The First Olympics Ever: A Veritable Free-For-All Of Mayhem

By | September 3, 2020

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Bas-relief depicting two wrestlers competing at Olympics. (The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Ah, the Olympics, when the world sets aside its differences and sends its best athletes for a few weeks of friendly competition in the name of sportsmanship and international relations. Although the pandemic robbed us of the Summer Games this year, we can take the time to look back at the original Olympic Games in Ancient Greece, a bloody, naked, and horrific affair with few rules and an abundance of mayhem. 

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Olympia in Ancient Greece. (Pierers Universal-Lexikon/Wikimedia Commons)

The First Olympics

The first Olympic Games documented in writing were held in 776 B.C.E. in the Greek city-state of Elis, but the Games are likely much older than that. In fact, they may have been held for 500 years prior to that first recorded event. Although it was billed as a religious festival in honor of the Greek god Zeus, it had the atmosphere of a frat party, with some 40,000 attendees. There was plenty of drinking, feasting, and fornicating—the Games were a goldmine for the sex workers of Ancient Greece, who could make as much money in the five days of the Olympics that they usually made in an entire year. On the third of the five-day festival, a herd of cows was ritualistically sacrificed in Zeus's name. A small portion of meat was presented as a token to Zeus, but the rest of the meat was barbecued and fed to the crowds.

The Ancient Greeks took their Olympics very seriously. According to legend, when the Persians invaded Greece in the summer of 480 B.C.E. and Greece called upon its city-states to send soldiers to fight them off, they all responded with a polite "no," citing the importance of finishing the Games before they could deliver their people.