The aura that surrounds the single greatest physical competition the world knows is one that has it's origins springing from Greek mythology. There are numerous legends that attribute the original games to different larger than life characters but the most popular one has Heracles (or Hercules) as the son of Zeus creating the Olympics as a tribute to his father. There is some dispute as to the date of the very first games but the most commonly accepted date is 776 BC when the games were held in Olympia.
In line with the idea that they were a tribute to the god Zeus the games originally were more religious in nature and included sacrifices made to Zeus. A colossal statue of Zeus that constituted one of the wonders of the ancient world was erected at his temple site in Olympia, Greece. Other gods in general were also honored and the participants aimed not only for personal glory but to impress and hopefully please their gods through their strength and agility.
The year 776 BC thus marked the start of the first 'Olympiad' that is a reference to the period of four years that runs between the Olympic games or events and was calculated from the very start of the year that the Olympics were held in. Thus the Olympic Games of 2008 will be the start of the 29th Olympiad. The original games were open to any free male that had the ability to compete. Women, slaves and foreigners were not allowed to take part. It is even said that married women were originally restricted to only watching chariot races. Athletes competed in the nude and the original competitions centered on running. It is also attributed to Heracles that the basis for the 400 meter length as a 'lap' exists. This distance was referred to as a 'stadion' and is used in modern times as the basis for a track's circumference. With time the events expanded with the pentathlon" a combination of five events that included a 'stadion' or short foot race, wrestling, long jump, discus throw and javelin throw. Boxing and chariot racing were also introduced to the games. By the sixth or fifth century these games reached their peak of popularity.
Those that took part and won were highly regarded in ancient Greece. The immediate honor was to have a crown or wreath of olive leaves to be placed on their heads. Later, statues were made of them, they were immortalized in poems, and generally looked upon as national heroes.
As Greece declined in power and Rome grew to prominence the games eventually lost some of their luster. In the latter part of the fourth century when Christianity was proclaimed as the religion of the Empire the Games were banned as being a pagan festival. The modern day incarnation of this intense sporting event would begin to reappear in the middle of the 19th century with smaller attempts at reestablishing it up until the officially recognized internationally held games in 1896 in Athens.
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