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The Persians . . . enquired of them [deserters from Arcadia] what the Greeks were doing. The Arcadians answered, ‘They are holding the Olympic games, seeing the athletic sports and the chariot races.’ ‘And what,’ said the man, ‘is the prize for which they contend?’ ‘An olive wreath,’ returned the others, ‘which is given to the man who wins.’ On hearing this, Tritantaechmes, the son of Artabanus, uttered a speech which was in truth most noble, but which caused him to be taxed with cowardice by King Xerxes. Hearing the men say that the prize was not money but a wreath of olive, he could not forbear from exclaiming before them all, ‘Good heavens, Mardonius, what manner of men are these against whom you have brought us to fight--men who contend with one another, not for money, but for honor.
Herodotus, The Persian Wars, VIII, 26

Homer describes athletic competitions in the Iliad as funeral games in honour of Patroklos and the contests held by the Phaeacians to entertain their guest, Odysseus, in the Odyssey. The motivation for competition initially could be for personal reasons only ( always to be the best and preeminent among all others as Peleus says to his son Achilles, Iliad ). I believe this to be the real reason of the success of the ancient Olympic Games. To win before a large crowd of people is more attractive and such occasions were various festivals in honour of the gods. The first known record of the Ancient Olympic Games traces back to 776 BC. After the end of the 4th BC century the games were less religious oriented with more professional athletes (participating in various games and collecting prizes like modern Tennis players). The Olympics were held every 4 years in July or August. The time between two Olympic Games was called an Olympiad. Only Greeks free citizens were initially allowed to participate (with some exceptions such as Nero).

The Nike (a symbol of victory) of Paionios flying from the Olymp lands on a column in front of the Zeus Temple in Olympia to honour the athletes of the Olympic Games..

Hegias 275378, Athlete receives a gift from Nike (victory) Kylix now lost

On the road to Olympia there is a precipitous mountain with big rocks, called Typaion. There is an Elean rule that any woman who has been seen at the (Olympic) Games or has crossed the (River) Alpheios during the forbidden days shall be pitched headlong from the summit Pausanias

Slaves and “Barbarians” could watch the Games (only in the Hellenistic times and later) but not married women! An exception was the priestess of Demeter, Chamyne, who used to sit at the altar of the goddess, which was situated exactly opposite the tribune of the chief judges of the Games, the Hellanodikae. Kallipateira the Pherenice a widowed mother from a rich family exiled from Rhodes broke the law according to which the punishment was Death (I hope that there was no such case) but she survived because she was a mother of winners of the Games.

...She came to Olympia in 404 BC to watch with pride her son who was going to compete for an Olympic victory like his uncles and other ancestors before him. Having entered the stadion in the guise of a trainer, she could not, however, restrain her enthusiasm upon her son's victory in the boxing event, and as she jumped over the fence of the trainer's stand in order to go to him and embrace him, her mantle slipped over her shoulder thus betraying her female sex. However, the Hellanodikae, i.e. the chief judges of the Games, acquitted her from the prescribed punishment out of respect for her father, her brothers and her son: an entire dynasty of Olympic victors who were an honour to her family, her country and the gods. After this incident, however, the Hellanodikae decided that trainers who accompanied athletes to the Games should enter the Stadion naked (Com. Bind. 01.VIII, Ael.n.h. I 1. Aischenenes Lett. 4,5), Nikos Yalouris WOMEN IN ANCIENT GREECE THEIR CONTRIBUTION TO LETTERS, SCIENCE, POLITICS AND SPORT

In 80 BC the Olympic Games are held in Rome. After 1169 years in 393 AD the Emperor Theodosius I abolished in a fanatic campaign against non Christians the Greek Olympic Games, with 293 Olympic Games had been held. In 426 AD the Emperor Theodosius II ordered the destruction of all Olympic temples. The temples in Olympia were set in fire.

A Christian Website provides details:

And so, on February 24, 391, the emperor began issuing a series of decrees that effectively outlawed Greco-Roman paganism and all the rituals that accompanied it. First, he prohibited pagan sacrifice, including—for the first time—the state ceremonies still practiced in Rome. Then came the closing of all shrines and temples: "No person shall approach the shrines, nor walk through the temples, nor revere the images formed of mortal hands." Next came a law forbidding apostasy from Christianity to paganism, and finally, on November 8, 392, Theodosius declared all sacrifice and divination punishable by death. That meant destroying private altars, domestic idols placed in hearth and kitchen, hanging garlands, etc. Bishop Ambrose was ecstatic, praising "Theodosius who, after the example of Jacob, supplanted perfidious tyrants and banished the idols of the gentiles; who in his faith wiped out all worship of graven images, and trampled down their ceremonies."

For the whole story see http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/2004/aug19.html

and explains why this had to be so..(although the idea of that it prevented the animal sacrifice I cannot believe is something that Theodosius considered for a second). The pancration events maybe were brutal but cannot be compared with the barbaric and inhuman events of the gladiator fights later introduced by the Romans. As the Games were religious dedicated to Zeus and the Christian Emperors wanted to force by all means all the population to be Christians it was obvious that the Games were forbidden.

In 1612 Robert Dover in England tries to revive the Games with events close to Birmingham, the so-called Olimpick Games upon Cotswold Hills. In 1766 Richard Chandler discovers ancient Olympia. After more than 1500 years in 1896 Olympic Games start again in Athens. Now they are not religious oriented and from a Greek event it is a global event.

Pierre de Coubertin responsible for the rebirth of the Olympic Games since 1896 and Dimitris Vikelas the Greek who was responsible that the city selected for the 1896 Games was Athens, Greece. He was the first President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Contribution of Dimitris Vikelas to the Revival of the Olympic Games. (PDF File)

Map of Olympia

2004 Olympic Games again in Athens. Hercules is considered in some stories as the “inventor” of the Olympic Games. Others say it was Pelops (from which the Peloponnese took its name) : The foot length of Hercules
Older stories of the Olympic Games: 1664 BC Hercules and the first Olympic Games, again in 1410 BC 50 years after the great flood, in 1314 BC Games by Pelops after marrying Hippodamia, in 1242 BC when Hercules conquers Elis (Polyduces mentioned as champion boxer). Then revival of games 776 BC at Elis in the 10th year of Theopompus. Pausanias, says that the games were reestablished to celebrate the peace treaty among the kings, Iphitos, Lycourgos, and Kleosthenes (which was honoured as the Sacred Truce).


Olympia Stamp 1960, Greece

The prize was called "Athlon" a head-wreath of cotinus, i.e. a branch of wild olive from a tree the Kallistefano. Why did they receive money? Because even Heracles was not paid by Eurystheus

An Olympionike, a winner of an event receiving an olive wreath (and also red ribbons) (Epiktetos Painter, 520-510 BC).

Phlegon (a second century AD author) states that the cotinus was established by Iphitus after an advice by the Oracle of Delphi in 752 BC. This replaced the prize of the first few Games that was a piece of meat (meria) of a sacrificed animal. The victors were called athlophoroi i.e. those who wear the athlon.

(I use also the word Olympionikes as victor in Olympic Games). After an athlete won an Olympic event, a herald would announce his name, his father's name, his city of origin. He was given a palm branch and adorned with red woolen ribbons around his head, arm, and leg marking his victory The crowd praised the victor with Tinella Kallinike (Τήνελλα καλλίνικε )– Well done, glorious victor!

An event called also agon (from which also agony is derived).

Except the Olympic Games in Olympia (in honour of Zeus) we have the Games at:
Delphi (Pythian Games in honour of Apollo related to the killing of Python , originally only one contest, the singing of a hymn to Apollo. Since 586 BC every four years at the third year of each Olympiad),
Corinth (Isthmian Games in honour of Poseidon, (as founder Sisyphus is considered, related to the death of Melicertes) every two years at the second and fourth year of an Olympiad)

He [Theseus] also founded games [at the Isthmus of Corinth] to rival those of Herakles; his ambition was that just as the Greeks at Herakles' insistence celebrated the Olympian Games in honor of Zeus, so through his own initiative they should celebrate the Isthmian Games in honor of his reputed father, Poseidon. The games which had previously been established at the Isthmus in honor of Melicertes were held a night and were organized more in the form of a religious rite than of a spectacle or a great public gathering. Some writers, however, have made out that the Isthmian Games were founded in memory of Skeiron, and that Theseus wished in this way to atone for his murder because of the kinship between them, for Skeiron was a son of Kantheos and Henioche the daughter of Pittheus. Others say that their son was not Skeiron but Sinis, and that it was in his honor that Theseus founded the Games. However this may be, Theseus established the Festival and made an agreement with the Corinthians that Athenians who came to visit the Games should be provided with a place of honor in as large a space as could be covered by the sail of the state galley which brought them there, when it was stretched out on the ground. This is what we are told by Hellanikos and by Andron of Halikarnassos [FGrH #10 F6]. Plutarch Theseus

Nemean Games history, Opheltes / Archemoros, Dionysos, Zeus, Amphiaraus , Parthenopeus and others

Nemea Stadium

Nemea (Nemean Games held in honour of Zeus and the infant Opheltes who was killed by snakebite, every 2 years at the second and fourth year of an Olympiad).

The prize for the Pythian Games was a crown of bay-leaves.

The reason why a crown of laurel is the prize for a Pythian victory is in my opinion simply and solely because the prevailing tradition has it that Apollo fell in love with the daughter of Ladon. Pausanias 10.7.8

The Isthmian and Nemean Games prize was a crown of celery-leaves (dry and fresh leaves respectively).

The baby Opheltes-Archemoros , Archaeological Museum of Nemea

The Death of Opheltes, Corinth

The infant Opheltes, from Nemea. Even when Lycurgus was warned not to leave his son on the ground until he could walk the woman who was responsible for Opheltes left the infant on a bed on the ground while she helped the Seven against Thebes. The prophecy became true and Opheltes was killed by a snake.

Messengers (Spondorophoroi) announced in all cities the date of the competition. Up to 50000 visitors from all places (Greeks from Spain to Egypt). Even the fate of Greece was at stake with Xerxes invasion army many thousand visited the Games in 480 BC. All states taking part in the Games were forbidden to go to war, carry on a dispute in the law courts or execute criminals. Olympic Truce (duration 10 months?) or Ekecheiria (Another Truce was that of Elis for the Eleusinian Mysteries rite).

The first people to exercise naked were the Spartans. They stripped off their clothes in public and rubbed themselves with oil after they had finished. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

Orsippus of Megara (Όρσιππος) was probably the first nude runner of the Olympia foot race in 720 BC.

Near Coroebus is buried Orsippus who won the footrace at Olympia by running naked when all his competitors wore girdles according to ancient custom. They say also that Orsippus when general afterwards annexed some of the neighboring territory. My own opinion is that at Olympia he intentionally let the girdle slip off him, realizing that a naked man can run more easily than one girt. Pausanias. Naked (Gr. gymnos), (gymnazein : exercise naked) other words derived: gymnasium, gymnastic.

Spartan athletes were almost for 150 years dominating the Games until in 594 BC Athens decided to change this and systematic training started with young boys.


Only individual events were considered really important and team events like today were known but were less important and not included in the Olympic Games. This is a Greek culture element that stresses the importance of the individual and less that of the Group.

Athletes running (another athlete is not shown in this stamp ) with an amazing (very unlikely) synchronization, the right arm and left leg in a leading position. This is probably showing a 1 stadion or diaulos event. In Dolichos the athletes are shown to be much slower (see the 1906 stamp at the end) as the distance is much larger and it is impossible to keep the high speed like in shorter races.

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