Olympia, Cradle of the Olympic Games

The Olympic Games as we know them today have a long history which goes back to ancient times. Everything started in the Peloponnese, in Greece, some 3, 000 years ago.

Sports competitions were organized at Olympia and were named after their location, hence their name of Olympic Games. Nobody knows exactly when they began, but the first written mention of the competitions is dated to 776 BC.

These Games were held at the same place every four years. This four-year period acquired the name Olympiad, and was used as a date system : time was counted in Olympiads, rather than years.

The Panhellenic Games

The Games organized at Olympia led to the development of the Panhellenic Games, which also included :

These Games were special because they brought the Greek world together at a time when Greece was not a single state, but a series of city-states (politically and economically independent communities). From Greece and the colonies (in Italy, North Africa and Asia Minor), people traveled to take part in or attend these Games, inspired by the shared feeling of belonging to the same culture or religion.It should be noted that the four Panhellenic Games were never held during the same year.

It is difficult to know exactly what gave rise to these Games. Mythology is mixed up with history, and events which happened at the time were often explained as the consequences of divine intervention. This was the case for the Panhellenic Games, for which there are numerous stories attempting to explain their origin.

The Sacred Truce

On the occasion of the four Panhellenic Games, a sacred truce was proclaimed. Messengers (spondorophoroi) went from city to city announcing the date of the competitions. They called for all wars to be halted before, during and after the Games in order to enable the athletes, as well as the spectators, to travel to and from the Games sites in total safety. A climate of peace was considered important during the period of competition.

Overview of the Site at Olympia

Of the four Panhellenic Games, those at Olympia were the most important and were regarded as a special event throughout the Greek world.

The site consisted of a sacred area, the Altis, marked by a boundary wall, and a secular (non-religious) area. The sacred area contained the temples, including the one to Zeus, the altars on which sacrifices were made, and the Treasuries, small buildings erected by the city-states in which precious offerings were kept (e.g. vases and statues). The secular area was outside the boundary wall. It contained the sporting structures of the gymnasium, palaestra, stadium and hippodrome, plus all the buildings used for the administration of the Games and to welcome important guests.

Only the priests and the staff responsible for looking after the sanctuary lived at Olympia. At the time of the competitions, the atmosphere was very different. In addition to the athletes and spectators, merchants of all kinds flocked to the site : the number of people present for the Olympic Games is estimated to have been over 40, 000.

Olympic Official Website