The Olympic Games’ origin, starting from 776 BC, is a rich mix of myths and legends.
The countdown to the London Olympics has begun. The clock has started ticking and on the 27th of this month, the 30th Olympiad of the Modern Games will kick start in London. Turn the clock back by 116 years and you will end up in 1896 – the year the Modern Games began. But turn the clock back by more than 2500 years and you will end up in 776 BC – the time when it all began.
The original Olympic Games, also known as the Ancient Games, were believed to have been held in 776 BC. Several myths and legends narrate the story of the Games whose origin was in Olympia in Greece.
The most popular, by far, is that of Pelops, the ruler of Peloponnese - a small peninsula located to the south of present-day Greece.
Pelops, a descendant of Zeus (considered the King of Gods according to Greek mythology) was in love with Hippodamia, daughter of King Oenomaus of Pisa. Oenomaus, it is said, believed in a prophecy which predicted his death at the hands of his son-in-law. He would, therefore, challenge all possible suitors for his daughter to a chariot race where during the race he would overtake his opponents and cut off their heads. These heads would later adorn the columns of his palace.
When Pelops sought Hippodamia’s hand in marriage, Oenomaus invited him to a chariot race too. Pelops, clever that he was, sought the help of Poseidon (the Greek God of Sea) who presented him with a chariot with winged horses. Legend has it that Pelops won the race with the help of his horses and killed Oenomaus. The prophecy thus turned true as Oenomaus was killed by his son-in-law. To celebrate his triumph, Pelops organized the Games at the sacred site of Olympia in Peloponnese and the games came to be known as the Olympic Games after the place of their origin.
Another legend is about the famous and powerful mythological character Hercules (Herakles in Greek). Hercules was a Greek hero who was admired for his tremendous physical strength, bravery and adventurous nature. A lover of physical games, Hercules is popular in mythological lore for ‘The Twelve Labours of Hercules’, which were a set of difficult tasks set to him by King Eurystheus of Mycenae.
In one of his labours Hercules had to clean the stables of King Augeas of Elis ( a district in Peloponnese). The story goes that when Hercules claimed his reward for cleaning the stables, Augeas reneged on his promise of giving Hercules a portion of his cattle. Angered by this treachery, Hercules challenged Augeas to a wrestling match which he won. He later marked the place where he won the bout, built a temple for Zeus and instituted the Olympic Games in his honour.
Yet another story is about Zeus who is said to have started the Games himself after defeating his father Cronus in a struggle for the throne of Gods.
The legends surrounding the Ancient Games are many, yet their purposes seem to have been the same. They showcased the beauty of physical strength and celebrated the cult of Zeus. They also propagated friendly ties between the cities and colonies of Ancient Greece.
The Games continued for several centuries before the Roman Emperor Theodosius I abolished them in 393 BC, terming them as a ‘pagan cult’.
It took several centuries before a French man by name of Pierre de Coubertin, fought for their cause and successfully revived them in 1896. The first Olympiad of the Modern Games was held in the city of Athens, (capital of modern Greece) between the 6th and 15th of April, 1896. But for brief interruptions in 1919, 1940 and 1944 due to the two World Wars, the games continue to be held once in every four years, celebrating the physical strength of mankind and honouring the spirit of friendship between nations.