Myth, Religion, and Athletics: What Happened at the First Olympic Games?

Unlike the grand spectacles of later Olympiads, the inaugural Games in 776 BC were humble in their simplicity. Here we explore what happened.


In the long annals of Greek history, few events resonate as profoundly as the origins and early developments of the Olympic Games. Emerging from the shadows of the so-called Dark Ages (c. 1100-800 BC), ancient Greece unfurled its cultural tapestry amid the verdant hills and valleys of Elis (Ilia), in the western Peloponnese. Here, against a backdrop of myth and ritual, the inaugural Olympic Games took root — a convergence of mythology, religion, and athletic prowess destined to leave an indelible mark on the course of human history.

Traditionally traced back to the summer of 776 BC, the date given in the Olympic victor list of Hippias of Elis, composed in the late 5th century BC, the inaugural Olympic Games — the legendary “1st Olympiad”  marked the genesis of a tradition that would endure for over a thousand years. These quadrennial celebrations, staged every four years, transcended mere athletic competition, evolving into a monumental ode to athleticism, the Greek ideal of beauty, Panhellenic unity, and divine reverence to the Olympian gods. Remarkably, the Games persisted, weathering the tides of conquest and empire until their final recorded incarnation in AD 393, under the rule of Roman Emperor Theodosius I.

 

As the torch ignites once more for the 33rd Olympiad of the Modern Era, slated to grace the streets of Paris this summer, we embark on a journey to unravel the mysteries of that fateful first gathering. Join us as we step back in time to explore the hallowed grounds of Ancient Olympia and witness the dawn of an extraordinary legacy — a legacy that continues to inspire awe and wonder around the world, in the hearts of athletes and spectators alike.

Mythological Origins

To the ancient Greeks, the origins of the Olympic Games were deeply intertwined with religion and mythology, serving as a bridge between mortals and the divine. Various legends attributed the Games to the gods and/or to divine heroes, perpetuating competing narratives about their beginnings.

Writing in the 2nd century AD, Greek historian and traveler Pausanias recounts a tale involving the Heracles, one of the Idaean Dactylii (not to be confused with Heracles of Twelve Labors fame), and his four brothers, who raced at Olympia to amuse the infant Zeus. The victor, crowned with an olive wreath, initiated the tradition of the Games occurring every fifth year, symbolizing peace and unity. Other Olympian gods, residing on Mount Olympus, were said to engage in athletic contests as well, including wrestling, jumping, and running races.

Another myth traces the Games’ origins to the story of Pelops, a revered local hero. Legend tells of king Oenomaus of the nearby city of Pisa, who, fearing a prophecy of his own death at the hands of his daughter’s husband, devised a deadly chariot race to challenge potential suitors — which he would always win. Pelops, smitten with the king’s daughter, Hippodamia (“she who masters horses”), sought victory through cunning and guile. He bribed Oenomaus’ charioteer, Myrtilus, to sabotage the king’s chariot with wax axle pins. During the race, the pins melted, causing Oenomaus to hurtle to his death. In gratitude and purification, Pelops held chariot races as funeral games for the fallen king, thus inspiring the inception of the Olympic Games at Olympia. Pelops rose as a revered king of Pisa, lending his name to the Peloponnese region — “Pelops’ Isle.” [In another, darker version of the tale, Pelops killed Myrtilus to cover his tracks, thus cursing his own family, the infamous House of Atreus, the dynasty of Agamemnon].

In another origin story, attributed to the 5th century BC lyric poet Pindar, the Games at Olympia are credited to the divine hero Heracles, who established the athletic competition to honor his father, Zeus, upon completing his Twelve Labors. Olympia, already a sacred site by the end of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1200 BC), became synonymous with the worship of Zeus, king of the gods, by the 10th century BC.

 

Whatever the origins of the Olympic Games, these myths underscore the Greeks’ belief that the Games were deeply rooted in religious worship and aimed to bring about peace and harmony by returning to the sacred origins of Greek life.

Athletics in the ancient world

In the ancient Mediterranean, a rich tapestry of athletic traditions flourished across various cultures. Depictions of athletic scenes adorned the tombs of ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian rulers, reflecting a cultural appreciation for physical and sporting prowess. However, scholars argue that formalized competitions were likely limited to the elite classes, with participation reserved for kings and nobles.

Among the Minoans of Bronze Age Crete, athletics held a revered status, with vibrant frescoes from the 2nd millennium BC depicting activities such as bull-leaping, tumbling, running, wrestling, and boxing. The Mycenaeans of the Greek mainland, influenced by Minoan culture, embraced some of these sporting pursuits, and introduced chariot racing into religious and funerary ceremonies.

 

In the literary realm, Homer’s epics, composed sometime in the 8th century BC, serve as a testament to the prevalence of athletic competitions in early Greek society. Within the pages of the “Iliad,” the heroes engage in a myriad of sporting contests, including chariot races, boxing, wrestling, foot races, fencing, archery, and spear throwing, all performed as tributes to the fallen – most famously the funeral games of Patroclus, as described in Iliad 23. The “Odyssey” expands upon this repertoire, adding the long jump and discus throw to the array of athletic feats showcased in the ancient Greek world.

The 1st Olympiad 

Shrouded in mystery, the precise timing of the inaugural Olympic Games remains a subject of scholarly debate and speculation. While the traditional date of 776 BC marks the purported inception of the so-called “1st Olympiad,” archaeological findings suggest a later commencement around 700 BC. Complicating matters further, the reliability of historical records, particularly the inscribed lists of victors’ names, remains contentious until the 6th century BC.

Despite these uncertainties, glimpses of the first Games do emerge. According to textual sources, the only known event was the “Stade” or “stadion,” a rudimentary running race spanning approximately 190m — the length of the ancient stadion at Olympia, from which the modern English term “stadium” derives.

To the east of the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, a specially designated stadion accommodated up to 20 competitors for this straight-line sprint. At the commencement of the race, a resounding trumpet blast signaled the start, while vigilant officials known as the “agonothetai” ensured fair play and adjudicated the victor at the finish line. We know from later Games that if a tie occurred, the race was rerun to determine a clear winner. 

Historians believe the competitors started the race standing upright, likely with their arms extended forward; a stance that appears in stark contrast to the crouched position familiar to modern sprinters. Soft underfoot, the track surface of the ancient stadion consisted of packed earth.

 

Thanks to artistic representations on vases and statuary, it is popularly believed that these early runners competed in the nude, which was certainly the case for later Games. However, Pausanias records that the first naked runner was Orsippus, an athlete from Megara, west Attica, who won the stadion race at the 15th Olympiad, in 720 BC. During the race, it was said that Orsippus deliberately discarded his garment because running without it was easier. Pausanias recalls that he was the “first of all Greeks to be crowned victor naked.”

We also know that participation in the first Olympic Games, as with all subsequent Olympiads, was open to freeborn Greek men only, representing their respective city-states — although, later on, women were allowed to take part in equestrian events.

For the first 200 years or so, only athletes from city states in close proximity to Olympia took part. Over time, the Games gained wider recognition, attracting athletes from around the Greek world.

The First Victor

According to tradition, Koroibos of Elis was the winner of the First Olympic Games and heralded as the “Olympioníkes” — overall winner.

For his triumph in the inaugural stadion race, Koroibos, Latinzed as “Coroebus,” received the coveted olive wreath, a symbol of victory and honor. His legacy endured, with the inhabitants of Elis venerating him long after his triumphant sprint. Centuries later, when the traveler-historian Pausanias was writing his famous “Description of Greece,” the location of Koroibos’ grave was still known; a testament to his immortal achievement.

 

The stadion foot race remained the only recorded event for the first 13 Olympiads. The “diaulos,” also known as the “double pipe,” made its debut at the 14th Olympiad in 724 BC. Athletes raced the equivalent of two stades, likely guided by marked lanes and turning around distinct posts before sprinting back to the starting line.

Long after the introduction of other events at the Games, the running races were still regarded as the most prestigious. As the philosopher Xenophanes (c. 570 – c. 478 BC) aptly noted: “Victory by speed of foot is honored above all.”

Despite the uncertainties surrounding its origins and the simplicity of its inaugural sporting event, the First Olympic Games ignited a flame of inspiration that has endured for nearly three millennia to the present day. From Koroibos’ triumphant sprint to the introduction of new competitions like the “diaulos” and subsequent events — boxing, wrestling, chariot racing, and so on (there was even a mule cart race!) — what took place at the 1st Olympiad laid the foundation for a tradition that would transcend borders and epochs.

While the grandeur of the modern Olympic Games may seem worlds apart from their humble beginnings in ancient Greece, the spirit of competition, unity, and excellence remains unchanged. As athletes from across the globe gather to test their mettle in the hallowed stadiums of the 21st century, they pay homage to the enduring legacy of the 1st Olympiad.



Read More

Editor's Pick

A Mourning Ritual with Ancient Roots: the Maniat Laments

In the villages of rugged Mani, women’s improvised poetry, the...


Peloponnese

Pylos: Exploring the Jewel of the Peloponnese’s Western Coast

Overlooking the Gulf of Navarino, the picturesque seaside town of...


Editor's Pick

Paul Cartledge: Alexander the Great’s Tomb Lies Under the Sea

Cambridge University ancient historian, Professor Paul Cartledge, discusses his thoughts...


Aegean Islands

The ‘8th Wonder’: Samos’s Incredible Eupalinian Aqueduct Restored

From May visitors will be able to visit this marvel...


Greece Is Blog Posts

An Ode to Local Products

BY Yiouli Eptakili

No more avocado toast and croque-madames. From Thessaloniki to Crete...

read more >

How Can Greece Become a Gastro-Tourism Destination?

BY Yiouli Eptakili

It’s about more than just taking a trip...

read more >

Leaving Room in Greece for Everyone

BY Greece Is

Labor Day, this year September 5, marks the...

read more >