Olympia and the Olympic Games: Athletic Perfection and Ultimate Glory in Ancient Greece
Olympia, located off the Ionia Sea in the western Peloponnesus, was a sanctuary steeped in history and legend. It was a place of worship to the god Zeus, and it was home to several monuments, namely the Temple of Zeus. It was also home to a tradition of athleticism and sportsmanship that still resonates today, the Olympic Games. The history of Olympia, like that of so many other Ancient Greek city-states, is muddied with mythology, adding mystery to an already fascinating place.
The stories of Olympia and the origin of the games began around the eighth century B.C., when the people of Elis took possession of Olympia from the people of Pisa. Olympia was a place of verdant meadows, which made it ideal for the athletic competitions that made it so famous. The first-ever athletic competition pronounced at Olympia was by Endymion, the son of King Aethlios of Elis. Endymion pitted three of his sons against one another in a foot race. Epeios won the race, and control of Olympia.
Another legend tells how Heracles cleaned out the stables of then Elean King Augeus. When Augeus did not keep his word to Heracles, he gathered an army and ousted the king. To commemorate his victory, Heracles held the first official Olympic games.
Historically, the first Olympic games were held in 776 B.C., at the aetis, a sacred grove of Zeus. During the Olympic games, a truce was called among all warring city-states (and there was usually some conflict somewhere!). During this truce, known as the ekechiria, there was to be no fighting during the duration of the games. When the games concluded, all conflict could of course resume. The treaty remained in effect for over 400 years.
Originally, the Olympic games were comprised of a singular foot race, one length of the stadion (stadium). And except for one priestess who was permitted to attend and watch the games atop an altar, women were completely banned from attendance at the games. As the race grew in popularity, more events were added to the roster, including wrestling, chariot racing, horse riding, the pentathlon (which included the javelin, discus, long jump, wrestling, and a foot race), and the mother of all competitions, the pancration.
The games expanded from one day to five in order to accommodate the competitions, the festivities for Zeus, and the pomp of the athletes. In the Classical Period (the fifth century B.C.), the games were quite elite, with the wealthiest families offering up their sons to compete in events like the four-horse chariot race, for the ultimate show of familial power and gain of eternal prestige.
The Olympic games, at once a backdrop of a festival to honor Zeus, had become the most important occasion in the Greek world. They had their fair share of controversy, though. Plenty of cheating went on, for which dishonest athletes and trainers were made to pay hefty fines and were shamed from then on. All dishonorable behaviors aside, the games were a symbol of the Greek ideal of excellence (arête), something that the Greeks strove for in every arena. It was the individual athlete that competed and triumphed (or was dishonored forever) at the games, not the city-state. The glory of winning and achieving perfection was enough to satisfy the hard-working Greek athlete. A winning athlete was merely awarded with a crown of olive leaves and a statue at Olympia (no endorsement deals in Greece!) But, this principle of perfection and achievement no doubt gave the Greek city-states plenty of bragging rights and a sense of glory for all time as well, which likely did wonders for reputations and influence.