The Olympic games are a quadrennial athletic festival honouring Zeus and are named for Olympia where they are held. They are one of four panhellenic games, the others being the Nemean games at Nemea in honour of Herakles, the Pythian games at Delphi in honour of Apollo and the Isthmian games in Isthmia in honour of Poseidon. Each follows a similar programme to the Olympic games and is held on different years to form a four year cycle.
The games were founded by Herakles who wished to create a festival combing worship of Zeus with victory itself. As the intensely argumentative Greeks and their gods would often settle disputes by contests of strength and skill, he decided to follow that example and start a formalised athletic competition at Olympia, a major religious site in the west of the Peloponnese peninsula. Elis and Pisa are the nearest cities, though Olympia is now almost a city in its own right. The site is home to many of the largest important temples. Almost all of the Olympian gods have a sanctuary at Olympia, with the largest belonging to Zeus. Inside is a 13m high statue of the King of the Gods, made by the sculptor Phidias in 440 BCE.
The games are held in an oval arena, the length set by the running track in the centre, which is one stadion (about 180m) long. The arena floor is bare earth but the running track itself is made of unfired clay with a covering of sand. This is a soft but firm surface on which to run barefoot.
Only citizens who speak Greek and worship the Olympian gods may be competitors. They are the finest athletes of each polis who train for years and battle through local heats for the honour of representing their city. Victorious athletes are honoured, feted and praised for the rest of the games and perhaps for the rest of their lives. Their deeds at the games are chronicled and heralded so that all Greece will know of their achievements, now and forever.
Attracting powerful people to one place encourages politics and intrigue. It is common for treaties and trade agreements to be negotiated and signed while the festival is in progress. Politics spills into competitions and events can become decidedly unfriendly depending on the relations between states. Athletes will strive to beat rival cities. Victory at the games is seen as an indicator of the strength of a state and an omen for future battles.
During the Olympic games a truce is observed so that the athletes and delegations may travel to and from the games safely and without hindrance. Legal disputes are also suspended and the use of the death penalty is forbidden. The truce also focuses the minds of the Greeks on celebrating the Gods rather than on mortal matters.
Much prestige is placed on victory at the games. Many champions turn victory into power and become figureheads and leaders in their later lives. With such high stakes, competitors are not above intrigue and trickery to ensure their victory.
There are eleven events - four foot races, three fighting events, three chariot races and the pentathlon. Most cities will enter a competitor in each event and a series of heats are held before the victor is decided in a final. Except for in the hoplitodromos the athletes compete in the nude as celebration of the achievements of the human body and to mitigate the heat of the Greek summer.
While the games started out as a festival of athletics and worship, their popularity and their rising importance to Greek society has added a strong cultural element. Sculptors and poets congregate each olympiad to display their works of art to would-be patrons, dedicate their work to the gods and honour that year's champions. The feasting and celebrations of each evening inspire and require new works of poetry, song and music. It is considered a great honour for an artist to collaborate with a victorious athlete.
Registering the competitors takes up most of the first day. Every participant and their trainers are required to stand before the statue of Zeus, swear an oath that they have been in training for ten months and vow to uphold the rules. The second day of the games sees the events start. After a great procession of the competitors the chariot races take place, followed by the five events of the pentathlon in the afternoon. The evening is dedicated to feasting and celebrating the day’s winners.
The morning of the third day is dominated by the most important religious event of the game. A hundred white oxen and all the dignitaries and athletes form a procession that circles the Olympic site. It passes the temple of Hera and finishes at the temple of Zeus. Here all one hundred oxen are sacrificed to the King of Gods. The afternoon's events are the running races, starting with the diaulos followed by the stadion and the dolichos. More feasting takes place in the evening and includes the ambassadors' reception.
Day four is the pankration, wrestling and boxing. They last until late in the afternoon when the finals of each event are held in turn. The final event of this day is the hoplitodromos.
There are no sporting events on the last day, which is focused on the winners and on worship of the gods. A procession around the Olympic site starts at noon and is led by the winning athletes. It ends outside the temple of Zeus where the winners are presented with their laurels and olive branches. A food festival marks the end of the final day and the following day the delegations leave Olympia.