The Ancient Olympics were the sporting, cultural and social highlight of the ancient Greek calendar for almost 12 centuries. They were held in honor of the Greek god Zeus once every four years. They were held from 776 BCE to 393 CE, a prolific run of 293 consecutive Olympiads, and involved participants and spectators from all over Greece and even beyond.
The Games were held at Olympia, a sacred site site near the west coast of Southern Greece. The four-year gap between the Olympic Games was known as an 'Olympiad' which became a unit of time.
There were no medals given to winners. Instead, they were given a wreath of leaves and a hero's welcome back home. The athletes competed for their city and the winners were seen as being touched by God.
Culture before the Games
Before the games began, several messengers were sent out all over and around Greece to announce a 'sacred truce' or 'peace'. This meant that wars of any sort should be called off so that people can safely travel to Olympia.
The games started with a procession that went from the host town of Elis to Olympia. On arrival at Olympia, all athletes and officials swore an oath to follow the rules of the competition and compete with honor and respect.
The entire event was dedicated to Zeus. Moreover, visitors grouped up to visit the Temple of Zeus. Inside the temple stood a huge gold and ivory statue of the Greek God himself. Notably, the main event was not a sporting one but a sacrifice of 100 oxen on the altar of Zeus.
Interestingly, the altar was not made up of stone. It was made up of the leftover ash of the sacrificed oxen. By around 600 AD, the mount of ash stood 6m high.
Restriction on women
Married women were not permitted to watch or participate in the games. If they were caught watching the Games, they would be thrown off the side of the mountain as punishment. Only men, boys, and unmarried girls were allowed to watch the Olympic games.
Interestingly, unmarried women had their own festival called the Heraia which was held to honor Zeus's wife, Hera.
Athletes competed naked, probably for freedom of movement. They had to arrive one month before the Games for training. All Greek males were allowed to participate in the events.
For the first 12 Olympics, the Stadion Footrace was the only event at the Games. The athletes had to run over one length for 192m and preliminary heats were held with heat winners going into the finals. Over time, many other sporting events started getting added to the Games.
End of the Ancient Olympics
After the Romans conquered Greece, Olympics existed but it declined in popularity. However, it was Emperor Theodosios who declared all cult practices including the Olympics to be stopped. The last ancient Olympics was held in 393 CE after a run of 293 Olympics over more than a millennium.