Written by Divya Gupta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The first Olympic games were held in Athens, Greece in 1896. Around 280 participants from 13 nations competed in 43 sporting games. Since 1994, the famous Game has been held separately as the Winter and Summer Olympics every two years.
But did you know these modern games are inspired by the ancient Olympics in Greece which originated around 3000 years ago! From the 8th century B.C. until the 4th century A.D. these Games were held every four years, between July and September, during the religious festival honoring Zeus.
The Origin of the Olympics
The first ancient Olympic games were held in 776 BC in Olympia, on the first full moon after the summer solstice (around mid-July). The ancient town of Olympia was named after Mount Olympos, though it is nowhere near it. Mount Olympos is the highest mountain in Greece, and in Greek mythology, it was considered as being home to the gods and goddesses, and the Sanctuary of Zeus.

Ruins of the palaestra at Olympia, Greece.

The ancient Olympic game began as a regional religious event and reached the heights of national importance when the Greek empire spread in the 5th century B.C. What was once a friendly and fun-loving event, became a matter of colonial pride!
The winner of the first Olympic Games was Koroibos, a cook hailing from the town of Elis who won the only game, stade (origin of the word stadium). Stade was a 192-meter-long footrace that continued to be the only sport for 13 Olympic festivals.
Olympic Games
Sporting activities were an integral part of Greek education. The athletes would start preparing at an early age by professional trainers who helped them develop muscles, regulated their diet, and taught them sporting techniques.
There were many other sporting competitions, but the Olympics remained the most prestigious one. After 13 successful games, two more races were added: the diaulos (around 400-metres race) and the dolichos (a 1500-meters race). In 708 B.C. the very famous pentathlon (a race with five events: a foot race, long jump, discus, javelin throws, and wrestling match) was introduced. Many other games were added through the years like boxing in 688 B.C., chariot racing in 680 B.C., and pankration in 648 B.C.
boxing and wrestling area

Space where Olympians would practice boxing and wrestling at the paleastra of Olympia.

The famous Nudist Tell Tale
Legend has it that the athletes would run naked during the competition. Women were prohibited from participating or spectating the games, although young girls were allowed in the crowds. During one of the games, Kallipateira sneaked in to watch her son, Peisirodos, play.
She had trained him rigorously and, after seeing him win, the mother couldn’t contain her excitement and celebrated a bit too much while loosening her clothes. The secret was out! She revealed her sex and soon received a death penalty. But she managed to escape the punishment because her family was home to great Olympic victors. Since then, every athlete had to undergo the training and participate in the events without wearing any clothes!
Olympic Rules and Regulations
Greeks took these games pretty seriously. Every athlete had to report to the events one month before the games and had to declare that they have been training for a minimum of ten months. Non-Greeks, lawbreakers, slaves, and murderers were prohibited from participating. Many cities, including Sparta in 420 B.C., were excluded from the games too.
greek wrestlers

A relief from a funerary kouros base depicting two Greek wrestlers, one of the sports at such events as the Olympic Games at Olympia. c. 510 BCE. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

The Hellanodikai judges from Elis were trained specially to organize the event. They had the power to disqualify and punish participants who infringed the law. On the breaching of any rules, the athlete or the city he represented had to pay hefty fines.
The Participants and Olympic Champions
The Hellanodikai judges crowned winners with a wreath made of olive leaves and branches, as a sign of victory. Olive was significant to Olympia because it was planted by Hercules himself. In chariot races, the owners received these olive leaves while the charioteer was gifted a red ribbon to be worn on the upper arm or head. Victors were highly regarded and would often be welcomed to their hometowns with a grand ceremony. Large celebrations were organized in honor of their victory. Olympic winners were considered real heroes and received glory, fame, and historical immortality.

Boxers represented on a Panathenaic amphora. Currently located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Amongst the famous Olympic champions are Kroton, from southern Italy, and Leonidas of Rhodes. Literary tales also fabricate the story of Roman Emperor, Nero, who would win every game he competed in! The first woman to win a game was Kyniska in 392 B.C. Women were not allowed to participate but they could own a horse and hold a title on its win.
It is speculated that almost 45,000 people would attend these famous games. Food vendors, musicians, and artists would all come together to entertain people. Masses would extend their support with boisterous activities and hooting. No wars were allowed during the period and people would excitedly gather to celebrate the prestigious event.
End of The Ancient Olympics
Around the mid-2nd century, the Roman Empire conquered Greece and eventually the standard and quality of the games fell. In 393 A.D., Emperor Theodosius banned all ‘pagan’ festivals including the famous Olympics. The ancient game lasted for nearly 12 centuries with 293 successful Olympiads before coming to an end.