Ancient Olympic Games

THE beginning of authentic Greek history comes with the founding of the Olympic games. These were held every fourth year as a sort of religious festival in honor of the chief god Zeus; and so important were they considered that during their celebration a truce was proclaimed amid all the Greek cities. At other times the tiny states were continually fighting and plotting against one another; but on this great occasion the inhabitants of every city met at the shrine of Olympia in harmony as members of one religion. This was the beginning of their larger national life. They felt that they were all Greeks, all compatriots. So highly was victory in these games prized that each city devoted its best energies to training its contestants, and the various "Olympiads," or periods of four years separating the games, were named after the winner of the long-distance foot-race, which was the chief contest.

The earliest of these races of which we have any detailed knowledge was that won by Ladas. He was a Spartan youth, Sparta being foremost in these games as in all other Grecian affairs of those days. Ladas paid for victory with his life, falling dead at the feet of the judges even as they presented him with the palm of victory. This palm and a laurel wreath were the only direct rewards ever given to the victor; but the honor in which he was held would make him thereafter a leading man in his city. In Ladas' case, Sparta and several other cities erected statues to his memory, and his name became the traditional synonym for speed.

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Read about Ancient Olympic Games in the The Story of the Greatest Nations and the Worlds Famous Events Vol 1

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