The ancient Olympic Games were the largest of the four Panhellenic games, and took place every 4th year. First held in 776 B.C. at Olympia, Greece, the Games started as a short festival to honor the Greek god Zeus. In 776 B.C. they were only a local one day event, with little more than religious sacrifices and running races.
Religion played a major part in the ancient Olympics. Sacrifices of oxen and other animals were performed during the festivities, as well as prayers to the gods for luck in victory. After a while, though, the religious meaning became slightly overshadowed by the competitive aspect of the Games.
Only certain people were allowed to participate in sporting events during the ancient Olympics. No women could be athletes, and the penalty was high for women who were discovered. Men were restricted also. If they weren't from Greece, or couldn't speak Greek, they couldn't participate. Who was allowed into the final matches would be determined during preliminary matches, much like the preliminaries in today's Olympics.
The Olympics were highly competitive, on an individual level instead of today's team competitiveness. Winning brought the athlete and his town much fame and honor. The names of winning athletes were recorded from the time the Games began in 776 B.C., making the victorious athletes immortal, in a sense. The prize for winning an event was an olive branch wreath, olive trees being sacred to the ancient Greeks. Though few athletes cheated in the ancient Olympics, some did. Cheating was a shameful disgrace, and those people who were caught cheating were fined.
There was a great amount of honor in winning an Olympic event. By being victorious, some athletes became leaders in their communities' political groups. Even men who had been blamed for major political and social problems sometimes redeemed themselves by winning an Olympic olive branch wreath. The time around the Olympic festival was held in such high esteem politically and socially that even people who had been banished from their towns and cities were allowed to come back.
For a period of time before and during the Olympic Games, an international truce was called. Fighting ceased, and no large groups of soldiers were allowed in Elis, where Olympia was located. No one was allowed to break the peace of the Games, even executions were prohibited. People who broke the truce were fined heavily.
The Olympic festival was a great time for growth in the cultural arts. Sculptors made realistic statues of athletes playing their sports. Clay vases, bowls, and the like were painted with scenes of athletes training, sports being played, and Olympic ceremonies. Famous poets from Greece and the surrounding countries wrote poems and songs about victorious athletes, helping to make the winners' names immortal.