The origins of the games at Olympia are rooted in legends – often relating to the god Pelops, Zeus, or to Hercules (Herakles). Historically, the contests probably began around the eleventh century BC, growing over the next two centuries from a local festival to the quadrennial celebration attended by states from throughout the Greek world. These great gatherings extended the games’ importance and purpose well beyond the winning of olive wreaths; assembled under a strict truce, nobles and ambassadors negotiated treaties, while merchants did business and sculptors and poets sought commissions.

The events

From the beginning, the main Olympic events were athletic. The earliest was a race over the course of the stadium – roughly 200m. Later came the introduction of two-lap (400m) and 24-lap (5000m) races, along with the most revered of the Olympiad events, the pentathlon. This encompassed running, jumping, discus and javelin events, the competitors gradually reduced to a final pair for a wrestling-and-boxing combat. It was, like much of these early Olympiads, a fairly brutal contest. One of the most prestigious events was the pancratium where contestants fought each other, naked and unarmed, using any means except biting or gouging. Similarly, the chariot races were extreme tests of strength and control, only one team in twenty completing the 7km course.

Rules and awards

In the early Olympiads, the rules of competition were strict. Only free-born male Greeks could take part, and the rewards of victory were entirely honorary: a palm, given to the victor immediately after the contest, and an olive branch, presented in a ceremony closing the games. As the games developed, however, the rules were loosened to allow participation by athletes from all parts of the Greek and Roman world. By the fourth century BC, when the games were at their peak, the athletes were virtually all professionals, heavily sponsored by their home states and, if they won at Olympia, commanding huge appearance money at games elsewhere. Under the Romans, commercialization accelerated and new events were introduced. In 67 AD Emperor Nero advanced the games by two years just so that he could compete in (and win) special singing and lyre-playing events.

Decline and fall

Notwithstanding Roman abuses, the Olympian tradition was popular enough to be maintained for another three centuries, and the games’ eventual closure happened as a result of religious dogma rather than lack of support. In 393 AD Emperor Theodosius, recently converted to Christianity, suspended the games as part of a general crackdown on public pagan festivities. This suspension proved final, for Theodosius’s successor ordered the destruction of the temples, a process completed by barbarian invasion, earthquakes and, lastly, by the Alfiós River changing its course to cover the sanctuary site. There it remained, covered by 7m of silt and sand, until the first excavation by German archeologists in the 1870s.

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