We can thank the ancient Greeks for a great many things including democracy, philosophy and satire: things that have provided the foundation stone upon which the modern world was built. We can also thank the Greeks for taking a keen and enduring interest in athletics, culminating in the birth of the Olympic Games originally staged on the dusty plains at Olympia in 776BC.
From its inception, the games occurred every four years (or Olympiad). When it was time for the games, messengers were dispatched to notify city-states across Greece of the official dates (usually in June or July) and athletes from all over the Greek world travelled to Olympia, poised and ready to compete.
Competitors and spectators
In early years, entry into the ancient games was reserved solely for young, free men who spoke fluent Greek. Later, women were allowed to take part by entering horses in the equestrian events (usually reserved for the rich given the cost of buying, keeping and training a horse).
While the games were a national competition, entrants were also accepted from Greeks living in colonies further afield including Italy, Spain, Africa and the Black Sea Coasts.
The athletes competed naked except perhaps for a layer of olive oil, which was widely used to give the skin a soft, smooth appearance and a healthy, attractive glow. The lack of clothing may have been the reason women were excluded from the audience, although some historians maintain that single women were allowed to watch certain events like the chariot races and equestrian events.
The ancient Olympics were carried out in honour of Zeus; the king of the gods, the ruler of Mount Olympus and the god of the sky, weather, and fate.
Before being cleared for participation, each athlete was required to take a formal oath spoken to a large statue of Zeus. The athletes swore that they had trained for the prescribed 10 months. The games lasted for five days but only three were used for athletic competition with two days either side used for dedicated religious rituals.
The first official Olympic Games is thought to have lasted one day and featured just one event; the "stadion" race being a sprint of about 240m (or the length of the stadium).
As the games evolved to a five day format, more events were added including distance running (sometimes in full armour weighing about 27kg), boxing, wrestling and chariot racing.
In 708BC the games introduced a pentathlon, featuring five events in the one performance; wrestling, running, long jump, javelin and discus.
While competitors in modern games are governed by a strict set of rules for their health and safety, the ancient games enjoyed a fair amount of bloodshed by comparison. For example, boxing had no rest periods and was a fight-to-the-death type of match the competition continued until one man surrendered or died. As a mark of respect, a dead competitor would be announced the winner meaning killing an opponent wasn't a smart career move.
The ancient games also featured music, oratory and theatrical performances.
Despite their immense effort, winning athletes were given a simple olive wreath to celebrate. But ancient Greece was a place thirsty for tales of real-life men with heroic qualities, and victors were revered in their city-states and across the nation. Winners were likely to have experienced a kind of celebrity status with invitations to exclusive parties or requests to marry the daughters of society’s upper echelons. Sometimes they were excused from paying taxes.
If a certain city state produced a steady stream of winning athletes, that state also experienced an improved reputation with its young men being thought of as superior for military pursuits and marriage.
The ancient games are thought to have first occurred in 776BC and continued on until 393AD when they were outlawed by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius I. Theodosius, a Christian, was offended by their association with pagan gods.
Fifteen centuries later, in 1896 the modern Olympics were staged again. They have been repeated every four years with the exception of 1916 (World War I) and 1940 and 1944 (World War II).