Situated in the beautiful valley of the Alpheios River in the nomos (prefecture) of Elia, Olympia (Olymbia in Greek) was never a city but a bucolic sanctuary.
The modern town was created only in the 20th century to serve visitors to this ancient center of Panhellenic sporting events (Olympic games) that were held every four years for over a millennium (776BC-394AD).
The original people of this area, and of the Peloponnese in general, have been named Pelasgians (Sea People, from the Greek word for 'open sea' (pelagos).
These original settlers were here from 3000 BC and were forced during the subsequent millennium into the central mountains by the Mycenaeans, who were in turn conquered by the Achaeans around 1250BC, bringing with them the Olympian sky gods, which they imposed on the native population.
The earlier peoples had worshipped the Earth Mother as the nurturing power of nature and of the underworld as well. The renaming of the rounded hill that symbolized the Earth Mother as Mt. Kronos in honor of the father of Zeus, summarized the supercession of masculine sky gods upon the earlier feminine Mother goddess.
Interestingly, Gaia (the Earth Mother) was wife of Ouranos/Uranus and mother of Kronos, who had overthrown his father and was in turn supplanted by his son.
The games that began in 776BC (known as the Festival of Zeus) manifested a compromise between the two religious systems and between their calendars, which were respectively lunar (feminine) and solar (masculine). The four-year cycles between games (known as Olympiads) derive from the alternation of these two calendars of 49 and 50 months.
The Games may have originated (and some say that this is probable) in an annual race of young girls which honored the goddess Hera Parthenos (Ira the Virgin).
Interestingly, according to the ancient Goddess tradition, the Earth Mother's virginity was perpetually renewed after her marriage to the sky god (in this case, Zeus, and the later institution of the men's games in fact represented just such a marriage).
In the race, girls ran in order of age, with the young girls first, the winners crowned with olive leaves in honor of Hera.
These girls' races had to be taken into consideration by the priests of the Temple of Zeus when the men's games began in 776BC, hence the alternation of calendars.
These first men's games were played in a sacred context, with the competitors from the various Greek city-states taking pride in their common identity as Greeks, and as a celebration of the ideal in human achievement, with speed, strength, agility and control the important features, though many of the sports related to skills necessary in war.
The change from local festivals held at the site around the 11th century BC to the quadrennial festival that included states from the entire Greek world of the time, seems to have come from the Oracle of Delphi, with the codification of rules drawn up by the ruler of ancient Elis (Elia), Iphitos, and Lycurgus (the Spartan ruler).
It was they who introduced the sacred truce, the Ekeheiria, which were announced by heralds prior to the festival and enforced for their duration, being broken only once (by Sparta, whose leader had drawn up the code, and was fined accordingly).