“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” (Epictetus)
“Many are the sights to be seen in Greece, and many are the wonders to be heard; but on nothing does Heaven bestow more care than on the Eleusinian rites and the Olympic games.” (Pausanias)
The Pan-Hellenic Games is the collective term for the four major sports festivals held in ancient Greece. These include the Olympic Games, held in honor of Zeus at Olympia every four years; the Pythian Games in honor of Apollo, held at Delphi every four years; the Nemean Games, held to celebrate Zeus and Heracles at Nemea near Corinth every two years; and the Isthmian Games, honoring Poseidon at Isthmia every two years.
The Olympiad, a period of four years, was one of the main ways the Greeks measured time. The Olympic Games were used as a starting point, effectively year one of the cycle. The Nemean and Isthmian Games were both held in different months in year two, followed by the Pythian Games in year three, and the Nemean and Isthmian Games again in year four. The cycle then repeated itself, with the Olympic Games starting the sequence again.
Being structured in this way ensured that individual athletes could participate in all of the games. Competitors came from all over the Greek world, including the Greek colonies, as well as Asia Minor and Spain, and the only main issue seems to be the expense. Competitors had to be relatively affluent to afford training, transportation, lodgings, and other costs associated with taking part. Women and non-Greeks were mostly prohibited from participation, except on extremely rare occasions when an exception was made. Perhaps, the most famous was when the Roman Emperor Nero was allowed to participate in the Olympics.
The main events at all of the games were chariot racing, wrestling, boxing, the pankration, the stadion, various other foot races, and the pentathlon. With the exception of the chariot race, all of the events were performed in the nude. While they are still well-known, the Olympic Games of ancient Greece are more relevant today than most people know, and the ways in which athletic sports pervade contemporary culture is comparable only to the spirit of athleticism in Hellenic Greece.
Today, a large section of the media industry is devoted exclusively to sports, and in some nations, sports even figures as a critical component of their identity. In America, the Super Bowl could be considered a holiday of sorts, and of course, today’s Olympic Games capture the attention of millions and millions of people around the world for two weeks.
The Olympic Games were all these things and then some. It was a ritualized spectacle of great cultural importance in Greece, as well as an international communion that celebrated both diversity and unity, but most importantly, it was an ode to the strength of the human body and a paean to the vigor of the human spirit.
For over a thousand years, from the eighth century BCE to the fourth century CE, competitors and spectators traveled from all over Europe and Asia Minor to attend the legendary contests, bringing with them not only their passion for athletics but also their poetry, music, arts, and ideas.
The ancient historian Strabo captured the spirit well when he described the Olympics: “[T]he glory of the temple persisted…on account both of the festal assembly and of the Olympian Games, in which the prize was a crown and which were regarded as sacred, the greatest games in the world. The temple was adorned by its numerous offerings, which were dedicated there from all parts of Greece.