Tradition has it that the first Olympic Games were celebrated in 776BC, although they may have been held earlier as many of the Greek Festivals were. They were held at Olympia, Greece once every four years. These four-year periods were known as Olympiads and the games were held until the Roman Emperor Theodosis I abolished them around 393AD/394AD.
These games were originally for Greek athletes but later included other nationalities. They were originally part of a Greek religious festival and began as a single event - a footrace the length of the stadium. The winners became national heroes and could be exempted taxes!
Even when other events were added the games were all held on one day. Early additions included "two length races", (approx 400m and double the length of the stadium), "long distance races" (maybe 1500 or 5000m), wrestling and the pentathlon (long jump, javelin, discus, foot race and wrestling). Later came boxing and chariot races. After 472BC the games were increased to four days competition with sometimes a fifth added for a closing ceremony and presentations.
The games were originally restricted to freeborn Greeks, and only for amateurs, with a wreath or garland as prize. The Apostle Paul was aware of Greek customs and may have been referring to these Olympic Games in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25 where he says: "Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown." And, again in 2 Timothy 4:7, he says "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."
Support for the games fell away after Rome took away Greek independence. The Romans looked with contempt upon athletes competing naked for the public. The Romans did, however, realize the value of the Greek festivals and indeed Roman games were held in abundance, but athletic events were of secondary importance to public spectacles. Rome liked the fighting events - wrestling, boxing and the pancratium (a type of gymnastic version of boxing and wrestling where almost anything goes).
In 1887 Baron Pierre de Coubertin conceived the idea of reviving the Olympic Games to export sportsmen to other lands as the free trade of the future and to give peace a new ally. He worked tirelessly to achieve this ambition and in 1895 it was decided to hold the first games in Paris in 1900. However this seemed too long to wait and Athens was deemed an appropriate city to hold the first games in 1896. The King of Greece opened the first of the modern Olympic games in Athens in April 1896. Since that time the number of participating nations and competitors, as well as the number of sports involved, has continued to increase.
Strict guidelines have been laid down to preserve the independence of the games and the spirit of amateurism. However rules have been changed to allow for sports people to be recompensed for time away from work for training and for appropriate clothing and equipment, so strict amateurism is not so applicable now. To some the nationalism and commercialism seem to be going the way of the Roman games, designed for the spectators, rather than the ideal of the Olympics. However for some athletes to compete in the Olympic Games is the pinnacle of their careers.