The first athletic contest, the foot race, was held at the sacred place of Olympia, in western Peloponnesus, for the first time in 776 BC, in honour of the Olympian Zeus. This we learn from Hippias of Elis, a sophist of the fifth century BC, who was the first to compile the initial victor list of the Olympic Games. Later ancient sources inform us that the Olympic festival was one of the largest and most famous Pan-Hellenic festivals by the time of early 5th century.
The Olympic festival was the most important and ancient of all other Greek festivals. It was the greater religious festival among others dedicated to Zeus, the supreme of all gods. The sanctuary of Olympia imposed its authority throughout the Greek world, whereas soon the Olympic Games became the symbol of Pan-Hellenic unity.
The Olympic festival was held once every four years in the most hot days of the summer. During the five days of the festivals, a number of sacrifices were dedicated to the altars of the gods of Olympia, the most magnificent of all being the sacrifice of one hundred cattle in front of Zeus' altar. A series of athletic contests were held in the stadium, the hippodrome and other areas of the site in front of thousands of spectators from all cities of the known-Greek world. The victors were crowned with a wreath of wild olive and enjoyed special honours from their hometown.
During the Olympic festival, a number of athletic contests were held:
- stadion race
- equestrian events
- pentathlon (jumping, running, javelin, discus, wrestling)
Those who participated in the contests followed common rules and conventions.
Among the rules, the most important were:
- all hostilities would cease
- all Greeks could participate in the games (except women and slaves)
- Special rules also regulated training and performance procedures of the games.
The Olympic festival and victory in the games as symbols of unity and spirit in Antiquity
To gain victory became a major achievement that gave credits not only to the athlete but to his city as well. Athletic victory became inextricably linked to the victory of his city and the city became the only collective body with rights to assign glory and awards.
The credit to the personal achievement and the wide recognition of the athlete's physical and moral virtues was high. The main concern of those competing was not to develop one physical ability at the expense of others, but to succeed a balanced development of all physical and moral values.
It was the moral reward that made the victory worthy of all efforts and physical pain. The Olympic victors shared in the divine splendour and imperishable fame of the first mythical heroes. Victory was the highest honour for a mortal to attain, for his fame became immortal thanks to the gods who preferred him and helped him to win. The favour of the gods and the wide recognition the victor gained by his city was the highest prize.
Lastly, thanks to the truce, all Greek cities could send their official missions to attend the games. This way, the Greek world responded to the challenge to promote cooperation and exhibit political unity.
Hellenistic and Roman Times
The spread of the Hellenistic culture and the new economic, political, and social conditions following the campaign of Alexander the Great, led to important changes of the athletic spirit and the ideological content of the games.
The number of athletic festivals and institutions increased at the new Greek centres. The number of professional athletes coming from Alexandria and the east increased and monetary prizes became a common rule.
Sports became an important component in social life and education. The Greeks, who lived in Asia and Egypt, in an effort to hold on to their culture, built athletic facilities and continued their athletic traditions. The gymnasium was not only the physical place for training, but a place where Greeks could meet, thus preserving their language and customs throughout Asia.
The bond between religion and the athletic ideal ceased to exist and the games now turned into secular events. Victory was more linked to the athlete's personal effort and less to the assistance of gods.
In the Roman period, the athletic ideal changed once more. For the Romans, the contests were spectacles, performances (ludi) and not competitions among all citizens. Usually the athletes were slaves or gladiators.
Olympia ceased to be the centre of the ancient world and the games were now instituted in honour of the Roman emperor.
Source: “Olympics through time” Foundation of the Hellenic World