Ancient Olympic Games

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The ancient Olympic Games were one of the main athletic gatherings of the classical world, and the most important festival of ancient Greece.

They took place at Olympia, a major sanctuary in the Peloponnese, Greece, dedicated to the God Zeus.[1] They were said to have been founded in 776 BC, and, like the modern Olympic Games, took place every four years.[2] They were open to all free Greek men (though there appear to have been some age limits - there are records of candidates being rejected as too old), and an athlete's success at the Games was almost guaranteed to lead to considerable public honour in his home community, which often gave him a sizeable financial reward. While there were other athletic gatherings, it was the Olympic Games which had pride of place, and the rules governing them set a norm for other contests.

Originally there was just one (running) event. Other races were added during the eighth century BC, and then other types of athletic contest - including boxing, wrestling, chariot racing, horse-racing, and the pentathlon which was a mixed contest consisting of wrestling, running, the long jump, javelin-throwing, and discus-throwing. For most contests competitors generally stripped off, and often covered themselves in olive oil: nudity was normal for participants in sporting events of the classical world.

From 472 BC the Games occupied five days. Greek cities were frequently at war with each other, and an "Olympic truce" was declared for a stated period around the time of the Games.

The Games were the focus of excited interest, and attended by unruly crowds - of men only (women were barred). According to Plutarch, in the second century AD it was only the Spartans who refrained from yelling abuse at judges who did not favour their city's entrants. Poets and orators used the occasion to give recitals. At the end of the Games victors, wearing their crowns, sacrificed to Zeus and there was a banquet during which a chorus sang a victory song composed by an eminent poet.

Following the christianisation of the Roman Empire, the Games were suppressed as a pagan institution, probably by the emperor Theodosius I in 391 AD.

The four year period between Games was termed an "Olympiad", and was used as a system for dating events: Olympiads were numbered. Sometimes historians dated an event by referring to the year in which so-and-so won a particular contest at the Games.

The Olympic Games were one of four "Panhellenic Games" of the Greek world. The others were:

  • the Pythian Games, held at Delphi in honour of the god Apollo in the third year of each olympiad
  • the Isthmian Games, held at Corinth in honour of the god Poseidon in the first and third years of each olympiad
  • the Nemean Games, held at Nemea in the second and fourth years of each olympiad
  1. Price, Martin J. (1988). "The Statue of Zeus at Olympia", in Peter A. Clayton and Martin J. Price (eds.) The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Routledge. p 59.
  2. but the ancient games would not have been held in the years of the modern games if they had continued, because there is no year 0 between 1 BC and 1 AD