The year 776 BC

In 776 BC, Koroibos from Elis won the stadion, the only contest on the program of the Olympic games at that period. With this victory the traditional list of Olympic victors begins, and also the time-reckoning in olympiads.

It is not clear, however, whether the games of 776 were really the first Olympic games. Already the ancient writers disagreed on this. Some place the first games in 776 BC, others earlier. They do agree, however, on the broad outlines of the earliest history of Olympia. After their example, we can divide the early history in three major periods.
* In mythical times the games were held irregularly. Every time they were organized by a legendary person, e.g. Herakles, Pelops and Oxylos. These were usually funeral games, like the funeral games for Patroklos in the Iliad.
* The second period was a time of decline, in which the games were neglected.
* The third period starts with the official reinstitution of the Olympic games. Three political leaders are connected with this reintroduction: Lykourgos of Sparta, Iphitos of Elis and Kleisthenes of Pisa. Their treaty was solemnly inscribed on a bronze discus, which was kept in the temple of Hera at Olympia. Pausanias saw this discus in the second century AD.

P252Some authors, among them Pausanias, place the reinstitution in 776 BC. Others think that 776 was only the year when the official list of victors started. In this view, the games started about a century earlier, but had in their first century a strictly local character. They were so small-scale that the names of the victors were not recorded.
In the eighth century BC the games continued to be a local affair. The first victor from outside the Peloponnesos is found in 720 BC, and he comes from nearby Megara.

To discover the historical start of the Olympic games, archaeologist excavated the site of Olympia. They found bronze tripods that are older than 776 BC. It is not clear, however, whether these were prizes for the athletes or votive offerings.

© KU Leuven, 2012