The ancient Olympic games – like a great many Greek things – have origins in both legend and history. Often it’s difficult to separate the two, and usually it’s best not to try.
The king of Elis, Augeas, had some stables which needed to be cleaned out. Heracles, the son of Zeus, had been given twelve tasks, or ‘labours’ to accomplish. One of these tasks was to clean out the stables of king Augeas. Most normal people would have set-to with a bucket and a shovel, but Heracles had an easier method. He diverted the waters of the river Alpheios so they rushed through the stables and cleaned them out.
Heracles then built a sacred precinct in the Altis which formed an enclosure around the existing shrines of Pelops, Zeus and Hera. In honour of Pelops (who had defeated Oinomaos), Heracles inaugurated competitions in gymnastics and athletics. Thus were the ancient Olympic games born.
As far as historians can make out, the games appear to date from the 8C BC, (776 BC to be precise). Iphitos, king of Pisa, and Lycurgus, a law giver from Sparta, decided to organise a sporting competition for the people of Greece.
The ancient Olympic games took place every four years. Because the Greeks spent a great deal of time fighting (and if they weren’t fighting people like the Persians they were fighting each other) it was agreed that they would cease hostilities and observe a ‘sacred truce’ which lasted one month for the duration of the games.
The ancient Olympic games became very popular with the Greeks, especially in the 5C BC. It is estimated that competitors from distant Greek colonies took part, places like the coast of modern Turkey, or Sicily.
It was a great honour for anyone to take part in the ancient Olympic games, because you represented your state or city. Victors were rewarded not just by the fame of winning, but were provided by their state with free accommodation and meals for the rest of their lives. In fact, all you received on the day if you won was a wreath of olive leaves and a palm leaf.
Needless to say, in the male dominated world of Greece, women were not allowed to take part.
But it wasn’t a question of just turning up on the day of the race and doing your best. Competitors would train for months beforehand, and then have to train for one month at Olympia under the eyes of the judges. All that time spent practicing your skills meant you had to be quite wealthy to be able to afford it.
The competitions involved running, boxing, wrestling, jumping, throwing the discus and javelin. There were also horse races and chariot races, some using four horses, as can be seen in illustrations on pottery.
The Romans kept up the ancient Olympic games, although Nero added music and poetry so he could take part, and ended up receiving seven prizes. (Presumably he wasn’t any good at athletics…)
In the 2C AD repairs were carried out on some of the buildings. But people no longer attended, and in 393 AD the last games were held. Part of the reason was that Christianity had become the dominant religion, and the Roman emperor Theodosius prohibited pagan cults. The whole Olympic idea was built around honouring the gods, so they no longer served a useful purpose.