For further resources or information see www.perseus.tufts.edu/Olympics/faq1.html
There are many different stories about the beginning of the Olympics. One myth says that the guardians of the infant god Zeus held the first footrace, or that Zeus himself started the Games to celebrate his victory over his father Cronus for control of the world. Another tradition states that after the Greek hero Pelops won a chariot race against King Oenomaus to marry Oenomaus' daughter Hippodamia, he established the Games.
Athletic games also were an important part of many religious festivals from early on in ancient culture. In the Illiad, the famous warrior Achilles holds games as part of the funeral services for his best friend Patroclus. The events in them include a chariot race, a footrace, a discus match, boxing, and wrestling.
Olympia was one of the oldest religious centers in the ancient Greek world. Since athletic contests were one way that the ancient Greeks honored their gods, it was logical to hold a recurring athletic competition at the site of a major temple.
Also, Olympia is convenient geographically to reach by ship, which was a major concern for the Greeks. Athletes and spectators traveled from Greek colonies as far away as modern-day Spain, the Black Sea, or Egypt.
An international truce among the Greeks was declared for the month before the Olympics to allow the athletes to reach Olympia safely. The judges had the authority to fine whole cities and ban their athletes from competition for breaking the truce.
There were three (3) other games which were held on 2 or 4 year cycles: the Isthmean Games at Corinth, the Pythian Games at Delphi, and the Nemean Games at Nemea. Because it started 200 years before the other competitions, the Olympics remained the most famous athletic contest in the ancient Greek world.
Many athletes competed at several athletic festivals. Inscriptions on victors' statues at Olympia often describe victories in 2, 3, or even all 4 major athletic festivals. Pausanias' description of Olympian architecture includes a list of the more famous victors' statues, and summaries of the inscriptions.
The Olympics were open to any free-born Greek in the world. There were separate mens' and boys' divisions for the events. The Elean judges divided youths into the boys' or mens' divisions based as much on physical size and strength as age.
Not only were women not permitted to compete personally, married women were also barred from attending the games, under penalty of death. (Maidens were allowed to attend.)
Pausanias tells the story of Callipateira, who broke this rule to see her son at the Games:
She, being a widow, disguised herself exactly like a gymnastic trainer, and brought her son to compete at Olympia. Peisirodus, for so her son was called, was victorious, and Callipateira, as she was jumping over the enclosure in which they kept the trainers shut up, bared her person. So her sex was discovered, but they let her go unpunished out of respect for her father, her brothers and her son, all of whom had been victorious at Olympia. But a law was passed that for future trainers should strip before entering the arena. (Pausanias 5.6.8ff)
Athletic competitions for women did exist in ancient Greece. The most famous was a maidens' footrace held at Olympic Stadium in honor of the goddess, Hera. There were three (3) separate races for girls, teenagers, and young women.
The length of their racecourse was shorter than the mens' track; 5/6 of a stade (about 160 meters) instead of a full stade (about 192 meters). The winners received olive crowns just like Olympic victors.
Athletics were a key part of education in ancient Greece. Many Greeks believed that developing the body was equally important as improving the mind for overall health. Also, regular exercise was important in a society where men were always needed for military service. Plato's Laws specifically mention how athletics improved military skills. Greek youth therefore worked out in the wrestling-school (palaestra) whether they were serious Olympic contenders or not.
The palaestra (wrestling school) was one of the most popular places for Greek men of all ages to socialize. Many accounts of Greek daily life include scenes in these wrestling-schools, such as the opening of Plato's Charmides.
A victor received a crown made from olive leaves, and was entitled to have a statue of himself set up at Olympia.
Although he did not receive money at the Olympics, the victor was treated much like a modern sports celebrity by his home city. His success increased the fame and reputation of his community in the Greek world. It was common for victors to receive benefits such as having all their meals at public expense or front-row seats at the theater and other public festivals. One city even built a private gym for their Olympic wrestling champion to exercise in
Unlike the modern Olympics, judges did not come from all over the Greek world, but were drawn from Elis, the local region which included Olympia. The number of judges increased to 10 as more events were added to the Olympics.
Even though the judges were all Eleans, local Elean Greeks were still allowed to compete in the Olympics. The Elean people had such a reputation for fairness that an Elean cheating at the Games was a shock to other Greeks.
Anyone who violated the rules was fined by the judges. The money was used to set up statues of Zeus, the patron god of the Games of Olympia. It was the custom for athletes, their fathers and their brothers, as well as their trainers, to swear an oath, upon slices of boar's flesh that in nothing will they sin against the Olympic games. The athletes take this further oath also, that for ten successive months they have strictly followed the regulations for training. An oath is also taken by those who examine the boys, or the foals entering for races, that they will decide fairly and without taking bribes, and that they will keep secret what they learn about a candidate, whether accepted or not. (Pausanias 5.24.9ff)
The marathon was never one of the ancient Olympic events, although its origin dates back to another episode in ancient Greek history.
In the 5th century B.C., the Persians invaded Greece, landing at Marathon, a small town about 26 miles from the city of Athens. The Athenian army was seriously outnumbered by the Persian army, so the Athenians sent messengers to cities all over Greece asking for help.
The traditional origin of the marathon comes from the story how a herald named Phidippides ran the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory and died on the spot. Phidippides was sent by the Athenians to Sparta to ask for help. A man named Eukles announced the victory to the Athenians and then died. Later sources confused the story of Phidippides, also called Philippides, with that of Eukles. Although most ancient authors do not support this legend, the story has persisted and is the basis for the modern-day marathon.
Perseus Project at Tufts University