to Poseidon at Corinth, victors received a wreath of wild celery. Of these four festivals, the Olympic Games were by far the most prestigious, held once every four years in honor of Zeus at Olympia. The prize awarded to victors was a wreath made of wild olive leaves. The four-year period between Olympic Festivals was known as an Olympiad and could be used as a means of calculating dates. The games began at Olympia at the first full moon after the summer solstice.

Like the other Panhellenic festivals, the Olympic Games had a religious as well as an athletic and political importance. The perfection of the human body was seen as an act of worship by which human beings tried to imitate the perfection of the eternal gods. In the odes of the Greek poet Pindar, this physical achievement is often placed in a religious or mythological context. To aristocrats such as Pindar, the competition and the prize that the victor received were important not because they were useful but because they were useless. Time spent in activities having no practical utility must be the result of sheer love of the activity itself, not the pursuit of material gain. Honors and prizes conferred on the victors by their native cities were, however, usually so large that they became rich for the rest of their lives.

Certain restrictions applied to those who were eligible for competition. Free men (and, after 632 b.c.e., boys) whose native language was Greek were allowed to participate in the Games. Those whose native language was not Greek were permitted to watch the Games but could not compete in them. (In the Roman period, this restriction was waived for the Romans.) Slaves and all women, except for the local priestess of Demeter, were forbidden from entering the sacred area while the Games were in progress. Those violating this prohibition were hurled to their deaths from the Typaeon Rock.

The stadium that was built for the Olympic Festival was the earliest ever built by the Greeks, and it influenced the design of all that succeeded it. In Greece, a stadium was always used for footraces; it was never used, like Roman circuses, as an arena for chariot races. (A longer track, called a hippodrome, was built for horse racing.) The term “stadium” is derived from the Greek word stade or stadion, a unit of measurement corresponding to 600 Greek feet, each foot measuring slightly more than 13 inches (33 centimeters). A stade was thus 606.75 English feet (198 meters) in length. This became a standard unit of measurement in Greek racetracks of all periods. Because of the fierce independence of Greek city-states, however, some regional differences did occur.

The earliest events at Olympia appear to have been footraces, wrestling, and throwing events. As early as the seventh century b.c.e., races for chariots and individual horses occurred. In races, it was always the owner of the horse, not its rider, who was awarded the victory. From 472 b.c.e. onward, events at the Olympic Games were expanded to include horse races, the discus throw, the javelin throw, boxing, the pentathlon (jumping, wrestling, the javelin, the discus, and running), and the pancration (a type of no-holds-barred wrestling). Contestants in the Games had to be in training for a minimum of ten months before their competition. For the last thirty days before the festival, athletes trained in a special gymnasium at Olympia itself, where they ran and threw the javelin or discus. This final month of training was supervised by the Hellenodicae, a board of ten men who also served as referees during the Games themselves.

As an important religious center, Olympia was also the location of the ancient world’s most famous statue of Zeus, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The statue was a 40-foot-high (12-meter-high) representation of the god in gold and ivory by the artist Phidias that stood within the Temple of Zeus. Though about the same size as Phidias’s statue of Athena in the Athenian Parthenon, this statue of Zeus was said to seem taller because it was a seated statue. The geographer Strabo (64/63 b.c.e.-after 23 c.e.) noted that if Zeus had risen from his chair, he would easily have lifted off the roof from the temple. The rhetorician Quintilian claimed that this statue “could be said to have added something to traditional religion.” The Roman statesman Cicero noted that the statue was not based on any living model but rather on an idealized view of beauty, somewhat like that to which the athletes themselves aspired. Zeus was depicted as a bearded man, crowned with an olive wreath, and holding a life-size Winged Victory in his right hand.

Significance

In 393 c.e., the Roman emperor Theodosius the Great, a Christian, ended all pagan athletic games in Greece. In 426, his successor Theodosius II ordered the destruction of the temples at Olympia. Then, in 1880-1881, the starting blocks and lines used for footraces in the ancient stadium were rediscovered. The modern Olympic Games began in the spring of 1896, largely through the efforts of the French educator Baron Pierre de Coubertin. In 1924, the Winter Olympics were added to this existing competition (now often called the Summer Olympics). For seventy years, both festivals were held in the same year. Beginning in 1994, however, winter and summer festivals began to alternate in even-numbered years. Like the ancient Olympic Festival, the modern Games are viewed as a means of promoting peace among peoples of different cultures.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Golden, Mark. Sport and Society in Ancient Greece. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Golden examines the social aspects of the Olympic Games in ancient Greece. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ross, Stewart. The Original Olympics. Lincolnwood, Ill.: P. Bedrick Books, 1999. Covers the history of the Games as well as the traditions and athletic events themselves. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sinn, Ulrich. Olympia: Cult, Sport, and Ancient Festival. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2000. A study of the Olympic Games in ancient Greece and the associated archaeological discoveries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swaddling, Judith. The Ancient Olympic Games. 2d ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. A general discussion of the ancient Games, with illustrations and maps. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woff, Richard. The Ancient Greek Olympics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A scholarly treatment of the traditions, history, and events of the ancient Olympic Games. Bibliography and index.
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