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Early Olympic Games

The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BCE in Olympia, Greece. Held between Greek city-states, they allowed any Greek-speaking free man to compete. Games were held every four years at Olympia until 393 CE. In the year of the Games, messengers were sent throughout the Greek-speaking world to announce them and invite the city-states to join. The Games lasted for five days and victors won wreaths, money, and lasting acclaim.

Background of the Games

The Olympic Games were part of the Panhellenic Games. These were four separate Games, at two or four year intervals. They were arranged such that there was at least one set of Games per year, though the Olympic Games were more prestigious than the Nemean, Pythian, or Isthmian Games. During the Games, the Olympic Truce was in effect. Wars were suspended, armies could not enter Olympia, and the death penalty could not be carried out during the truce. It was meant to ensure athletes' safe passage to the Games and it was generally respected.

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Events at the Games

The earliest Games had only a footrace, but other events were added over the years. The first day of the events revolved around religious ceremonies, especially the 100 oxen traditionally sacrificed to Zeus. The second day was devoted to footraces. Other days included boxing, wrestling, and the pankration, which was a combination of boxing and wrestling similar to today's mixed-martial arts. Boxing became more brutal as time went on; fighters sometimes wound their fingers with straps of leather adorned with metal. There were no rules and no rest periods; gouging, kicking, biting and the breaking of limbs were all completely acceptable and the contest ended when one man surrendered or died. In the latter case, the dead fighter was proclaimed the winner. Wrestlers had to throw their opponent to the ground three times to win. The pankration was the most challenging sport and lasted until one competitor acknowledged defeat or was judged to be incapable of continuing.

Horse racing was limited to horse owners, usually the wealthy. The owners didn't need to be present, however, so wealthy women could enter the equestrian events and records indicate that some did. Some even won those events the Spartan princess Kyniska was the first woman to do so; she won them twice. After horse racing came the pentathlon: sprinting, wrestling, long jumping, javelin hurling, and discus throwing. The exact order of the events is unknown, as are the standards by which an athlete won. The Hoplite race closed the Games this was a footrace wearing full or partial armour, a shield, and a helmet or greaves. The last day culminated in a feast consisting of the 100 oxen sacrificed on the first day.

Olympiads Record Dates

Until the fifth century BCE, Greek city-states did not have a uniform method for keeping track of dates. The four-year period between Olympic Games was known as an 'olympiad.' As of the third century BCE, historians began using the olympiad in their writings as a way to record dates. This convention of using olympiads lingered long after the Games stopped taking place and it has allowed modern scholars to pinpoint dates, including the starting year of the Olympic Games itself.

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