The Modern Day Olympics – 2800 Years in the Making Part 1: The Quadrennial Games of Ancient Greece

Running a stade in Greece
A picture of a stade in Greece, on my tour of Europe in August, 1985
It was the first week of August, 1985. I was in Greece. And it was hot.

On a tour of Europe with some 50 American students ranging in age from 15 to 50, I was tired after half a day in a boat and buses. We had left Corfu, where we got about the beautiful resort island on Vespas, caressed by cool breezes and enchanting vistas. When we arrived in Delphi, close to midnight, the camping grounds were not ready to receive us, so we slept on a gravel lot.

Delphi was home to the Oracle, a priestess of Pythia who consulted to the rich and famous from the 7th century BC to the 4th century BC. But we didn’t visit the Oracle. Perhaps, hot and tired, I didn’t care. We did visit an ancient sports stadium, where the professor leading this band of students arranged foot races for us.

In ancient Greece, the most common foot race was a stade, which is about 200 yards (180 meters), and which was the length of a stadium. Our professor had us race the length of the stadium…and back…essentially the length of four soccer pitches…in the August mid-day sun. Two of our number passed out. I don’t recall my race. Maybe I passed out too.

Our mighty tour leader, Prof. Emmanuel Fenz, cheering us on.
But if I had known then what I knew now, I would have been ecstatic to be there! This was Greece – the birthplace of the Olympics. And Delphi was home to one of four athletic competitions, collectively regarded as the Panhellenic Games:

  • The Pythian Games: based in Delphi, the Pythian Games were held in honor of Apollo every four years – this was the location where Apollo was said to have killed a monstrous python.
  • The Nemean Games: based in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese, Nemea is where the Nemean Lion lurked, slayed by Heracles; the Nemean Games were held biannually in honor of Zeus.
  • The Isthmian Games: named after the Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow strip of land which connects Peloponnese with the rest of Greece, the Isthmian Games were like the Nemean Games,  held the same two years as the Pythian Games; these games were held in honor of Poseidon.
  • The Olympian Games: located in an area called Olympia, near the town of Elis on the Peloponnese peninsula, this was the first of the four quadrennial Games, starting in the 8th century BC. Of the four Games, this was the biggest and most prestigious. While the Olympian Games are dedicated to Zeus, it is at the Temple of Hera where the custom of igniting the Olympic flame takes place.

The order of these Games were as follows:

  1. Olympian Games
  2. Isthmian Games
  3. Nemean Games
  4. Isthmian Games

Over time, the word “olympiad” became a unit of time, a four-year period, a historical point of reference no doubt noted by the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron de Coubertin.

For a wonderful modern-day journey of these four locales, read this New York Times article, An Olympic Odyssey: Where the Games Began, by Bill Hayes.