According to tradition, the most important athletic competitions were inaugurated in 776 B.C. at Olympia in the Peloponnesos. By the sixth century B.C., other Panhellenic (pan=all, hellenikos=Greek) games involving Greek-speaking city-states were being held at Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia. Many local games, such as the Panathenaic games at Athens, were modeled on these four periodoi, or circuit games. The Pythian games at Delphi honored Apollo and included singing and drama contests; at Nemea, games were held in honor of Zeus; at Isthmia, they were celebrated for Poseidon; and at Olympia, they were dedicated to Zeus, although separate games in which young, unmarried women competed were celebrated for Hera. The victors at all these games brought honor to themselves, their families, and their hometowns. Public honors were bestowed on them, statues were dedicated to them, and victory poems were written to commemorate their feats. Numerous vases are decorated with scenes of competitions and the odes of Pindar celebrate a number of athletic victories.
At the core of Greek athletics was an individual’s physical endeavor to overtake an opponent. For this reason, sports in ancient Greece generally excluded team competitions and performances aimed at setting records. Contests included footraces, the long jump, diskos and javelin throwing, wrestling, the pentathlon (a combination of these five events), boxing, the pankration (a combination of wrestling and boxing), horse races, and chariot races. During competition and training, athletes were usually naked and covered with olive oil to keep off the dust. They trained in the gymnasium or xystos (covered colonnade), often coached by past victors. The Greeks believed that their love for athletics, among other things, distinguished them from non-Greeks, and only Greek citizens were allowed to compete in the games.
Hemingway, Colette, and Seán Hemingway. “Athletics in Ancient Greece.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/athl/hd_athl.htm (October 2002)