776BC The First Olympics

Humber Museums Partnership - 776BC The First Olympics

About 776BC The First Olympics

The ancient Olympic Games were held every four years between 776BC and AD395, although some sources suggest that unofficial competitions took place before this.

Origins of the Olympic Games

At their heart the Games were a religious festival, held in honour of Zeus. A visit to Olympia was also a pilgrimage to Zeus’s sacred grove, the Altis. The Olympic Games were the oldest of four national athletic festivals known as the Panhellenic Games. Each was celebrated under the patronage of a god. Important local games were also held at Athens as part of the Panathenaic festival.
There are many myths about the Games’ origins. The poet Pindar said that the Greek hero Herakles created Olympia. It is more likely that the Games developed from funerary games held in honour of local heroes.

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  • Aerial view of The Altis Grove Olympia

    Aerial view of The Altis Grove Olympia

The Site: Olympia

Olympia is a fertile grassy plain on the north bank of the River Alpheios. Although it seems isolated now, the Alpheios was navigable in antiquity and a number of inland routes passed through the site. The coast was only fifteen kilometres away, meaning that a sea approach was also possible. Once the Games were established, the sanctuary began to develop. New buildings were needed to house the athletes and games officials. The Altis was adorned with temples, altars, statues, treasuries and halls.The Temple of Zeus housed one of the Seven Wonders of the World, a 13 metre high gold and ivory statue of the god. It was made by the great fifth century BC sculptor Pheidias.

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  • Hill of Kronos from Temple of Zeus

    Hill of Kronos from Temple of Zeus
  • Pheidias Statue of Zeus

    Pheidias Statue of Zeus

Training and Preparation

In the year of the Games, messengers would travel throughout Greece and the colonies announcing the start date and inviting people to attend. All wars had to cease until the Games were over to allow people to travel to Olympia safely. Preparations for the Games began a year in advance, when the athletes started training. Two months later, the judges started their planning. The competitors were required to live and train at Elis for the month before the Games, under the strict watch of the judges. Two days before the start, the whole company set out in procession to walk 58 kilometres along the sacred way from Elis to Olympia. During the walk they would stop to sacrifice a pig and perform rites at the Fountain of Piera.

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  • Athletes and Trainer Athenian red-figure calyx krater by Euphronios, end of C6thBC

    Athletes and Trainer Athenian red-figure calyx krater by Euphronios, end of C6thBC
  • Sacred Way from Elis to Olympia

    Sacred Way from Elis to Olympia

The Games

For the first thirteen years of the Games the only event was the stade-race, a short foot race of one length of the stadium. More events were added later. This included other running events such as the hoplitodromia, in which competitors wore a helmet and armour and carried a shield. Some of the events from the ancient Olympics still take place today, including wrestling, boxing and the pentathlon. Others are less familiar, such as the no-holds-barred pankration, the most violent of all sports. The only two things not allowed in the pankration were biting and eye-gouging. Chariot racing was also popular. Teams of two or four horses would cover twelve laps around two posts.

Prize Giving and Celebration

Winning the Olympic crown was the greatest achievement for an athlete in the ancient world. The fame and glory earned by an Olympic champion far outweighed the prizes on offer at other games. Only the names of the winners were recorded – there were no prizes for coming second. Prizes were given out on the fifth day of the Games. Winners were presented with a wreath, made from the sacred olive tree which stood behind the Temple of Zeus, palm branches and woollen ribbons. They might also have a statue put up in their honour. The public games ended with a banquet for the victors. Afterwards there would be private parties to celebrate. The victors and their friends decked themselves in garlands and paraded around the Altis singing victory songs.

Winners and Losers

The families or hometowns of victorious athletes commissioned poets to write victory odes. These included an announcement of the victor and the victory being celebrated.
Milo of Croton was Olympic champion in men’s wrestling six times in the sixth century BC. He also won the boys’ wrestling once and gained seven victories in the Pythian Games.
Leonidas of Rhodes was the greatest of all Olympic runners. He won all three running events at the four Olympiads between 164 and 152BC. His achievements led to him being worshipped as a local deity. The Roman emperor Nero travelled to Greece for the 67AD Olympic Games and took part in all the sporting events. The judges prudently declared him the winner, despite the fact that he fell out of his chariot during the chariot race.

Olympic Gods

The Games were held in honour of Zeus, but many other gods and goddesses were also worshipped at Olympia. According to legend, the Great Altar of Zeus was built on a spot struck by a lightning bolt hurled by Zeus. Priests burned offerings on the altar and pronounced an oracle, which athletes would consult to see what their chances in the Games were. Charioteers and jockeys offered prayers and sacrifices to Poseidon, patron of horses, before competing. Apollo was the god of prophecy, archery, music and boxing. According to myth, he defeated Ares, god of war, in the first ever boxing contest at Olympia. A statue of Nike, the winged goddess of victory, stood on a column before the Temple of Zeus. It showed her swooping down from heaven.

The Games Then and Now

The ancient Olympics ended by around AD395. Christianity had become the religion of the Roman Empire, of which Greece was a part. The old pagan religions declined and were eventually banned. In AD426 the Temple of Zeus was burnt down on the orders of Emperor Theodosius II. Earthquakes and floods later destroyed the Altis. In 1896, Baron Pierre de Coubertin was inspired by the ancient Olympic ideal to organise the modern Olympics. The first Games were held in Athens. Many aspects of the ancient Games have been preserved. For example, some ancient games included a relay race in which runners passed a torch between them. The last runner of the winning team lit a fire on an altar. This event has been adapted for the modern Olympic Games as the lighting of the Olympic Flame.

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