Olympian Games, most famous of the four ancient games held in ancient Greece, the other three being the Isthmian, Pythian, and Nemean games. The Olympian Games were held in honour of Zeus and took place every four years at Olympia, the location of the deity’s principal shrine. The games were officially founded in 776 bc, the first year in which an official list of victors was kept, although the tradition of holding a sporting contest had probably begun before then. The list of winners from 776 bc to ad 217 is preserved in the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea. With the exception of the priestess of Demeter, no women were allowed to watch the games. Pottery dating from around 550 bc shows men taking part in the games naked or wearing only a thong.
The Olympian Games were held in the summer, and early in each year of the games, envoys were sent throughout the Greek world to invite the city-states to join in paying tribute to Zeus. The city-states would send deputations to vie with one another in the splendour of their equipment and in athletic feats. The competitions were open only to honourable men of Greek descent.
The games were greatly expanded from a one-day festival of athletics and wrestling too, in 472 bc, five days with many events. The order of the events is not precisely known, but the first day of the festival was devoted to sacrifices. On the second day, the foot-race, the main event of the games, took place in the stadium, an oblong area enclosed by sloping banks of earth. On other days, wrestling, boxing, and the pancratium, a combination of the two, were held. In wrestling, the aim was to throw the opponent to the ground three times. Boxing became more and more brutal; at first, the pugilists wound straps of soft leather over their fingers as a means of deadening the blows, but in later times hard leather, sometimes weighted with metal, was used. In the pancratium, the most rigorous of the sports, the contest continued until one or the other of the participants acknowledged defeat.
Horse-racing, in which each entrant owned his horse, was confined to the wealthy but was nevertheless a popular attraction. After the horse-racing came to the pentathlon, a series of five events: sprinting, long jumping, javelin-hurling, discus-throwing, and wrestling; their exact sequence and the method used to determine the winner are not known. The discus was a plate of bronze, probably lens-shaped; the javelin was hurled with the aid of a strap wound about the shaft, producing a rotary motion for greater distance and accuracy. The jumping event was judged for distance, not for height. The closing event was a race run in armour. The winners received olive wreathes as prizes, and brought much glory to their cities. They were frequently celebrated by poets and lived the rest of their lives at public expense.
The Olympiad, the period of four years between each occurrence of the Olympian Games, was used by the Greeks as a convenient system of dating; it appears mainly in literature, beginning about 300 bc in the writings of the historian Timaeus, who died in 260 bc. The Olympian Games reached their height of popularity in the 5th and 4th centuries bc. They were abolished in about ad 393 by the emperor Theodosius I. The Olympian Games were the inspiration for the modern Olympic Games, the international athletic competition held every four years at different locations throughout the world, that were inaugurated in 1896.