Although records cannot verify games earlier than 776BC, the contests in Homer's Iliad indicate a much earlier competitive tradition.
The Olympics reached their height in the 5th-4th Centuries BC thereafter they became more and more professionalized until, in the Roman period, they provoked much censure.
They were eventually discontinued by Emperor Theodosius I of Rome, who condemned them as a pagan spectacle, at the end of the 4th Century AD.
The Olympic spirit
Among the Greeks, the games were nationalistic in spirit states were said to have been prouder of Olympic victories than of battles won.
Women, foreigners, slaves, and dishonoured persons were forbidden to compete.
Contestants were required to train faithfully for 10 months before the games and had to take an oath that they had fulfilled the training requirements before participating.
At first, the Olympic games were confined to running, but over time new events were added: the long run (720 BC), when the loincloth was abandoned and athletes began competing naked; the pentathlon, which combined running, the long jump, wrestling, and discus and spear throwing (708 BC); boxing (688 BC); chariot racing (680 BC) the pankration (648 BC), involving boxing and wrestling contests for boys and the foot race with armor (580 BC).
Greek women, forbidden not only to participate in but also to watch the Olympic games, held games of their own, called the Heraea.
These were also held every four years but had fewer events than the Olympics. Known to have been conducted as early as the 6th Century BC, the Heraea games were discontinued about the time the Romans conquered Greece.
Winning was of prime importance in both male and female festivals. The winners of the Olympics (and of the Heraea) were crowned with chaplets of wild olive, and in their home city-states male champions were also awarded numerous honours, valuable gifts, and privileges.
The Modern Olympics
The modern revival of the Olympic games is due in a large measure to the efforts of Pierre, baron de Coubertin, of France.
They were held, appropriately enough, in Athens in 1896, but that meeting and the ones that followed at Paris (1900) and at St. Louis (1904) were hampered by poor organization and the absence of worldwide representation.
The first successful meet was held at London in 1908; since then the games have been held in cities throughout the world.
World War I prevented the Olympic meeting of 1916, and World War II the 1940 and 1944 meetings.
To the traditional events of track and field athletics, which include the decathlon and heptathlon, have been added a host of games and sports - archery, badminton, baseball and softball, basketball, boxing, canoeing and kayaking, cycling, diving, equestrian contests, fencing, field hockey, gymnastics, judo and taekwondo, the modern pentathlon, rowing, sailing, shooting, soccer, swimming, table tennis, team (field) handball, tennis, trampoline, the triathlon, volleyball, water polo, weight lifting, and wrestling.
Olympic events for women made their first appearance in 1912. A separate series of winter Olympic meets, inaugurated (1924) at Chamonix, France, now includes ice hockey, curling, bobsledding, luge, skeleton, and skiing, snowboarding, and skating events.
Since 1994 the winter games have been held in even-numbered years in which the summer games are not contested.
Until late in the 20th Century the modern Olympics were open only to amateurs, but the governing bodies of several sports now permit professionals to compete as well.