The Olympic tradition can be traced back thousands of years. The exact date of the first games is unknown but the earliest known records of the games are from 776 BC. The games were closely linked to religion and were celebrated every 4 years just like they do today. However when Christianity became the state religion in Rome, King Theodosius I banned them as a step to suppress other religious practices.
Unlike the modern Olympic games, its ancient predecessor took place in the plains of Olympia. Greek religion believed that the permanent residence of their gods was up on Mount Olympus and so the venue of the event was always in the plains below the mountain so the gods could witness it from their abode. They were held every 4 years and this period came to be known as an Olympiad.
The real story of the Ancient Olympic Games
There are different stories behind how the Olympic tradition began. Here are a few interesting ones.
Marriage of Pelop and Hippodamia
A prophecy was foretold that King Oenomaus would be killed by his son-in-law. Fearful that this would come true, King Oenomaus challenged all his daughter’s potential suitors to chariot races. He would ensure that they lost, following which, he would have them killed. Pelops, the king of Pisa, was in love with the king’s daughter, Hippodamia. With the help of Poseidon (the god of the sea), Pelops was able to defeat King Oenomaus and secure Hippodamia’s hand in marriage. The first Olympic games were held to celebrate this victory and Pelops’ marriage to Hippodamia.
The Race at Mount Olympus
Greek gods were in the habit of competing in games such as wrestling, jumping and running against each other. Another creation story states that Herakles (not to be confused with Hercules) and his two brothers raced each other at Mount Olympus. The winner was crowned with an olive branch and this was considered to be the first Olympic Games.
The games were revived by King Iphitos in 776 BC. Asia minor was going through a period of civil war and famine. When the king asked the Oracle at Delphi what he could do about it, she told him that the people had strayed from the gods and that he should organise the Olympic games to appease them.
Since history and religion were very closely linked in ancient Greece, the truth behind these accounts of how the games began cannot be verified. Although Iphistos did exist, as did many other characters that were written about, these stories are probably more fable than truth.
The Ancient Olympic games took place under a giant statue of Zeus, which was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. Can you find out what the other 6 wonders are?