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The Olympic Games

The ancient Olympics first took place in 776 BC at a place called Olympia, a sacred site dedicated to Zeus, king of the gods. (Located in the Alpheus river valley in southern Greece, Olympia should not be confused with Mount Olympus, located in northern Greece and legendary home of the major Greek gods.) Olympia was not only the original site of the Olympics; it was the permanent venue for 293 successive Olympics- one every four years for almost 1200 years. Among the ancient Greeks, a pilgrimage to Olympia to see the athletic events and to participate in the sacrifices to Zeus and other festivities was something of great importance and many people attended several times. Because it was a pagan festival it conflicted with the growth and spread of Christianity and Roman emperors, who were Christian, banned the Olympics around 400 AD.

For the first dozen or so Olympic games there was only one athletic event and that was the stadion or 200 meter (210 yard) race. The distance corresponded to the length of the stadium track. Later, other events were added. In the beginning the athletic contest lasted only one day but that was later increased with the addition of other competitions. The athletes, all male, competed naked. Since there were no stopwatches, there are no records of the winning times but the names of the winners and the various events they won over the years were carefully documented. Records show that in 724 BC a 400 meter (420 yd.) race was added and then, in succeeding years, other events (wrestling, boxing, chariot races, pentathlon, and longer distance races) were also included, increasing the success and popularity of the games.

Those headed off to the Olympics were making a religious pilgrimage and anyone who interfered with their passage was deemed to have committed a sacrilege against Zeus himself- something no Greek would do lightly. Wars were suspended, personal feuds were put on hold, and bandits and mercenaries took a holiday so that the travelers could make their way to and from the Olympic site without fear for their safety. Depending on the distance and the weather, it could be a daunting trip. Despite the difficulties a remarkable number of Greeks, including Socrates, made the trip and made it more than once.

Socrates offered the following advice to a timid prospective spectator.

What are you afraid of? Don't you walk around all day in Athens? Don't you walk home to have lunch? And again for dinner? And again to sleep? Don't you see that if you string together all the walking that you do in five or six days anyway you can easily cover the distance from Athens to Olympia?

For the athletes it wasn't just a matter of showing up on the day of the competition and performing. 30 days before the games began; athletes had to register in person before the ten Olympic judges. Many would be accompanied by their personal trainers and coaches. The first thing that the judges did was to ensure that the athlete presenting himself was truly Greek and eligible to compete. The second thing was to make certain that those who wanted to compete were capable of doing so at the highest level. To that end, the judges conducted trials and workouts calculated to weed out those at the weaker end of the spectrum. The competitors ate together at a common mess to ensure that no one gained an advantage with secret recipes and magic potions. It is interesting to note that there were no team sports at those Olympics.