A brief history of the Olympic games begins in ancient Greece. Many legends and myths about the origins of the games exist, including one that pits the Greek god Zeus and his father, Kronos in a battle for dominance over the world. Zeus defeated Kronos, and to honor his victory a statue was built in the valley of Olympia. Eventually, religious festivities sprang from the myth as people traveled to Olympia to worship Zeus. It’s possible that these religious events led to the first actual recorded Olympic competition in 776 BCE, but no one knows for certain. It’s true that fitness and discipline were highly valued by the Greeks, and excelling in those skills was seen as a dedication to the legacy of Zeus.
During that first Olympic competition there was only one event, a 192-meter foot race called a “one-stade.” A man named Coroebus was recorded as the winner. The one-stade remained the only event for the first 13 Olympic games, but eventually new events were added. The hoplitodrome, a footrace that required participants to wear a full set of armor, and the pentathlon (a series of five events) became mainstays in the early Olympics. Like today, the ancient Olympics were held every four years. The time frame would later influence the Greek calendar.
The modern tradition of each new host city building an “Olympic Village” is more than just pomp and circumstance, as the practical needs of housing so many visitors and athletes were also addressed in ancient Greece. Many new structures were raised in Olympia in order to accommodate the athletes, provide training facilities and housing visitors. The games were considered a time of truce, when warring forces ceased hostilities to allow safe travel to and from Olympia for all participants.
Unlike today’s competitions, not everyone was welcome to participate in the early Olympic games. Only freeborn, male Greek citizens were allowed to take part. Eventually, the invitation was extended to freeborn males across the Roman Empire. The requirement for Olympic athletes to remain amateurs began in Greece. Winners were treated like heroes and given elaborate gifts and benefits, but all participants had to pay for their own expenses and were not allowed to accept monetary gifts.
Unfortunately, the integrity of the ancient games was compromised by a host of isolated incidents, including when the Roman Emperor Nero may have won the gold medal for corruption when he had himself named champion in 67 CE despite the fact that he fell out of his chariot mid-race. In 394 CE, the Christian Emperor Theodosius I declared a halt to the games because he viewed them as nothing more than a pagan festival.
The noble tradition remained buried until the nineteenth century when Baron Pierre de Coubertin from France campaigned to reinstate the games. In 1896, the modern Olympic games debuted in Athens, Greece. Today nearly every country sends teams of athletes, both men and women, to participate in the Olympic games. Originally, the modern Olympics only included the summer games, but winter games were added in 1924. At first, winter and summer events were held in the same calendar year, but that changed in 1992 when the shift was made to alternate summer and winter events, so that we now enjoy a major Olympic event every two years.