When Were the First Olympics in History?

Living in France, it’s hard not to have heard of the 2024 Summer Olympics, as they’ll take place in Paris–and all around the city. It’s always an economic nightmare, the construction of equipment is shrouded in controversy, and the social element is particularly important this time here. Well, it’s complicated, it will pass, and someone will have to pay, but it’s another story. Today, I want to look into the history of the games, going back to when it all started!

When did the First Olympics in History Take Place?

Athletes from all around the world come together during the Olympic Games in an atmosphere of friendly competition. It’s not a modern event. In fact, the story started in ancient Greek.

As far as we know, the first-ever Olympics were held in the summer of 776 B.C. at Olympia, a holy site in southern Greece where Zeus, king of the gods, was worshipped. The ancient Olympics were a religious and athletic event that honored the creator of the Greek gods while fostering harmony and peace among the highly competitive Greek city-states. They were more than just a competition of athletic prowess.

The establishment of the Games has been attributed to the great hero Heracles (Hercules) and his father Zeus. After finishing his twelve tasks, Heracles constructed the Olympic Stadium in Zeus’ honor. It is also said that he invented the term “stadion,” which later became a unit of measurement, after taking 200 steps to measure the stadium’s length.

Religion and Games at the Original Olympics

With ritual offerings made in honor of Zeus and Pelops, a godly hero and legendary monarch of Olympia, the Games had religious significance. In Zeus’ temple at Olympia, a statue of the god made by the eminent sculptor Phidias stood majestously, indicating the god’s presence and heavenly patronage over the activities. Games winners were highly regarded, and poems and sculptures were created to honor them.

The ancient Olympics mostly consisted of athletic competitions, but they also incorporated combat games, demonstrating the ancient Greeks’ value of strength and skill. Running competitions were common; the stadion race, a 600-foot footrace, was the first one to be recorded in 776 B.C. Five other events—jumping, discus and javelin throwing, a foot race, and wrestling—were merged to form the pentathlon. There were also boxing, wrestling, pankration (a martial art with no holds barred), and equestrian sports.

The ancient Olympics were a representation of the city-states and kingdoms of Ancient Greece, unlike the modern Olympics, which attract athletes from all over the world. The competitors were all male natives of various Greek regions, ranging from Iberia in the west to the Black Sea in the east.

Peace among the Olympians

In a time of turbulence and frequent clashes between Greek city-states, the Olympics provided a rare opportunity for peace. A hallowed custom, the Olympic Truce–or Ekecheiria–saw participating city-states put an end to hostilities for the length of the Games. During this period, Zeus also provided protection for pilgrims going to Olympia, enabling them to pass through areas that were at war unharmed.

The 6th and 5th centuries B.C. are when the ancient Olympics were at their height, drawing competitors and spectators from all around Greece. However, the importance of the Games progressively waned as Roman influence and control spread over Greece. The Olympics were eventually outlawed by the Roman government in A.D. 393 as part of their efforts to eradicate paganism.

The 7th Olympic Games Vintage Sports Poster illustrated by Von Der Ven Walter in 1920. (source)

The Olympics Reborn

The Games lay dormant for centuries, but that changed in 1896. Everything started with A number of modest sporting events held in Europe during the 19th century that bore the names of the Classical Games. They served as the inspiration for the concept of revitalizing the Olympics.

French educator and historian Pierre de Coubertin was instrumental in promoting a multi-nation, multi-sport event. He hosted a meeting in Paris in 1894, where it was resolved to stage the first Games in Athens, Greece, in 1896 under Crown Prince Constantine’s sponsorship.

There were obstacles along the way to the 1896 Olympics. During that time, Greece had both financial hardship and political unrest, and there were questions regarding the viability of holding the Games. However, the Greek people’s patriotic spirit and Crown Prince Constantine’s impassioned engagement gathered support, generating money through a variety of channels, including the sale of tickets and special postage stamps.

The First Wins

Seven locations were used at the 1896 Summer Olympics, including the renowned Panathenaic Stadium, which was the site of four of the nine events. Sport shooting at Kallithea, fencing at the Zappeion, swimming in the Bay of Zea, and tennis at the Athens Lawn Tennis Club were the locations for the competitions. With the exception of the fencing competitions, these Games offered amateur athletes a venue for competition.

The Games, which were designed to promote international harmony and honor the pursuit of athletic greatness, succeeded in doing so despite the absence of female competitors and the difficulties encountered during the organization process. A total of 14 nations participated, with Greece, Germany, France, and Great Britain sending the largest delegations. The German Hermann Weingärtner won 4 medals, including one gold in Artistic Gymnastics, and the American James Brendan Connolly won 3 medals, one gold in Athletics.

Finally, the introduction of the Winter Olympics in 1924 broadened the scope of the Games by emphasizing winter sports.

Did you know that golf was first featured in the Summer Olympic Games official program in 1900 and 1904, but only came back in the official competition in 2016? On the other hand, basketball has been a sport (for men) consistently at the Summer Olympics since 1936.

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