The origins of the Ancient Olympic Games are unknown, but several legends and myths have survived. One of these involved Pelops, king of Olympia and eponymous hero of the Peloponnesus, to whom offerings were made during the games. The Christian Clement of Alexandria asserted, "[The] Olympian games are nothing else than the funeral sacrifices of Pelops." That myth tells of how Pelops' overcame the King and won the hand of his daughter Hippodamia with the help of Poseidon, his old lover, a myth linked to the later fall of the house of Atreus and the sufferings of Oedipus.
A myth tells of the hero Hercules, or Herakles, who won a race at Olympia and then decreed that the race should be re-enacted every four years, while another claims that Zeus initiated the festival after his defeat of the Titan Cronus. Yet another tells of King Iphitos of Elis, who consulted the Pythia Oracle at Delphi to try and save his people from war in the 9th century BC. The prophetess advised him to organize games in honour of the gods. The Spartan adversary of Iphitos then decided to stop fighting during these games, which were called Olympic, after the sanctuary of Olympia where they were held. Had they been named after Mount Olympus, the mountain on which the Greek gods were said to live, they would have been called Olympian games rather than Olympic. The favorite story is that Heracles celebrated cleaning the Augean Stables by building Olympia with help from Athena.
The Olympic Games were held in four year intervals, and later the Greek method of counting the years even referred to these Games, using the term Olympiad for the period between two Games. The historian Ephorus who lived in the 4th century BC is believed to have invented the use of Olympiads to count years, much as we today use AD and BC. Previously every Greek state used its own dating system, something that continued for local events, which led to confusion when trying to determine dates. "Diodorus states that there was a solar eclipse in the third year of the 113th Olympiad, which must be the eclipse of 316 BC. This gives us a date of (mid-summer) 786 BC for the first year of the first Olympiad". Nevertheless, there is disagreement among scholars whether the games truly began at this time or not.
The only competition held then was, according to the Greek traveller Pausanias, the stadion race, a race over about 190 metres, measured after the feet of Hercules. The word stadium is derived from this foot race.
Several groups fought over control of the sanctuary, and hence the Games, for prestige and political advantage. Pausanias writes that in 668 BC, Pheidon of Argos was commissioned by the town of Pisa to capture the sanctuary from the town of Elis, which he did and then personally controlled the Games for that year. The next year Elis regained control.
The Athenian writer Xenophon in 364 BC gives a contemporary record of an Elean attack during the Pentathlon final of the Games themselves, as the Pisans were again in control. The Eleans pushed the defenders almost to the altar before retreating due to missiles being thrown at them from the porticos. During that night the defending Arcadians constructed defensive palisades, and the next morning on seeing the strength of the defence the Eleans retreated.
Related to the Elis/Pisa conflict, is the Heraea Games, the first sanctioned competition for women, held in Olympic Stadium It originally consisted of foot races only, as did the men's competition. Some texts, including Pausanias's Description of Greece, c. AD 175, state that Hippodameia gathered a group known as the "Sixteen Women" and made them administrators of the Heraea Games, out of gratitude for her marriage to Pelops. Other texts indicate that the "Sixteen Women" were peace-makers from Pisa and Elis and, because of their political competence, became administrators of the Heraea Games.
The Olympic Games were part of the Panhellenic Games, four separate games held at two- or four-year intervals but arranged so that there was at least one set of games every year. The Olympic Games were more important and more prestigious than the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games.
Finally, the Olympic Games were suppressed by either Theodosius I in AD 393 or his grandson Theodosius II in AD 435, as part of the campaign to impose Christianity as a state religion. The site of Olympia remained until an earthquake destroyed it in the 6th century AD.
Unlike the Modern Olympic Games, only free men who spoke Greek were allowed to participate in the Ancient Games. They were to some extent "international", though, in the sense that they included athletes from the various Greek city-states. Additionally, participants eventually came from Greek colonies as well, extending the range of the games to far shores of the Mediterranean and of the Black Sea.
In order to be in the games one had to qualify and the athlete had to have one's name written down in the lists. It seems that only young people were allowed to participate, as the Greek writer Plutarch relates that one young man was rejected for seeming too mature, and only after his lover interceded with the king of Sparta, who presumably vouched for his youth, was he permitted to participate. Before being able to participate, every participant had to take an oath in front of the statue of Zeus saying that he had been in training for 10 months.
The Olympic games originally contained one event: the stadion (or "stade") race, a short sprint measuring between 180 and 240 metres, or the length of the stadium. The actual length of the race is unknown, since tracks found at archeological sites, as well as literary evidence, provide conflicting answers. Runners had to pass five stakes that divided the lanes: one stake at the start, another at the finish, and three stakes in-between.
The diaulos, or 2-stade race, was introduced in 724 BC, during the 14th Olympic games. The race was a single lap of the stadium, approximately 400 metres, and scholars debate whether or not the runners had individual "turning" posts for the return leg of the race, or whether all the runners approached a common post, turned, and then raced back to the starting line.
A third foot race, the dolichos, was introduced in 720 BC. Separate accounts of the race present conflicting evidence as to the actual length of the dolichos. However, the average stated length of the race was approximately 18-24 laps, or about three miles (5 km). The event was run similarly to modern marathons- the runners would begin and end their event in the stadium proper, but the race course would wind its way through the Olympic grounds. The course would often flank important shrines and statues in the sanctuary, passing by the Nike statue by the temple of Zeus before returning to the stadium.
The last running event added to the Olympic program was the hoplitodromos, or "Hoplite race," introduced in 520 BC and traditionally run as the last race of the day. The runners would run either a single or double diaulos (approximately 400 or 800 yards) in full or partial armour, carrying a shield and additionally equipped either with greaves or a helmet. As the armour weighed between 50 and , the hoplitodromos emulated the speed and stamina needed for warfare. Due to the weight of the armour, it was easy for runners to drop their shields or trip over fallen competitors. In a vase painting depicting the event, some runners are shown leaping over fallen shields. The course they used for these runs were made out of clay with sand over the clay.
Over the years, more events were added: boxing (pygme/pygmachia), wrestling (pale), pankration (regulated full-contact fighting, similar to today's mixed martial arts), chariot racing, several other running events (the diaulos, hippios, dolichos, and hoplitodromos), as well as a pentathlon, consisting of wrestling, stadion, long jump, javelin throw and discus throw (the latter three were not separate events).
Boxing became increasingly brutal over the centuries. Initially soft leather covered their fingers but eventually hard leather weighted with metal was sometimes used.
In the chariot racing event, it was not the rider but the owner of the chariot and team who was considered to be the competitor, so one man could win more than one of the top spots. The addition of events meant the festival grew from 1 day to 5 days, 3 of which were used for competition. The other two days were dedicated to religious rituals. On the final day, there was a banquet for all of the participants, consisting of 100 oxen that had been sacrificed to Zeus on the first day.
The winner of an Olympic event was awarded an olive branch, and was often received with much honour throughout Greece and especially in his home town, where he was often granted large sums of money (in Athens, 500 drachma, a small fortune). (See Milo of Croton.) Sculptors would create statues of Olympic victors and poets would sing odes in their praise for money.
Archaeologists believe that wars were halted between the city-states of Greece so that the athletes as well as the spectators of the Olympics could get there safely. However, some archaeologists argue that the wars were not halted, but that the athletes who were in the army were allowed to leave and participate in the Olympics.
Participation in the games was limited to male athletes; the only way women were allowed to take part was to enter horses in the equestrian events. In 396 BC and again in 392 BC, the horses of a Spartan princess named Cynisca won her the four-horse race. It is thought that single women (not betrothed or married) were allowed to watch the races. Also priestesses in the temple of Zeus who lit the candles were permitted.
The athletes usually competed naked, not only as the weather was appropriate but also as the festival was meant to celebrate, in part, the achievements of the human body. Olive oil was occasionally used by the competitors, not only to keep skin smooth but also to provide an appealing look for the participants. Competitors may have worn a kynodesme to restrain the penis.