Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic Games, is in the western part of the Peloponnese which, according to Greek mythology, is the island of "Pelops", the founder of the Olympic Games. Imposing temples, votive buildings, elaborate shrines and ancient sporting facilities were combined in a site of unique natural and mystical beauty.
Olympia functioned as a meeting place for worship and other religious and political practices as early as the 10th century B.C. The central part of Olympia was dominated by the majestic temple of Zeus, with the temple of Hera parallel to it. The ancient stadium in Olympia could accommodate more than 40,000 spectators, while in the surrounding area there were auxiliary buildings which developed gradually up until the 4th century B.C. and were used as training sites for the athletes or to house the judges of the Games.
The Olympic Games were closely linked to the religious festivals of the cult of Zeus, but were not an integral part of a rite. Indeed, they had a secular character and aimed to show the physical qualities and evolution of the performances accomplished by young people, as well as encouraging good relations between the cities of Greece. According to specialists, the Olympic Games owed their purity and importance to religion.
The Olympic victor received his first awards immediately after the competition. Following the announcement of the winner's name by the herald, a Hellanodikis (Greek judge) would place a palm branch in his hands, while the spectators cheered and threw flowers to him. Red ribbons were tied on his head and hands as a mark of victory.
The official award ceremony would take place on the last day of the Games, at the elevated vestibule of the temple of Zeus. In a loud voice, the herald would announce the name of the Olympic winner, his father's name, and his homeland. Then, the Hellanodikis placed the sacred olive tree wreath, or kotinos, on the winner's head.
All free male Greek citizens were entitled to participate in the ancient Olympic Games, regardless of their social status. Orsippos, a general from Megara; Polymnistor, a shepherd; Diagoras, member of a royal family from Rhodes; Alexander I, son of Amyndas and King of Macedonia; and Democritus, a philosopher, were all participants in the Games.
Married women were not allowed to participate in, or to watch, the ancient Olympic Games. However, unmarried women could attend the competition, and the priestess of Demeter, goddess of fertility, was given a privileged position next to the Stadium altar.
Although the ancient Olympic Games did not allow female participation, the Herean Games, staged every four years to honour Hera, wife of Zeus, gave female athletes the chance to compete.
ASTYLOS OF CROTON
Astylos of Kroton in southern Italy won a total of six victory olive wreaths in three Olympiads (488-480 B.C.) in the stade and the diaulos (twice the stade) events. In the first Olympiad, he ran for Kroton and his compatriots honoured and glorified him. In the two successive Olympiads, however, he took part as a citizen of Syracuse. The people of Kroton punished him by demolishing his statue in their city and converting his house into a prison.
MILON OF KROTON
Milon, a pupil of the philosopher Pythagoras, was one of the most famous athletes in Antiquity. He came from the Greek city of Kroton in southern Italy. He was six times Olympic wrestling champion. He first won in 540 B.C., in the youth wrestling event, and then five times in men's wrestling. This is a unique achievement even in today's competition context. He also won seven times in the Pythian Games, nine times in the Nemean Games, ten times in the Isthmian Games and innumerable times in small competitions. In the 67th Olympiad (512 B.C.), in his seventh attempt for the championship, he lost to a younger athlete, Timasitheus. There are many accounts of his achievements.
LEONIDAS OF RHODES
Leonidas of Rhodes was one of the most famous runners in Antiquity. His was a unique achievement, even by today's standards. For four consecutive Olympiads (164-152 B.C.), he won three races, - the stade race, the diaulos race and the armour race. He won a total of 12 Olympic victory wreaths. He was acclaimed as a hero by his compatriots.
MELANKOMAS OF KARIA
Melankomas of Karia was crowned Olympic boxing champion in 49 B.C., and was a winner in many other events. He went down in history for the way in which he fought. His movements were light, simple and fascinating. He would defeat his opponents without ever being hit himself, nor ever dealing a blow. He was reputed to fight for two days holding his arms out without ever lowering them. He attained his excellent competitive form through continuous and strenuous exercise.
KYNISKA OF SPARTA
Kyniska, daughter of King Archidamos of Sparta, was the first woman to be listed as an Olympic victor in Antiquity. Her chariot won in the four-horse chariot race in the 96th and 97th Olympiads, (396 B.C. and 392 B.C. respectively). In the Olympic Games, it was forbidden for women to be present and Kyniska broke with tradition, since, in the equestrian events, the victory wreath, or kotinos, was won by the owner, not the rider, of the horse.