Let the Games Begin

Historical notes


Atalanta: Races? Like, you and me running to see who's fastest? -- Hercules: Right, but there could be more events than that. You could throw the javelin or the discus, and how about some kind jumping contest?

Though some sources insist that up until the 14th Games, competition consisted of just one (about 175-192 metres) foot race, Pindar in 'Olympian Ode 10' gives detailed list of the winners in the Olympic Games held by Herakles, which included foot race, wrestling, boxing, four-horse chariot race, throwing the javelin and stone.

Hercules: This is perfect. I mean, for running and jumping, throwing the discus and the javelin. Huh, I can't believe no one's ever found a use for such a beautiful place.

Whoever started the Olympics, he selected for this festival the area in Elis of great natural beauty. The serene plain spreads south by the green feet of the Mount Kronion, where the two large rivers Alpheus and Cladeos meet. In olden times it was full of wild olive trees, poplars, oaks, pines and plane trees.

Hercules: What do you think we should call these games? -- Salmoneus: We should call it the Olympics. Huh? Its majestic. Its evocative. Its-- its OLYMPIAN... unless this brings up your family troubles. -- Hercules: No. I like it. The Olympics.

The site called Olympia is best known for the Olympic Games. It is in the Elis (Eleia) and really far from Mount Olympus. In the ancient time it was famous for the sacred grove of Zeus hospitable to all.

Salmoneus: I know what the Olympics need! Prizes! <...> -- Atalanta: If you ask me, I think a wreath of olive branches is all we need for each winner.

The olive trees were highly thought of by Greeks - they supplied the people with the oil, olives, a cleaning agent for bathing, a base for perfumes, and a timber. In one version of the legend the olive tree was a gift from Athena, while another credited Herakles with introducing this beneficial tree to Greece. At Olympic Games the simple crown made of wild olive leaves was sufficient to immortalize the victor, his family, and his city.

<...> tosses up around his hair the gray-green adornment of olive leaves, fulfilling the ancient behests of Herakles; the olive which once the son of Amphitryon brought from the shady springs of the Danube, to be the most beautiful memorial of the Olympian contests. (Pindar "Olympian Ode 3")

Hercules: Salmoneus, we need to find a symbol for these games. -- <...> -- Salmoneus: Wait a minute! We cant start without the Olympic torch.

The torch races were not part of the Olympics in the ancient Greece. "There were instituted particular games of the torch, to the honour of Prometheus, in which they who ran for the prize carried lighted torches; and as any one of these torches happened to go out, the bearer withdrew himself." (F.Bacon "Wisdom of the Ancients")

Still the fire was a part of the ritual. Archaelogical Museum of Olympia keeps decorative fresco painting from 5th century BC, depicting the moment the Olympic flame is lit by the priests (Hellanodikae) to commence the Games.

Hercules: Welcome to the first Olympics. I hope you discover the spirit of the games-- that there are other ways for men to compete-- than on the battlefields. I salute the Spartans-- for being brave enough to set aside their weapons-- and participate in these events. And equally to the Eleans-- who had the courage to honor us, by doing the same.

The 5-day period of sacred truce for the duration of the Olympic Games was called 'ekecheiria'. All hostilities ceased, armed people were not allowed to enter Elis, visitors to the Games had to be safe coming to and from them.

Brontus: No womans got any business in the Olympics. -- Hercules: The Olympics are open to anybody. You ready, Atalanta?

Women were not permitted to compete personally except as owners in the horse racing events. Married women were also barred from attending the games, under penalty of death. Only maidens and priestesses of Demeter were allowed to attend.

Damon: You see how Spartan women are?

Archidamus [king of the Spartans] had also a daughter, whose name was Cynisca; she was exceedingly ambitious to succeed at the Olympic games, and was the first woman to breed horses and the first to win an Olympic victory. After Cynisca other women, especially women of Lacedaemon, have won Olympic victories, but none of them was more distinguished for their victories than she. (Pausanias "Description of Greece" 3.8.1)


Despite our knowledge of the Olympic Games, not much is really known neither about the origins of these competitions nor why they were the most prestigious. Some ancient authors considered Herakles, eldest of the Dactyls of Ida (trustees of newborn Zeus), to have been the first to have held the games, and to call them Olympic as he contended with his brothers in a running-race. Others said that the games trace their origins back before recorded history when Cronos wrestled Zeus at Olympia. Several myths tell of the founding of the Games by ancient hero Pelops either to purify himself for murder or as an act of thanksgiving to the gods for victory. Most sources say that Herakles, son of Zeus, introduced the Olympic Games as a celebration of his conquest of Elis.

<...> The laws of Zeus urge me to sing of that extraordinary contest-place which Heracles founded by the ancient tomb of Pelops with its six altars, after he killed Cteatus, the flawless son of Poseidon and Eurytus too, with a will to exact from the unwilling Augeas, strong and violent, the wages for his menial labor. <...> And he called it the Hill of Cronus; it had been nameless before, while Oenomaus was king, and it was covered with wet snow. <...> Time moved forward and told the clear and precise story, how Heracles divided the gifts of war and sacrificed the finest of them, and how he established the four years' festival with the first Olympic games and its victories. (Pindar, Olympian Ode 10)


<A long list of kings who held Olympian Games> Augeas too held them, and likewise Heracles, the son of Amphitryon, after the conquest of Elis. The victors crowned by Heracles include Iolaus, who won with the mares of Heracles. So of old a competitor was permitted to compete with mares which were not his own. Moreover, Iolaus used to be charioteer to Heracles. So Iolaus won the chariot-race, and Iasius, an Arcadian, the horse-race; while of the sons of Tyndareus one won the foot-race and Polydeuces the boxing-match. Of Heracles himself it is said that he won victories at wrestling and the pancration. (Pausanias "Description of Greece" 5.8.3-5.8.4)


The first piece of information that seems to have some historical weight, concerns renewal of the Olympic Games by Iphitus and Lycurgus (in corroboration Pausanias described disk with their names he witnessed in the temple of Olympia). It was said that Iphitus, King of Elis, sought the consultation of the oracle at Delphi in order to stop the civil strife. The oracle gave him an advice to renew the Olympic Games and Iphitus summoned the famous law-giver and King of Sparta, Lycurgus, to the task.

Interesting to note that during the Games Iphitus (according to Pausanias) persuaded Eleans to make sacrifices to Herakles, whom they were accustomed to consider their enemy.


Although the real date of the event is unknown, it is common to regard 776 BC as the year of the first renewed Olympics.


Timon from Tauromenion (3rd century BC) was the first historian to use numeration of the Olympiads to affix a date to historical events. Ever since all Greek chronology is based on time reckoning by Olympiads.


In 393 AD, after the 293th Olympics, the Games were abolished by the Roman Emperor Theodosios the Great with the edict, which forbaded all pagan festivals.


The Games were revived in the marble stadium in Athens by a French pedagogue and historian Pierre de Couberten, who saw athletics as a way of improving the educational system in France and the Olympic Games as a means or harmonizing the world.

The first recent Olympic Games were organised exactly one century before the episode "Let the Games Begin" hit the air - in 1896.


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