The Olympic festival, therefore, is the paramount symbol of the spirit and unity of Ancient Greece.


Greatest among the known religious events in Greek antiquity was the Olympic Festival, dedicated to the god Zeus, supreme head of the ancient Greek Pantheon. The Olympic Games have their origin at the site of an important cult sanctuary at Olympia in the territory of Elis, 10km inland in the northwestern Peloponnese. Near the convergence of two rivers, the Alpheios and Kladeos, on a low, pine-covered hill bearing the name Kronos, the father of Zeus, is an ancient shrine called Altis, or ‘grove’ in the Elian dialect. A number of altars located in this area suggest that at least 6 other deities enjoyed cult worship here. From the 10C BC, Olympia imposed its authority throughout the Greek world, gradually developing from a humble cult site to an elaborate sanctuary complete with temples, secular buildings, statuary, and athletic facilities. By 776 BC, the Olympic Games were being held on a regular basis for five days, once every four years, during the hottest days of summer. Following many sacrificial offerings, the most magnificent of which was the offering of 100 head of cattle at the altar of Zeus, began a series of athletic contests in the stadium, the hippodrome, and other designated areas at the site. Thousands of spectators came from all over the Greek world to witness the games. Hostilities were suspended for the duration, which meant that all Greek city-states could participate. For however brief the time, under the sacred mandate of the Games, the Panhellenic world showcased the ideals of cooperation and political unity. The Olympic festival, therefore, is the paramount symbol of the spirit and unity of Ancient Greece.

The athletic contests, or agonas, held at Olympia included foot racing, wrestling, boxing, the pankration, equestrian events, and the pentathlon (running, jumping, javelin, discus, and wrestling). All Greeks, with the exception of women and slaves, were allowed to compete. Victory at the games brought glory not only to the athletes themselves, but even more importantly to the city-states they represented. Athletes were revered for their physical and moral virtues. Kpatereia , the high degree of endurance an athlete demonstrated during the long training period and his final performance, was considered a major virtue. An athlete was expected to suffer in silence and exhibit patience and fortitude in all aspects of his life. The main concern of competitors was to succeed in a balanced development of all physical and moral values. Victory was the greatest honor a mortal could achieve. He ‘agonized’ in honor of the gods and in thanks gave his victory to the gods, who were clearly on his side. The favor of the gods, along with the wide recognition afforded to the victors’ cities, was the greatest prize. A victor was crowned with a wreath of wild olive and afforded special honors in his hometow.

The spirit and intention of the Olympic Festival changed over its long history. The dedication of a series of increasingly more magnificent temples and other structures designed to facilitate the growing number of visitors and to honor the victorious city-states and athletes were erected. By the Roman period the sanctuary had acquired international fame and enjoyed Imperial benefits. Gradually, the bond between religion and athletic activity waned and the games became secular events, spectacles and even performances. The Games were then instituted in honor of the Roman Emperors. In 393 AD, at the command of the Christian Emperor of the Eastern Empire, Theodosius I, the Olympic Games met their end. Their reinstitution in 1896 marked a new beginning with new meaning for the formerly sacred Olympic Games.