On this day in 776 BCE, the first Olympic games opened in Olympia, Greece.
Staged in the open plains of Olympia, the first Olympic games were designed as a set of athletic contests to honour the Greek god Zeus and other Greek deities. The games were also a political tool of sorts, an opportunity for ancient Greek city-states to solve civil wars, assert dominance, and announce political alliances. The ancient Greek Olympics were held every four years during a midsummer’s full moon, to allow games to be played into the night. The games weren’t open to all: only free-born male Greek citizens not accused of murder or sacrilege were eligible to participate. For these privileged few, training would begin as much as a year in advance of the games. A month before the games commenced, athletes would move to Olympia for final training and to learn the rules of fair play and honourable competition. Rules were similarly strict for spectators. As with the athletes, only free men not convicted of sacrilege could attend the games, many of which were played nude. Nonetheless, the Olympic games were an anticipated festival by all residents of the Greek city-states who traveled from far and wide to join the festivities. Even for those who couldn’t attend, the games provided an opportunity to buy and sell goods, hear and recite poetry for money, negotiate business deals, and even sign peace treaties.
The games typically commenced with a simple footrace and a sacrifice to the gods, for whom the games were established as a religious tribute. Following days included chariot races, horse races, the pentathlon, or athletic competition comprising five different events, plus wrestling, boxing, and more. On the fifth day of the first Olympic games, a victory banquet was held, beginning with a procession to the Temple of Zeus, where each winner received a wreath of olive branches and crowds showered them with flowers. The night was reserved for feasting, drinking, and merry-making before athletes returned to their respective city-states the following morning.
As the centuries wore on, the Olympic games became increasingly long, complex, and varied. They continued for nearly 12 centuries until Emperor Theodosius banned the games in 393 CE as a pagan exercise. The games were reinstated in the late 19th century.