Myth Man's Greek Mythology

The ancient Olympic Games, held at Olympia, Greece from the 8th Century BCE until the 4th Century AD, have inspired today's colossal sporting event, which assembles athletes from all over the world to compete in both summer and winter competition.

The initial Olympic Games were celebrated every four years as a religious festival in honor of the King of the Olympian gods, Zeus. They were held at the Pan-Hellenic religious sanctuary of Olympia.

This ancient home of the Olympics is located in the Greek city-state of Elis, near the western coast of the Peloponnese Peninsula in southern Greece.

The Games derived their name from the sacred site of Olympia, and they were held there exclusively, rather than traveling around Greece to different locations.

Olympia was a holy sanctuary, not a city, and thus it had no inhabitants throughout the year. However, it became over-congested when the Games were held. No permanent living structures existed for spectators and pilgrims, so all attendees, whether rich or poor, would have to make do with tents.

Summer heat and pesky flies plagued ancient visitors, even leading to sacrifices being made to "Zeus, Averter of Flies". In addition for centuries the site provided a very poor water supply and highly unsanitary conditions.

Over time a number of hotels were built to accommodate the people and baths were constructed for the athletes to use. During the years when no Olympics were held, Olympia's empty land was planted with wheat.


The Olympic Games can be dated back to at least 776 BCE, at which time the ancient Greeks began measuring time in Olympiads, or the four year duration between each edition of the Games. For dating purposes ancient historians measured time in Olympiads rather than single years.

Each Olympiad was named after the athlete who won the previous 'stadion', so, for example, Diodorus Siculus dated the Persian invasion of Greece in 492 BCE to "the 75th Olympiad, that in which Astylus of Syracuse won the stadion'.

The festivals, however, are generally believed to have been at least 500 years older than 776 BCE. They were always held every four years between August 6 and September 19 to honor mighty Zeus.

A popular myth claims that Heracles (Hercules), son of Zeus and Alcmene, established the Games to honor his father following his twelve labors, but there is no historical evidence for this.

An Olympic Truce was announced during the duration of the Games so that competitors and religious pilgrims could safely travel to Olympia, temporarily putting on pause any city-state hostilities. The truce however only ensured safe passage to the Games for the athletes, but did not end all wars or military hostilities.

Three runners, called 'Spondophoroi', were sent from Elis to each participating city prior to the Games to announce the beginning of the Olympic truce. No army was permitted to enter Olympia during this period, while legal disputes and the use of the death penalty were forbidden. The truce was for the most part adhered to.

Political and military alliances would be announced at the Games, with the day's politicians utilizing them as a tool to assert or gain dominance over their rival city-states. In times of war, priests would offer sacrifices to the gods for victory over their enemies.

The Olympic Games allowed Hellenic culture and idealism to spread throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. As well as the athletic events, religious celebrations and artistic demonstrations also took center stage., making Olympia a central place for promoting the Greek Pantheon of gods.

In addition to the athletes and priests, sculptors, artisans, poets, philosophers and musicians would assemble at each Olympiad, displaying their talents and works of art to prospective patrons.


A fabulous temple to Zeus was built by the Greek architect called Libon. It was erected on the mountaintop and became one of the largest Doric temples in Greece.

This Doric temple was commissioned by the citizens of Elis between 466 and 456 BCE. It stood 64 meters (210 feet) long, almost 28 meters (92 feet) wide, with a maximum height of about 15 meters (49 feet). The roof was made of white Athenian marble and was stoutly supported by 34 massive columns.

Over one hundred gargoyles in the shape of lion heads served to drain the water from the roof. A statue of Nike, the goddess of Victory, surmounted the front, extending the crown of victory to the winning athletes in the name of Zeus.

The statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, was made of gold and ivory and created by the sculptor Phidias, who also built the Parthenon in Athens. Standing a wondrous 13 meters (42 feet) tall, the statue was placed on a throne in the temple.

Zeus was represented sitting on his throne, in his right hand holding a two meter high statue of Nike, the winged goddess of Victory. A long scepter topped by an eagle was in his left hand. When the Games came to an end around 420-430 AD the statue of Zeus was transported to Byzantium, where it was later destroyed in a fire.



As the Olympic Games gained popularity and recognition they became part of the Pan-Hellenic Games, which were four separate major festivals. These magnificent events were held at two or four year intervals, synchronized so that there was at least one set of Games every year.

The four Pan-Hellenic festival Games were the Pythian, Nemean, Isthmian and Olympic Games, but the Olympics were considered to be the most prestigious.

In the early centuries of Olympic competition all the events were contested on one day. The Games eventually became spread over four days, with a fifth day devoted to the closing ceremony, where there was a presentation of prizes and a banquet for the champions.

Technically restricted to freeborn Greeks, many competitors came from the Grecian colonies in Asia Minor, Africa and the Italian peninsula. These athletes were mostly professionals who trained full time for their events. Women, slaves and foreigners could not participate.

Prior to the start of the Games, athletes paraded past a series of statues of the gods and previous Olympic champions, pledging their piety and devoutness. They would sacrifice oxen and boar at the feet of the 42-foot statue of Zeus, roasting hunks of the flesh in a sacred flame.

One hundred oxen would be sacrificed to Zeus on the third day of the Olympic Games, which was timed to coincide with the full moon, and the entire day was dedicated to sacrifices and prayers to the King of the Olympians.

A huge feast would ensue as this enormous amount of meat was barbecued and copious amount of wine was served. You can call it the biggest tailgating party in ancient history.


But the Olympic Games weren't always the epitome of honorable sportsmanship - in 388 BCE a boxer from Thessaly named Eupolus was busted for bribing three opponents to take a dive.

Some of the greatest athletes were induced with offers of wealth, fame and favor to swap allegiance and abandon their home town in their own self-interest. This would inevitably lead to them being exiled from their homelands and labeled as traitors.

Renowned sprint champion Astylos of Kroton in southern Italy was enticed by Syracuse to leave his birthplace high and dry and instead represent them at the Olympics. Enraged fans in his hometown tore down his statue and converted his house into a prison.

Athletes had access at Olympia to two gymnasiums for training purposes. One was the Xystos, servicing runners and pentathletes, and the other was the Tetragono, used by boxers and wrestlers.

The first Olympiads saw athletes compete in loincloths, until a groundbreaking runner named Orsippus appeared naked. He did so by conveniently "forgetting" his tunic, which made running easier for him.

Others credit Spartans with introducing the custom of "publicly stripping and anointing themselves with oil in their gymnastic exercises. Prior to that, even in the Olympic contests, the contending athletes wore belts across their middles."

This nudity appealed to the nation as a symbol of "Greekness", and changed the face of the Games, becoming a major Olympic tradition.

The ancient Greeks saw nudity as a sign of fearlessness, power and courage, and considered it a tribute to the gods. Athletes would even lather themselves in olive oil, much like modern muscle men, to best show off their physique.

The modern word 'gymnasium' derives from the Greek word 'gymnos', which means naked.

Coroebus of Elis, a cook who won the sprint race in 776 BCE, is listed in records as the first Olympic champion. In that 776 BCE festival there was apparently only one event, a footrace that covered one length of the track at Olympia, with other events added over the ensuing decades.

That original race, known as the 'stade' or 'stadion', was a straight-line sprint of about 192 meters (210 yards) long, the start and finish marked only by dirt lines. According to legend, the organizers chose this distance because it was how far the mythical hero Heracles (Hercules) could run on a single breath.

The word 'stade' or 'stadion' came to refer to the track on which the sprint was held and gave us the modern English word 'stadium'.

Unlike today's oval tracks, the stade at Olympia was a 198.28 meter (217 yards) straight track. Runners would race its length and round a post at the far end, sometimes as many as 15 times depending on the race. The starting line was made of stone blocks set in the ground; runners would wedge their toes into parallel grooves carved in the stone, leaning forward.

Greek footraces were controlled by a judge standing in a deep hole dug behind and below the poised runners. This official would pull tight on ropes that kept a hinged gate upright. At the sound of a trumpet the judge would drop the ropes, and the runners would take off as the gates fell.

After 13 Olympiads two more Olympic events joined the stade: the Diaulos, roughly equal to the modern 400-meter race, and the Dolichos, a longer race comparable to the 1,500 or 5,000 meter races.

In 708 BCE the Pentathlon was introduced, consisting of five events: a foot race, a long jump, discus and javelin throws and a wrestling match. Boxing premiered in 688 BCE and chariot racing in 680 BCE.

Arguably the greatest ancient runner was Leonidas of Rhodes. This extraordinary athlete won all three footrace events in four consecutive Olympics, beginning in 164 BCE.



After Greece lost its independence to Rome in the middle of the 2nd century BCE, support for the competitions and festivals at Olympia and elsewhere fell off precipitiously over the next century.

The Romans did not view athleticism with the same reverence and zeal as the Greeks, but astutely recognized the political and social benefits of the Greek Games. Emperor Augustus wisely instituted major new athletic festivals in both Italy and Greece, delighting the people.

A keen patron of the Greek festivals, the infamous Roman Emperor Nero disgraced himself and the Olympic Games when he entered himself in a chariot race. Hapless Nero fell off his vehicle during the race, and did not finish, but then had the judges declare him the winner anyway.

Nero also added contests in poetry, music and singing to those festivals that lacked them, including the Olympics. He vainly fancied himself a talented musician, and it was no surprise that he "won" all of the contests that he entered.

Judges were terrified to award victory to anyone else, and were often bribed by the Emperor to pronounce him winner, but when Nero killed himself on June 9, 68 AD, all the Olympic judges had to pay back the bribes they had received. In addition the sham "Neronian Olympiad" results were declared to be null and void.

The Olympic Games were abolished in 393 AD by Roman Emperor Theodosius I, or his son, Theodosius II, in order to promote the widespread adoption of Christianity. Deeming the Games equivalent to paganism, since they honored Olympian Zeus, Theodosius had them banned, putting an unceremonious end to the festivals.

Archeological evidence however indicates that some games were held after 393 AD. It is likely that the Olympics came to an end under Theodosius II, following a fire that burned down the temple of the Olympian Zeus during his reign.

They remained a non entity for the following 1503 years.


Major earthquakes shook the sanctuary of Olympia after the Games had come to an end, in the early fifth century AD. Floods, without doubt caused by tsunamis, demolished the southern part of the sacred shrine, burying it under four meters of silt.

For many centuries nobody knew where ancient Olympia had been, until in 1776 AD the English antiquarian named Richard Chandler identified the site. It was fully excavated by a Prussian named E. Curtius one hundred years later. Excavations continue to this day.

In the 19th century a Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Coubertin presented a motion to bring back the Games, and helped to form the International Olympic Committee. Consequently, in 1896, the Olympic Games were reborn.

These 1896 Modern Olympic Games were first held in Athens, Greece. Around 280 athletes, all male, competed in 42 events. Foreign athletes were greeted with parades and banquets, and a huge crowd estimated at 60,000 attended the opening day of events.

The first Olympic Marathon took place in the 1896 Games. It followed the 25-mile route run by the Greek soldier and runner named Pheidippides, who in 490 BCE ran from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of the decisive Greek victory over the Persians - then died on the spot, after declaring "Rejoice, we conquer!"

It's only appropriate that Greece's Spyridon Louis won the first Modern Olympics Marathon gold medal. In 1924, the distance would be standardized to 26 miles and 385 yards.


The five colored rings of the Modern Games symbolize the union of the five inhabited continents of the world - Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. They express the stated objective of the Olympic movement, as athletes from every country gather to participate in peaceful, neighborly and respectful competition.

The Olympic rings first appeared in 1913 at the top of a letter written by the founder of the Modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, who drew and colored the rings by hand. The colors were chosen because they appear on the flags of all the competing nations around the globe.

The Olympic flag, featuring the five rings on a white background, flew for the first time at the 1920 Antwerp Games.

Medal winners have their names engraved on the walls of the stadium of that year's tournament. Their legacy is etched in stone, so to speak.

Even though the Ancient Olympics awarded only one medal, which was gold for the winner, the Modern Games award gold, silver and bronze medals to the top three competitors. Present day gold medals are silver-gilt, containing six grams of fine gold.

Solid gold medals were last given in 1912.

The ancient Olympian victor also received a laurel wreath crown made from olive leaves from Zeus' sacred tree, and was entitled to have a statue of himself erected at Olympia. For the Greeks, wreaths were the highest possible reward and represented the esteemed honor of its holder.


There was no financial compensation or reward offered at the ancient Games, but it must be emphasized that the victors were treated much like modern day sports superstars by their home city.

These ancient Olympic winners were idolized and revered by the people, often receiving lavish gifts, benefits and adulation. The champions were showered with fame and prizes that included annual living and training expenses, prized commodities like the best olive oil, free meals and drink, statues and hometown parades.

The poet Pindar wrote that, on the other hand, the shamed losers would "slink through the back alleys to their mothers."

Poets were commissioned to write paeans in praise of the exalted victors, epic poems that were passed from generation to generation and some even had coins with their likeness created.


There were no women's events at the ancient Olympic Games. Females had their own festival at Olympia called the Heraea, held in honor of goddess Hera, Queen of Olympus and wife to Zeus. A Doric temple to Hera found at Olympia is closely associated with the Heraea.

Young girls competed in a footrace at the Heraea, quite likely as a puberty or pre-nuptial initiation ritual. The distance they ran was one-sixth shorter than the equivalent men's track. There were three different age categories and all runners were unmarried maidens.

The festival was held every four years, and some claim that it occurred concurrent with the Olympics. Yet, due to the ancient Greek custom of secluding women from unrelated males, the Heraea was most likely completely separate from the Olympics.

Winners were permitted to dedicate statues to Hera inscribed with their name and were awarded a crown of olive leaves and a portion of a cow, which was sacrificed to Hera.

Several women appear in the official records of Olympic victors as owners of the stables of some of the winning chariot entries. The most famous of these females on the Olympic champions' list was a wealthy Spartan princess named Kyniska (or Cynisca).

She was the daughter of King Archidamos of Sparta. Her four-horse chariots won not once, but twice, during the celebration of the 96th and 97th Olympiads (396 BCE and 392 BCE respectively).

Kyniska was an owner and breeder of horses, but not the actual driver of her chariots. It was customary for slaves to commandeer the chariots, rather than the rich owners, during the race. Kyniska had a large statue of herself erected at Olympia following her victories.

Following Kyniska's success other women horse owners and trainers entered - and won - the chariot racing event at the ancient Olympics. These included Zeuxo, Timareta, Euryleonis, Belistiche and Cassia.

Women were banned from Olympia during the actual Games under penalty of death, even though there is no evidence that this  draconian law or penalty had ever been invoked. It is believed that unmarried women were allowed as Olympic spectators, but history is unclear regarding women as Games onlookers.


The Olympic Flame, whose lighting signals the opening of the Games, remains always lit and is virtually waterproof. It can withstand roaring wind of up to 50 mph and has yet to be extinguished in spite of its lengthy relays around the world.

The flame can withstand extreme temperatures, but in the unlikely event that it should go out, less than 30 seconds away is a spare torch, lit from the mother flame in Athens.

Contrary to popular belief, the Olympic Flame and the Torch Relay have no basis in antiquity. No relay was needed in ancient times to run the torch from Olympia to Olympia, after all. The Olympic Flame first appeared at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.

Similarly, the torch relay was the idea of Carl Diem, organizer of the 1936 Berlin Games, where the relay made its debut. Since then the relays have grown larger and larger, involving more spectators, runners and greater distances.

The 2004 relay reached all seven continents on its way from Olympia to Athens, Greece, where the Games were held that year. The relay has become one of the most cherished of all Olympic rituals, recognized worldwide as an emotionally charged symbol of peace.

In 1924 the Winter Olympic Games were sanctioned, bringing into play a whole lot of winter sports, including figure skating, ice hockey, bobsledding and the biathlon. The Summer and Winter Games are held separately and alternate every two years.

The American James Connolly won the triple jump to become the first Modern Olympic gold medal champion. The date was April 6, 1896, marking more than 1,500 years since an Olympic gold medal had been awarded.

The first woman to win a gold medal in the Modern Olympics was Countess Helene de Pourtales. She was an American-born Swiss sailor who competed in the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris representing Switzerland and won the first ever women's gold.

Twenty-two women in five events participated in the 1900 Paris Olympics, out of a total of 997 athletes. Those initial female competitions were tennis, croquet, sailing, golf and equestrianism.

It should be noted that the International Olympic Committee awards each year's Games to a host city, not the country.

Before the 1970s, the Games were officially limited to athletes with strictly amateur status, but in the 1980s professional athletes were allowed to participate in many events, due to the public's desire to witness the top athletes in the world compete, regardless of status.

In recent times the Olympic Committee has instituted rules to prevent unworthy amateurs from competing - called the Eddie the Eagle Rule, it mandates that competitors must have finished in the top half of an international sporting competition, otherwise they are ineligible.

In 1997 the Olympic Committee ruled that only athletes over the age of 16 could compete, unlike in the past, when there was no age restriction. In the first modern Olympics in 1896, a Greek youth named Demetrius Loundras became the youngest to compete.

Loundras was only 10 years and 218 days old when he competed as a gymnast in the team parallel bars for the National Gymnastic Association of Greece. His team placed third, earning him a bronze medal. He remains the youngest athlete and medalist in the history of the Games, an Olympic record that will never be broken.

The 1960 Rome Olympics saw the first Paralympics Games, meant at the time to provide war veterans a chance to compete and to assist them in their rehabilitation.

Today the Paralympics give all people with an array of disabilities an opportunity to compete, and have become an integral part of the Games. They take place at the host city in conjunction with the regular Olympics.

This multi-sport event is a remarkable showcase of athleticism, resilience and inclusivity. Athletes with varying abilities inspire millions of people worldwide with their dedication and skill.

Through the universal language of sport the Paralympic Games break down barriers and challenge societal misconceptions of disability. They foster a sense of unity while providing a platform for elite competition, demonstrating that excellence knows no physical limitations.

An Egyptian paralympian named Ibrahim Hamato made Olympic history in 2014. Despite having no arms, and playing with the racquet in his mouth, Hamato became a world champion in table tennis!

The 2024 Paris Paralympics run from August 28 to September 8, featuring 4,400 athletes in 549 events.

The Paralympic flag is a symbol of unity, movement and diversity. The choice of red, white and blue is significant in that they are the three most common colors found in national flags worldwide.

With it vibrant symbolism and universal appeal, the Paralympic flag stands as a testament to the strength, bravery and unity of athletes brought together through sport.


London 2012 is considered a landmark moment for the Olympics. Known as the Women's Games, among other things, it was the first summer Olympics that showcased true equality. Women were allowed to compete in all sports for the first time in history, and every attending nation managed to send a female athlete.

The 2024 Paris Summer Olympics, running from July 26 until August 11, will feature 10,500 athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees contesting 329 separate events.

The Youth Olympic Games (YOG), featuring exciting new sports such as 3X3 basketball and 3X3 hockey, breaking, sport climbing, mixed gender and mixed National Olympic Committee events first took place at Singapore in the summer of 2010. The first YOG winter games took place at Innsbruck in 2012.

The YOG last 12 days for the summer games and 10 days for the winter events, as compared to 16 days for the regular Olympics. There are 28 sports for the summer and 7 for the winter games. These events are different from the adult games, geared more towards the interests and age range of the younger athletes.

The Youth Olympics are open to youths from all over the world aged from 15 to 18, even though the International Olympic Committee leaves the competitors' age up to each country's Sports Federation.

Buenos Aires hosted the latest Summer Youth Olympic Games in 2018, attracting 4,000 athletes. The latest Winter Youth Olympics took place in Gangwon in 2024 and featured 1,800 athletes.

The next Summer Youth Olympic Games will take place in Dakar, Senegal, in 2026, making Senegal the first country on the African continent to be awarded an Olympic sports event.

There are also Baby Olympic Games!

The most popular Summer Games sports, both live as well as on television, are gymnastics, swimming and soccer (football).

Figure skating leads the Winter Games popularity list. It should be noted that until 1936 it remained the only Winter Olympics event to feature female participants.

The Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Olympic Games have evolved into grandiose and extravagant spectacles, with every host city outdoing itself as it tries to showcase its unique culture and societal contributions to the world.

The Parade of Nations during these ceremonies is an opportunity for the competing athletes and their teams to proudly display their flags. These Opening and Closing Ceremonies are by far the hottest ticket in town.

The flag of Greece leads the Parade of Nations, paying homage to the ancient origins of the Olympics. In a gesture joining both ancient and modern Olympic traditions, the 2004 Athens Games saw the shot-put competition held at the home of the classical Games in Olympia.

The official Motto of the Olympic Games is "Citius, altius, fortius", Latin for "Faster, higher, stronger", adopted by Coubertin. There is also the noble Olympic Credo, which states that "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to participate."




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