The Origins of the Olympic Games

Blue sky and symbol of Olympic Games in Ice town
Blue sky and symbol of Olympic Games in Ice town | © Singulyarra / Shutterstock
Photo of Ethel Dilouambaka
22 March 2018

Every four years (with winter and summer games occurring every two years), the world watches and holds its breath in anticipation of the Olympic Games, a worldwide event that sees hundreds of thousands of people glued to their screens or flocking to a destination to see the best of the best compete in a series of sporting events. But what are the actual origins of the Olympic Games?

Where it all started

The ancient Olympic Games were originally part of a religious festival held in honor of Zeus, the god of gods. The games included a series of athletic competitions between athletes of city-states of the Greek world, spreading from the far ends of the Iberian Peninsula all the way to the Black Sea region in Turkey. Held in the sanctuary of Olympia, in western Peloponnese, the games were first recorded in 776 BC. But the games in Olympia were not the only ones. In fact, there were a plethora of Panhellenic games held in different places in Greece during separate occasions, such as the Nemean or Isthmian Games.

Throughout the time that they endured, the Olympic Games included a variety of events such as races, wrestling, and horse and chariot racing events. Only free male citizens were allowed to participate, and no uniforms were needed. Indeed, athletes would compete naked, although the origin of this tradition is somewhat obscure. A fascinating fact that few people know is that Olympia was also home to the Heraean Games, a competition for women held in honor of goddess Hera, and it actually predates the all-male version. During the games, all hostility between city-states were put on hold until the end of the events, which was known as the Olympic truce.

The popularity of the Games, which took place for over 12 centuries, peaked in the 6th and 5th centuries BC until Roman emperor Theodosius I abolished them in 393 AD in an attempt to impose Christianity as the empire’s religion.

Ancient Olympia, Greece | © Heipei / Flickr

The Modern Olympic Games

It took over 1,500 years for the Olympic Games to return. The idea of their revival first started after the Greek War of Independence in 1821. The young nation wanted to reconnect with its long-forgotten past after over 400 years of Ottoman occupation. While Pierre de Coubertin is credited with establishing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894, which led to the first modern Games in Athens two years later, it was in fact, Evangelos Zappas, a wealthy Greek philanthropist, who first wrote to King Otto of Greece in 1856 and offered to fund a revival of the Games.

The revival of the Olympic Games took place in Athens in 1859 in a city square, though Zappas further offered to fund the reconstruction of the Panathenaic Stadium for future events. Unfortunately, he died in 1865 before seeing the new stadium. Further Olympic Games occurred in 1870, 1875, and 1888 until Coubertin founded the IOC in 1894. Two years later, the first modern Olympic Games under the auspices of the IOC took place in Athens, in the new stadium financed by Zappas. And the rest is history.

Opening of the Olympic Games in 1896, Panathenaic Stadium, Athens | © Unknown / WikiCommons

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