Although records cannot verify games earlier than 776 B.C., the contests in Homer's Iliad indicate a much earlier competitive tradition. Held in honor of Zeus in the city of Olympia for four days every fourth summer, the Olympic games were the oldest and most prestigious of four great ancient Greek athletic festivals, which also included the Pythian games at Delphi, the Isthmian at Corinth, and the Nemean at Argos (the Panathenaea at Athens was also important). The Olympics reached their height in the 5th–4th cent. B.C.; thereafter they became more and more professionalized until, in the Roman period, they provoked much censure. They were eventually discontinued by Emperor Theodosius I of Rome, who condemned them as a pagan spectacle, at the end of the 4th cent. A.D.
Among the Greeks, the games were nationalistic in spirit; states were said to have been prouder of Olympic victories than of battles won. Women, foreigners, slaves, and dishonored persons were forbidden to compete. Contestants were required to train faithfully for 10 months before the games, had to remain 30 days under the eyes of officials in Elis, who had charge of the games, and had to take an oath that they had fulfilled the training requirements before participating. At first, the Olympic games were confined to running, but over time new events were added: the long run (720 B.C.), when the loincloth was abandoned and athletes began competing naked; the pentathlon, which combined running, the long jump, wrestling, and discus and spear throwing (708 B.C.); boxing (688 B.C.); chariot racing (680 B.C.); the pankration (648 B.C.), involving boxing and wrestling contests for boys (632 B.C.); and the foot race with armor (580 B.C.).
Greek women, forbidden not only to participate in but also to watch the Olympic games, held games of their own, called the Heraea. Those were also held every four years but had fewer events than the Olympics. Known to have been conducted as early as the 6th cent. B.C., the Heraea games were discontinued about the time the Romans conquered Greece. Winning was of prime importance in both male and female festivals. The winners of the Olympics (and of the Heraea) were crowned with chaplets of wild olive, and in their home city-states male champions were also awarded numerous honors, valuable gifts, and privileges.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.