776 BC – 394 AD
The Olympic Games began in ancient Greece in 776 BC and lasted twelve centuries before being outlawed by the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius in 394 AD.
The Olympic Games (Greek: Ολυμπιακοί αγώνες, “Olympiakoi Agones“) were and still are history’s most regularly experienced athletic event. Moreover, the Olympic Games which began as a regional sporting event is now an event attended and viewed by billions of people throughout the entire world.
In ancient Greece; city states such as Athens, Sparta, Boeotia, Thessaly and more resided side my side throughout Greece and nearby lands such as present day Turkey.
The Greek city states were very civilized mini nations, advanced peoples surrounded by barbarian peoples eagerly wishing to take the richness of the Greeks. The Greeks found themselves in constant warfare with these outside barbarian forces and increasingly among themselves.
Over time, the threat to the Greeks came primarily from each other. Each city state struggled to prevent neighboring states from overpowering them and destroying their state.
The Greeks all had the same basic culture, honored the same gods and spoke the same language. Leaders of the various states tried to eliminate or at least minimize the constant warfare among themselves. Since all Greeks were highly competitive, the leaders decided to institute a series of competitive sporting events designed to not only encourage themselves to stop making war but to also honor their gods.
The Olympic Games began in 776 BC, the traditional start date. The Games were a series of athletic events that were held at the olympiad, in the area around Olympia. All Games were held in honor of Zeus, the major Greek god of gods. The growing success of the Games encouraged belief in the divine and mythological origin of the Games, with some believing the gods themselves were participating or attending.
An Olympic Truce was agreed upon by the participating city states so that all athletes and attendees could travel throughout Greece without concern for their safety. This truce accomplished many leaders’ goal of preventing or limited internecine warfare. However, over time, politics intruded the Games and eventually the Games became a means of a state to prove dominance over others.
However, the Games were highly popular and continued to grow over the years. The Olympic Games became so popular that they helped spread Hellenistic culture throughout the Mediterranean and Black Seas area, to Greek colonies and beyond.
Because the Games were held to honor Zeus and other gods; the Games also featured many religious celebrations, rituals, cultural and artistic competitions. The Games became a major festive affair with thousands of people attending.
Sculptors, artists, actors, dancers, poets and more would attend each olympiad to display their works of art to would-be patrons. Sculptors and stone cutters built many statues and symbols to honor the gods and famous Olympian competitors. One of the Seven Wonders of the World was the statue of Zeus at Olympia.
The Olympic Sporting Events
The Greeks were a martial race, and a very competitive people as well. Many of the events tested physical attributes that were defined by exercising and preparing for battle. Endurance and skill were tested as well.
Early Games were merely a one day event that only featured one competition which was a simple race that traversed the length of the stadium. This event, the stadion, was later expanded during the 14th Olympics when a second race or stadion was added. This stadion consisted of a race around the entire stadium, approximately 400 meters.
The Games over time eventually became a five day event with the first and last day devoted to honoring the gods. Art, flowers, food and other gifts were placed in the stadium as gifts to the gods. One hundred oxen were slaughtered as a gift to Zeus.
As the Olympics progressed; more competitive events were added such as wrestling, boxing, chariot racing, horse racing, javelin (spear) throwing and more.
A popular event combined total scores of the long jump, discus throw, stadion race, wrestling match and the javelin throw. This event was called the Pentathlon.
Many contests took place in an area called the gymnasium, which derived from the Greek word, gymnos “naked”. Such contests, mostly wrestling and boxing, were done by the athletes totally nude. Gymnasium is still used centuries later to describe our own arena where sporting events such as basketball are played and a gymnasium or gym, can be found in virtually every country around the world.
The ancient Games were a brutal and serious affair. Rules were few and rarely enforced. Boxing could continue even if the opponent was beaten or offered to quit. Many contestants died or were severely injured during dangerous events such as wrestling, boxing, javelin throwing and chariot racing.
The popular Pankration, combined boxing and wrestling and was similar to today’s martial arts whereby the contestant could attack without specific rules and inflict serious bodily damage or death to his foe. Many Greeks believed this event was started by the hero Theseus himself, the warrior who defeated the mighty Minotaur in the depths of the labyrinth.
However, the risk of injury was outweighed by the chance for glory of winning and thereby honoring the gods, your country and your family. Winning athletes were honored and celebrated much like our baseball, football, soccer and basketball athletes are glorified today. Moreover, ancient Olympic winners earned much money and were given gifts and military or political promotions for their success.
The End and the Beginning
The Olympics became and continued to be a phenomenal success across the expanding Greek civilization around the Mediterranean and Black Seas. As Greek power grew and their empires expanded, more peoples were exposed to the Games. Attendees to the Games came from Greek colonies and trading port cities from present day Turkey, Sicily/Italy, Egypt, North Africa, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Ukraine, Russia and more.
Over time however, the new power of the Western World, Rome; replaced the huge Greek Empire of Alexander the Great and the North African empire of Carthage, and became the biggest empire the world had seen.
Even though the Romans now ruled the Greek nation states, the Olympic Games continued to thrive as Romans were heavily influenced by the Greeks centuries before they became the dominant Western power. Romans honored the same gods as the Greeks and adapted many cultural, artistic, political and military attributes of the Greeks. The Romans allowed and enthusiastically supported the Olympic Games.
Over the centuries, the Roman Empire slowly converted to the major force of the time, Christianity. Christians, once severely persecuted by the Romans for their rejection of Roman gods and their allegiance to a single God, became the official religion of the Empire when Emperor Theodosius converted to Christianity.
In 394 AD, Emperor Theodosius outlawed the Olympic Games to help the Empire suppress pagan religions. The Games had lasted for twelve centuries. The Games were instrumental in the cultural development of the Western world. The influence of the Olympics were so powerful that the Games were reinstated in 1896.
During the Renaissance, Europeans developed a new found fascination and admiration of ancient Greek culture. Later, some European countries began implementing informal athletic events and festivals using the old name of The Olympic Games.
In 1892, a French baron, Pierre de Coubertin, a Greek and Olympic Games enthusiast, proposed to various sporting and political leaders that the Olympic Games should be reinstated.
A conference on international sports was held in Paris in June, 1894. With Coubertin’s persistence, aggressive politicking and powers of persuasion; seventy nine delegates from nine countries agreed unanimously to approve the reinstatement of the Olympic Games. In 1896 the newly formed, The International Olympic Committee (IOC)officially launched the first modern Olympic Games in1896 in Athens, the capital of Greece.
Today the Olympic Games is one of the most, in not the most, popular sporting event in the World. From a small religious, sporting event performed in a small country over 1,500 years ago, the Olympics have grown to an enormous spectacle performed by athletes from virtually every country on Earth and celebrated and watched by billions of people around the globe.