The Olympic Games

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.

A simple foot race over a distance of 180m (200yds), the length of the Olympic stadium.
Another foot race, this time over two stadia (about 260m or 400yds). This involves running the length of the Olympic stadium and then turning around to come back.
The longest of the three foot races, covering a distance of distance is 5km (3 miles). Rather than perform laps the race leaves the stadium. It winds around the Olympic grounds passing by a statue of Nike which marks the halfway point.
A race over four lengths of the stadion, 700-800m (760-880yds) run in full hoplite bronze armour. This comprises a torso piece, greaves and a helmet with the runners also carrying a hoplon (shield). The armour and equipment weigh up to 27kg (60lbs) and the race emulates the speed and stamina needed in warfare.
Combat between athletes where only strikes with the fists are allowed. Beyond this, there are no rules. Athletes wear hardened leather gloves that are weighted with metal. There are no rest periods or rules against hitting a competitor when he is down. Bouts continue until a competitor surrenders or is rendered unconscious. In the event of death, the deceased is declared the winner and his opponent disqualified from the tournament.
Combat where the goal is to force the opponent to touch the ground with shoulder, back or hip, without striking him. Points are also scored by compelling the opponent to submit using holds or by forcing him out of the arena. Wrestling was the first non-running event added to the games. It is regarded as the truest expression of strength of all competitions at the games.
A tournament competition in which the competitors use the pankration martial art. Spartans are currently not allowed to compete in this event, as training in pankration is given to all Spartan citizens as part of their martial upbringing.
Chariot Racing
This consists of races around a separate chariot arena with a ground more suitable for running horses. Three classes of race are run, in which different numbers of horses are used: two, four and ten. In these races, honour goes to the steerer of the chariot and the owner of the team of horses. An owner can enter more than one team in each race.
The pentathlon involves a stadion race, a long jump, a javelin throw, a discus throw and wrestling. The middle three events feature only in the Pentathlon and are not separate events. Victory is given to the athlete who wins the most events. If an athlete wins all of the first three events, the other events do not take place. If after the fourth event there is still not an athlete with three wins, the pentathlon is awarded to the winner of the wrestling.
Culture and Festival

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.

The Programme

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.

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