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History and Origin of the Ancient Olympic Games Essay

The ancient Olympic games represent a part of Ancient Greek history that the world continues to celebrate today. Every four years world nations gather at a specific site to compete in the Olympic games. This coming together of world nations symbolizes a time of peace and unity among the world. With every victory came honor, glory and pride for the winning athlete and their country. The history and origin of the Olympic games includes religious celebrations, mythical stories as well all embracing Greece’s’ love and respect of pure athleticism. This paper will discuss the history and origin of the ancient Olympic games. It will elaborate upon the fact that the history and origin of the Olympic games include religious celebrations, mythical stories as well as embrace Greece’s love and respect of pure athleticism.

Establishment of Games in Olympia

The Olympic games pertain to a key event on the international level, which features winter, and summer sports and invites thousands of athletes for the purpose of participation in various competitions. The Olympic games are acknowledged as the leading competition of sports globally, in which there are over 200 nations as participants[1]. The Ancient Olympic games were established in Olympia in 776 BC, creating an institution that would continue throughout the world for thousands of years.

Initially, from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD, the ancient Olympic games got their origin in Olympia, Greece. Many studies give an account of the ancient Olympics, which, according to their observation, were held in Greece approximately 3,000 years back. Though they were very ancient in origin, they started being considered and called as “classical games” already by the end of the 6th century BC. By that time, there were three sporting festivals, which had gained remarkable significance as well as popularity. They included: the Nemean Games at Nemea; the Pythian games, held at Delphi; and the Isthmian Games, which were held near Corinth. Later, there were various similar festivals, which took place in around 150 cities, including Odessus, Alexandria, Rome, Antioch, and Naples.

There have been various legends and myths connected with the background and origin of the ancient Olympic games. They are a mirror image of the Greek civilization’s mythic-religious nature. For instance, in the ancient Greece, it was a tradition and religious binding that all the festivals and celebrations were to be performed in honor of a particular divinity. Thus, these Olympic games and related festivals were conducted under the patronage of the Greek leader of the pantheon of gods, Zeus. It is said that the Olympia was marked by Zeus as his revered zone through bolt of thunder, which he flung on Mount Olympus from his throne.

It is said that to mark that divine spot, a stunning altar of Zeus was created at Olympia, which is situated in the North from his spectacular temple. Then, there is another very remarkable myth regarding the Olympics with reference to the Hercules, the greatest Greek hero. It is said that in order to get freedom from the slavery to King Eurystheos of Argos, the hero had to complete twelve labors. Once, the Hercules was done with it, he celebrated the success by making a clearing in the orchard, laying out the borders of the Altis, and establishing the Olympic games in honor of Zeus. He determined the distance for the race in a special way: for six hundred times, he placed one foot in front of the other[2].

Establishment of the Olympic Calendar

The Greeks had a different calendar for holding the Olympic games. They observed that 99 lunar months made eight solar years. Therefore, they established a new calendar, which was known as the octaeteris and was around 99 lunar months. They arranged the calendar in such a way that there were eight years in which each of the five years contained twelve months and the rest three years comprised of 13 months. The extra three months were inserted in the 3rd, 5th, and 8th years.

It was believed by the Greek historians that the Greeks kept the 8-year calendar when the Olympic games were invented in the 776 BC. Later, the two four-year periods were measured as the octaeteris: one of the 50 months and one of 49 months; and they made these 4-year periods known as the “Olympiads”[3]. These four years’ periods exist today as well, and in the month of February, after every four years, a leap day is added up and the Olympics are conducted. Thus, the Olympic games are held according to the Olympic Calendar based on a four year Olympiad.

Sacred Truce

The truce carries the meaning “the break of hostilities” and “the holding of hands” in the Greek language. It had begun in the form of a month-long “Holy Treaty” between King Lykourgos of Sparta, King Iphitor of Elis, and King Kleosthenes of Pisa in 824 BC. A bronze discus had the terms of this truce carved upon it, and it was kept in Altis, in the Temple of Hera at Olympia. The Truce was mainly meant to deliver peace and harmony all across Greece. It covered the following clauses: ➢ Armies and weapons were not permitted to enter Elis; ➢ The hostile areas were safe for travelling of the attendees whose city-state was at war; ➢ There was no permission for the death penalties.

Before the beginning of the Olympic festivals, the news of the truce was spread through the three news bearers, decorated with garland of olive, and staff carriers, who went to every city of Greece. It was the duty of the herald to confirm the festival’s date in order to invite the residents to participate and attend as well as to proclaim the truce of Olympic. Thus, they were known as the “truce-bearers” (spondophoroi) and the permanent legal advisors to the Eleans and official warrantors of the truce. The sacred truce played an important role in the Olympics. Before the truce, the mainland Greece region was disturbed by the unrest and civil wars. However, after the safety was guaranteed to the people by “sacred truce,” the ancient Olympic games got popularity and became a source of unity and peace amongst the people of Greece.

Athletes in the Olympic games

Until the 1970s, the Olympic athletes were not permitted to accept any sort of prizes or endorsements, and no professionals were permitted to enter into the competition of Olympic games. The professional athletes were thought to have undue gain over the participants who played the games as their hobby. The victor in the ancient Olympic was given first prize when the competition ended. The herald announced the name of the winner, and, a Greek Judge, Hellanodikis, would put a palm branch in his hands, and the audience threw flowers at him and cheered him. In order to symbolize victory, red ribbons were tied on his hands and head.4 On the last day when the games completed, an official award ceremony would be conducted, at the prominent foyer at Zeus’ temple. The Olympic winner’s name, with his father and homeland’s name would be announced loudly. The Hellanodikis would then, place the holy wreaths of olive tree, or kotinos, on the head of the winner5.

In the ancient Olympic games, the participants were all the free male citizens of Greece, irrespective of their social status. Diagoras, a member of a royal family from Rhodes; Polymnistor, a shepherd; Orsippos, Alexander I, son of Amyndas and King of Macedonia; a general from Megara; and Democritus, a philosopher, all participated in the Olympics. The only people not allowed to participate in the ancient Olympics were the married women. 4 ”Ancient Olympic Games”, Olympic.org. 2012, 5 ”Ancient Olympic Games”, Olympic.org. 2012 However, those women who were single were permitted to attend and watch the competition.

The goddess of fertility, priestess of Demeter, was permitted an honored place next to the altar of Stadium. Athletic Events Divisions divided between men and boys would divide athletic events. According to the writings of Pausanias, the first Olympic event was the foot race. The victor was Coroebus.6 This initial foot race was known as the stadion. The athletes would sprint for one stade or the length of the stadium. 7 Fourteen festivals later the double foot race was added. This race was known as a two-stade race or two lengths of the stadium. Long distance races were added ranging from seven to twenty-four stades. 8 Another stade event involved athletes running between two and four stades wearing full military armor.

This armor weighed about fifty – sixty pounds. The Pentathlon would be added as well. The Pentathlon included five different events. The events included discus, javelin, jumping, running and wrestling. This event is still included in todays Olympic games. Chariot racing would be one of the equestrian events the ancient Greeks included in the games. There were two and four horse chariot races. According to Plato, the “folk with the battered ears” (Plato) described the athletes who participated in the sport of boxing.

9 6. Pausanias, 5.1-15
7. perseus.tufts.edu/edu
8.Pausanias, 5.1-15
9. perseus.tufts.edu/edu

Rome and the Eventual End of the Olympic games

The family memorial monument of the Philip II of Macedonia was being constructed at Olympia, and his son, Alexander the Great, witnessed the completion. Philip II and his offspring attributed a huge importance to Olympia. They offered financial help and gifts to the Olympia and were a source of inspiration for the other rich donors, who started doing the same. When the Classical period was near its end, the attitude towards the Games started to diminish, which also reflected the eventual downfall in ancient Greece’s history.10 Where once Zeus was worshipped, winners now placed their coronets at the foot of their benefactor god; and where once all the triumph and success was credited to the help of the deities, now it was ruled and commanded by the athletes in the glory of their personal achievements and successes. The religious importance of the Olympic games begun to decline, and it became more of a world-premiere athletic contest than a religious festival.

This era focused mainly on athletes instead of the divine spirits, and it was clear in the construction of facilities at Olympia. It was between the 1st and 3rd centuries that more facilities to assist the athletes were built, which included the development to the athletes’ baths, a “palaistra,” a big practice gym for the track competitors, and a stadium sort of place to help the athletes train and practice for the jumping and combat events. In the earlier years of the 2nd century BC, there begun the Roman intervention in Hellenic affairs, and they end up directly imposing rules on Macedonia and Greece and ending the independence of Greece in 146 BC. Thus, it was the end of the religious Olympics and the fall of Greece.It was the end of Greece, the beginning of the Roman period, and the beginning of the end of the Olympic games. 10.


Reinstatement of the Olympic games

The short renaissance of the ancient Olympic games was marked by the political stability and economic and cultural revival of the Roman occupation. However, the games were no longer holy festivals; they turned into gladiator contests, which were extremely bloody and violent. Later, these games were also acknowledged as “international” under the wide-ranging coverage of the Roman citizenship and were then appreciated and enjoyed by many regions including Egypt. Royal benefaction contributed to the improvement in the location of Olympia, and it befitted that of a Roman showpiece. Comprehensive repairs and modifications were made to the temple of Zeus; many other buildings were also modified according to the new construction trends. Moreover, athletic facilities and new monuments were also dedicated for the holding of Olympic games.


The ancient Olympic games were rich in culture and traditions. The origin of the Olympic games has enthralled and fascinated many students, historians, and archeologists in their quest to uncover the mysteries behind them. Throughout time, the ancient Olympic games have survived wars and natural disasters, they were briefly abolished but brought back to life, and now it is a worldwide-celebrated tradition.


1. ”Ancient Olympic Games”, Olympic.org. 2012. http://www.olympic.org/ancient-olympic-games

2. Olympic-Legacy. Myths &Legends:http://www.pe04.com/olympic/olympia/legends_o.php 3. Pausanias, http://www.theoi.com/Text/Pausanias5A.html#7

4. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Olympics/index.html

5. http://www.richeast.org/htwm/Olympics/olympics.html
6. Vaughan, Valerie. The Origin of the Olympics: Ancient Calendars and the Race Against

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