Since the beginning of time the Greeks have admired the beauty and greatness of the athlete and made him famous throughout Greece, much as the players reported in the sports pages are today. The winners brought fame to the cities from which they had come, and the townsfolk, as well as the aristocrats idolized them. The contests drew men from all over Greece, for the coveted prize of a wreath made of wild olive leaves. Great prestige was bestowed upon the winners. Kings and aristocrats offered their daughters in marriage, and poetry was written about them. Their fame grew throughout the Greek-speaking world. Often sculptors would use the athletes as subjects for their work, and these art works would be displayed on the main streets of the towns from which the athletes came.
Both men and gods participated in the Games, and as a prime requisite, all must speak Greek, and must swear they have been in rigorous training for the preceding ten months. Slaves could compete, but only if their language was Greek - in short, no foreigners were allowed.
The Olympic Games were a religious event dedicated to the glory of Zeus, and to celebrate athletic prowess. They consisted of contests of the Long Jump, Javelin Throw, Discus Throw, Wrestling and Boxing, as well as Foot Races. Though the games were a religious festival, there was a military aspect to them. Contests such as the Javelin Throw, and the Discus Throw taught potential soldiers how to throw a spear and rocks in battle.
The Foot Races were the oldest of the games, and included running for different lengths. The shortest was a "stade" -- one-length of the course, which was eventually called "Stadium". The longest foot race was 20 lengths, called "dolichos". There was also a two-length race for men wearing helmets and carrying shields.
The grassy glade and the forest surrounding it had various temples built among the trees dedicated to various deities .The largest and most sacred of them was dedicated to Zeus circa 475 BCE. There was also a large training area where the athletes prepared for their events. Women were not allowed to participate in the Games, not even as spectators.
The field for the Foot races was marked at the beginning with places for 20 men, four feet apart at the starting line. The participants were usually naked, and wore no shoes to race. The course was grassy, though the starting line was of stone, which can still be seen today. Later on, Chariot Races were added to the contests.
Heracles is believed to be the initiator of the Olympic Games, although Pelops is also mentioned as its founder. They took place every four years. Previous to that time, he had participated in foot races in Crete, near Mt. Ida, where, it is said, foot racing had been enjoyed since before recorded time. The Olympic Games soon became the most celebrated of the Pan-Hellenic Games, the others being the Pythian Games at Delphi (where the winners received laurel wreaths), which was also every four years, and two more, which were held every two years, the Nemean Games at Argolis, and the Isthmian Games at Corinth, all on the Peloponnesus.
Participants and their sponsors made sacrifices to Zeus and other deities before the races to encourage the gods to make them swift and powerful. The festival drew great crowds of people, as well as venders of food and drink, arts and crafts, pottery and other goods, not unlike a country fair. There was music of the lyre, as well as hymns sung in praise of the gods. The athletes who were participating in the Games erected tents in which to rest and prepare for the events.
The athletes trained relentlessly, as the Games were very competitive. The word "agony" in English stems from the training the athletes committed themselves to. To ease the "agony" of the training there were from the very beginning, baths and steam rooms, made of marble and stone, with furnaces under the floors to produce steam and hot water for the popular "hip" baths in which the athletes could soak.
The Games at Olympia soon became one of the most important and popular festivals during the Greek years. Wars temporarily stopped while the soldiers went to Olympia to compete. When the Games were over, they went back to their battlefields and resumed the wars.
Travelers to the Games were not molested by highwaymen if they were going to the Games, and politicians flocked there to do their politicking in the stimulating atmosphere. Many a law was formulated among the many trails that surrounded the center, and many a treaty was made between otherwise warring parties. Olympia's popularity as a religious festival and influential event lasted right into the Roman period, continuing its importance in the life of the populace at large.