The Olympic games are a tradition going back to ancient Greece. 776 BC is the first mention of Olympic games in recorded history.
That’s quite a long tradition!
Let’s take a stroll through history and find out more about this millennia-old competition!
How the Olympic Games Began
Legend has it that the Olympic games were first held by a son of the Greek god, Zeus. Heracles (the Romans called him Hercules) established the games.
The competitions he held were high up on Mount Olympus, where all the Greek gods lived.
That part is legend and mythology, so no one really knows when it’s supposed to have taken place.
The down-to-earth Olympic games began as a tribute to the Greek gods.
Where Were the First Olympic Games Held?
Since they were first held in Olympia, Greece, they were called the Olympic Games.
Olympia is in the Western part of Greece, a tiny town on the Peloponnese peninsula.
This area was known as the Sanctuary of Zeus.
There was a sacred olive tree growing there. Wreaths for the winners of the games were cut and made from this tree.
When the games were first held, it wasn’t in a big stadium or arena. There was an area within the sanctuary used for the “stadium.” It was a long depression which had a natural embankment running the length of it.
The competitions were held every 4 years, just like they are today.
As the time for the festivities approached, the government sent out notices all over Greece calling for a national time of peace.
This was so that all the people making their way to watch and compete in the games could travel in safety!
The games were held in Greece until 393 AD. The events were open to anyone who wanted to compete, although soldiers in the Greek army made up a lot of the competitors.
And “anyone” didn’t mean “everyone.”
They didn’t allow women to compete. At all. Married women weren’t even allowed to watch the competitions!
Women were allowed to own horses though. And with the addition of chariot races in 680 BC to the line-up of the sporting events, women were sort of allowed to compete.
This was because of a loophole in the rules. The owners of the horses were considered the winners of the race, not the guys driving the chariots.
What Kinds of Olympic Events did They Have in 776 BC?
The only event recorded for the Olympic competition held in 776 BC was a foot race called the stade. A race of about 210 meters. That’s it. That was the big event.
Since the games were open to anyone (any male) the first Olympic champion was a cook! Coroebus of Elis took first place! How’s that for a first?
Other events were added as the games progressed.
Pretty soon there were competitions for jumping, discus and javelin throwing, wrestling.
Chariot races were really big.
Plus, there was something called the pankration. This was the “original ultimate fighting.”
A vicious battle between two men, more often than not, it ended with the losing opponent dying!
They were pretty rough!
The Halt of the Original Olympic Games and Their Eventual Rebirth
Then, in the year 393, the current emperor, Theodosius I, cancelled the games. He said they were too pagan.
The Olympic games remained on “hold” for 1,500 years!
Events which had drawn crowds and competitors of people from all over were brought to an abrupt halt!
In 1896, a French aristocrat named Pierre de Coubertin, managed to convince enough people to revive the Olympic games.
This is the beginning of the world-wide competition we still have today.
Twelve countries sent athletes to represent their nations. A total of 280 men competed in the first revival of the Olympic games.
Athens, Greece was the chosen spot for the revival of the Olympic games.
The sports competitions included 43 different events! It drew over 60,000 spectators. Which was just a bit more than the original Olympic games!
The events included some of the original ones like running and jumping and wrestling. But they added swimming (done in the chilly waters of the Bay of Zea.)
Cycling, fencing, and gymnastics were events held…
...along with weightlifting and tennis competitions.
Symbols of the Olympics
The Story of the Olympic Rings
Part of what Coubertin brought to the modern-day Olympics was a gathering of nations. He designed the 5 colored rings as the symbol for the games.
The five colors represented the five continents which would be participating in the new Olympics.
Each ring represented a continent. Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania, which includes Australia and the islands surrounding it.
What about the Olympic Flame?
A lot of myth and legend surround the Olympic flame.
Fire itself, in Greek mythology, is said to have been stolen from the Greek gods by the Titan Prometheus.
During the original Olympic games in Olympia, a fire was kept burning at the altar of Hestia, goddess of the hearth.
For the Olympic games held in 1928, the Olympic flame was reintroduced to the event held in Amsterdam, Holland.
Then in 1936, the games were held in Berlin, Germany. The Olympic torch relay was introduced.
A torch relay was done from person to person…by foot! It began in Olympia, Greece and went for 2,000 miles… All the way to Berlin, Germany!
This is a practice that is still carried on today for the start of the Summer Olympics. Though they have used buses, trains, and boats to make the journey, instead of just running.
The Olympic Torch Relay
There’s a whole ceremony for lighting the torch and for the relay to the host city for the games.
First there is a ceremony for the lighting of the Olympic flame, which is held in the city of Olympia. This happens a few months before the start of the current year’s games begin. It’s a pretty cool event.
The high priestess of Apollo, the Greek sun god, calls on Apollo to light the Olympic flame at the temple of Hera.
The sun is used with a special mirror (a parabolic mirror) to ignite strips of old camera film. This flame is used to light the Olympic torch.
From there, the torch travels to Athens. The torch is presented to the host city.
There is a different city every four years which hosts the Olympic games.
Then the torch is carried by different people from all the participating countries from Athens to the host city. It can be any where in the world, which is why they’ve used buses, trains, and boats!
The Olympic torch is carried all the way to the host city’s Olympic stadium. The final torch bearer lights the Olympic cauldron and that signals the beginning of the Olympic games!
The flame burning in the Olympic cauldron will stay lit through the entire event.
Modern Day Olympic Games
The Olympics have expanded over the many years. In 1924, the Winter Olympics began in Chamoix, France.
The first Special Olympics were held in Chicago, Illinois in 1968.
All of the Olympic events are global. Every nation in the world has a chance to enter the competition.
At first, the games were open to all amateur athletes. Now countries send their top professional athletes to compete for medals and the distinction of being the best in the world, as far as the Olympic games go!
And all this began with a foot race, dedicated to a Greek god, almost 3,000 years ago!