Archaeology Odyssey 7:4, July/August 2004

When the Games Began

Sport, Religion and Politics Converged in Ancient Olympia

By David Gilman Romano

It’s one of history’s curiosities. A rural sanctuary of Zeus in a relatively obscure part of Greece—far from the bustle and brilliance of Athens—became the site of the most famous athletic-religious festival of the entire ancient world, the direct precursor of the modern Olympic Games.

As in antiquity, we call these celebrations Olympiads, and we number them sequentially. Athletes from around the world participate in events also contested in long-ago Olympia: the javelin, the long jump, footraces, wrestling and boxing. Even the words we use to refer to these events are often the same (“discus,” “pentathlon”), as are the names of places for competition and training (“gymnasium,” “stadium” and “hippodrome”).a

According to the fifth-century B.C. Greek poet Pindar,

If you wish to celebrate great games

look no further for another star

shining through the sky

brighter than the sun

or for contests greater than the Olympic Games.1

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