The Olympic Games were a festival that occurred every four years in ancient Greece. For these games, the different poleis in Greece would send their best athletes to Olympia to participate in athletic contests. The winners of these games received olive victory wreaths and were honored and celebrated as heroes in the poleis. The Olympics started out as a smaller one-day festival, but they grew over time and more events were added, and by 472 BCE, the festival was five days long.
The first Olympic games that we have evidence of took place in 776 BCE, but many think that they had been going on since long before that. There is written evidence of a man named Coroebus winning the stade race and becoming the Olympic champion.
The ancient Olympic Games always took place in Olympia, which is in West Peloponnese. Olympia was a big meeting place for political and religious reasons. It had two great temples dedicated to the Greek gods Zeus and his wife Hera, and Olympia was thought of as a sacred site.
All free male citizens of Greece were allowed to participate in the Olympic games, and sometimes servants or slaves could compete in the chariot races. Unmarried women could come and watch the games, but there were no events for women to compete in, and married women weren't allowed to watch at all. One woman who got special treatment at the Olympics was the Priestess of Demeter, who is was the goddess of fertility. She would get to watch the games from a special spot next to the Stadium altar.
There were many famous athletes who were celebrated as heroes for their achievements in the Olympic Games. One example is Milon of Croton, who was a 6 time wrestling Olympic champion. This is something that would still be seen as an incredible achievement today. Leonidas of Rhodes is another example. He won twelve victory wreaths over the course of four Olympic Games by winning 3 races each year.
At first, the only event in the Olympics was the stade race, which was 192 meters running. Later, the diaulos and dolichos races, which were longer, were added. There was also a pentathlon (running, jumping, discus and javelin throwing, and wrestling), pankration (a combination of wrestling and boxing), horse and chariot races, wrestling, and boxing.
Religion in the Olympics
The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
The Olympic Games were dedicated to Greek Gods, mainly Zeus. One myth about the start of these games says that Zeus fought and defeated his father Cronus in a battle for the throne of the gods, and Heracles started the Olympic Games in honor of him.
Sacrifices and other religious rituals often played a big role during the games. The first day of festival was devoted to sacrifices, and the athletes often prayed and made sacrifices to the gods throughout the games.
Decline of the Ancient Olympics
In the 100s BCE, the Roman empire conquered Greece. After this, the Games began to decline in quality and standards. People began to disregard the rules and would cheat or deceive people to win. In 393 AD, the emperor Theodosius I banned the Olympics altogether because he was a christian, and since the games were in honor of Zeus and other Greek gods, he considered the games a pagan festival..
Modern Olympic Games
After the ancient Olympics stopped, there weren't any Olympic Games for hundreds of years. The first modern Olympics was held in 1896, and they have happened every 4 years since then. There are some key differences between the modern and ancient Olympics. In the modern Olympics, many more types of people from around the world are allowed to participate, and there are a lot more events today than in ancient Greece. Also, one big part of the ceremonies today is the lighting of the Olympic flame, but this was started in 1928, and they did not have an Olympic flame in the ancient Olympics. Another difference is that today, we have the winter olympics which happen along with the summer olympics, and the games change location every year. Although the two Olympics have their differences, the ancient Olympics had a big part in shaping how our Olympics work today.