History and Geography of the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece
The games honored Zeus, supreme god of all the Greeks and ruler of the sky (Zeus’s brothers Poseidon and Hades ruled the sea and the Underworld, respectively). The Olympic games were officially abolished by the Roman emperor in 394 AD after a run of 1170 years!
As god of all kings and of all humans, Zeus ruled from lofty Mt. Olympus north of Athens. His primary role was to keep the peace among those same gods and “men” on earth. In his honor a universal truce applied during the Olympic Games every four years and even though the truce was broken on several occasions, the games were never interrupted as a result of war.
The reasons for the location of the games in “Olympia,” near the west coast of the Peloponnesian peninsula are lost in history. The site was never a major city or permanent settlement except during the games themselves when tens of thousands of spectators and participants camped on the grounds. Evidence suggests that the site of Olympia was once the location of a religious festival honoring Gaia, the Earth Mother. Indeed, the site must have had strong historic and religious roots as it is located on the western edge of Classical Greece far from the Greek heartland as this map shows.
The games were held every four years and records show that the games in 776 BC consisted of only one footrace held on one day. The ensuing century must have seen a revival of earlier games, though, since a variety of other events were added during that first century, including longer races (likely the predecessors of our 400 meter, 1500 and 5000 meter races). Wrestling was added as was the pentathlon and horse races, including the chariot race. All competitions derived from and honored the skills valued among warriors.
Although the games attracted participants from throughout the Classical Greek world and Magna Grecia (see map) the games themselves were not lengthened beyond one day until 472 BC when they were extended to four days and, later, to five.
One of the running events practiced in the ancient games that we no longer practice required competitors to run two to four “stade” (the length of the stadium, approximately equivalent to 200 or 400 meters) in full battle gear! The marathon which is so popular today, was not included in the ancient Olympics. Introduced in the modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, the marathon commemorates the victory of the Athenians over the Persians on the plains of Marathon about twenty-five miles north of Athens. The messenger, Philippides, ran to Athens with the news of the victory, becoming a hero in the process and giving us an athletic tradition that lives on today. (Most famous, perhaps, among Marathons is the Boston marathon, an event which began in 1897, the year after the first modern Olympics began).
The “modern Olympics” were revived in Athens in 1896 through the efforts of a young Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. De Coubertin was optimistic and persistent in reviving the games which were attended by participants from thirteen countries who participated in forty-three events divided among nine sports: cycling, fencing, gymnastics, lawn tennis, shooting, swimming, track and field, weight lifting and wrestling.
The 2004 summer Olympics in Athens will involve 10,500 athletes in twenty-eight sports and a variety of individual events.
The Olympics were so popular that they gave rise to a set of three other “Panhellenic Games,” over the centuries. These were the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games and the Isthmian Games. The Pythian Games were held at Delphi every four years in honor of Apollo (between the Olympics at two-year intervals). The Nemean Games and the Isthmian Games were held at two-year intervals before and after the Olympics. The Isthmian games were held in ancient Corinth and the Nemean Games were held in nearby Nemea (we bicycle through Nemea, Ancient Corinth and Olympia on our tour, Bicycling through Classical Greece – Athens to Olympia).
The winner of each ancient Olympic event received an olive branch rather than a gold medal in recognition. The olive branch endures to this day as a symbol of universal peace and harmony. In the Old Testament the white dove brought an olive leaf to Noah on the Ark as a sign that the great deluge was over. It also appears in the right claw of the bald eagle on the great seal of the United States (also on the dollar bill), on the flag of the United Nations, and on the flag of the Arab League. Finally, a gold plated olive branch was left on the moon by Neil Armstrong on July 29, 1969 as a symbol of universal peace.
Maybe, as a reminder, we should be offering olive branches to winners of the Olympic games today.
I haven’t seen any compelling histories of the Olympics in preparing this essay. Unfortunately (perhaps a sign of the times?) most of the current books are about politics and corruption on the International Olympic Committee.
For histories of specific, modern Olympic years see the BBC sport site:
For a reading list on ancient Greece and sports in the ancient world, see
For the classics on the Geography of Ancient Greece (especially if you are going to Greece and the Peloponnesian Peninsula):
ExperiencePlus! is offering a special tour this year to the Olympics: Athens and the Olympics for Cyclists and Non-Cyclists