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The temple of Hera in Olympia, Elis, Greece

The temple of Hera in Olympia, Elis, Greece

Once every four years, men from all over Greece came to compete in a great athletic festival in Elis, in western Greece (The men wouldn’t let women compete). This was called the Olympic games because the place was called Olympia. The Olympic Games were a religious festival to honor the Greek gods Zeus and Hera.

Nobody knows when men first began celebrating the Olympic Games. The Indo-Europeans (the Yamnaya) may have brought the idea with them from Central Asia. But there were certainly already Olympic Games in the time of Homer, by 776 BC. People celebrated the Olympic Games from then on, every four years without fail, until people converted to Christianity and the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned the games in 393 AD. That’s more than a thousand years! The games were so regular that people used them to date by. They would say, “I was born in the second year of the twenty-fourth Olympiad” (starting from 776 BC). Can you figure out what year that would be in our reckoning?

When it was time for the games, the rulers of Elis sent out messengers all over Greece and to the Greek colonies around the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. They declared a truce throughout the Greek world for a month. No matter who you had a war with, you had to stop the war and let their athletes and performers go through your city-state safely to get to the Olympic Games. Each city-state paid for a few athletes from their city to travel to Elis. But if you had ever been enslaved, or if you had ever done anything against the gods, then you couldn’t be in the Olympics. And, the men had to swear that they had already trained for at least ten months. This meant that only men who were pretty rich could be in the Games, so they could afford to take so long off work, and also pay a trainer.

Learn by doing: hold your own Olympic games
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Bibliography and further reading about the Greek Olympics:

The Ancient Greek Olympics, by Richard Woff (2000). From Oxford University Press.

Hour Of The Olympics (Magic Tree House 16) by Mary Pope Osborne (1998). A good beginning reading series. You can also get a research book about the Olympics to go with this storybook.

Sport and Society in Ancient Greece, by Mark Golden (P. A. Cartledge and Peter Garnsey are series editors)(1998). Mark Golden’s an entertaining writer, and this book is a good general introduction.

The Naked Olympics : The True Story of the Ancient Games, by Tony Perrottet (2004). What were the Olympics really like? Hot, sweaty, and stinky, according to Perrottet. An entertaining read for adults.

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