The ancient Olympics were rather different
from the modern Games. There were fewer
events, and only free men who spoke Greek
could compete, instead of athletes from any
country. Also, the games were always held at
Olympia instead of moving around to different
sites every time.
Like our Olympics, though, winning athletes
were heroes who put their home towns on the
One young Athenian nobleman defended his
political reputation by mentioning how he
entered seven chariots in the Olympic chariotrace. This high number of entries made both
the aristocrat and Athens look very wealthy and
The ancient Olympic Games were initially a
one-day event until 684 BC, when they were
extended to three days. In the 5th century B.C.,
the Games were extended again to cover five
One difference between the ancient and
modern Olympic Games is that the ancient
games were played within the context of a
The Games were held in honor of Zeus, the
king of the Greek gods, and a sacrifice of 100
oxen was made to the god on the middle day
of the festival.
Athletes prayed to the gods for victory, and
made gifts of animals, produce, or small
cakes, in thanks for their successes.
According to legend, the altar of Zeus stood
on a spot struck by a thunderbolt, which had
been hurled by the god from his throne high
a top Mount Olympus, where the gods
Some coins from Elis had a thunderbolt
design on the reverse, in honor of this
The Greeks referred to the Sanctuary of
Zeus as the Altis. The name Altis came
from a corruption of the Elean word for
grove, alsos .
Sanctuaries were centers of religious
worship where the Greeks built temples,
treasuries, altars, statues, and other
The crowns made of olive leaves came
from a wild olive tree in the Altis, which
was called the olive of the Beautiful
Olive trees, which supplied the Greeks
with olive oil, olives, a cleaning agent for
bathing, and a base for perfumes, were an
important resource in the rocky and dry
A Greek legend credited the hero
Herakles (Hercules) with introducing the
olive tree to Greece.
The ancient Games included running, long jump,
shot put, javelin, boxing, pankration and
The Pentathlon became an Olympic sport with the
addition of wrestling in 708 B.C., and included
Running / Long Jump / Discus Throw/Jabalin Throw/Wrestling
Running contests included: the stadium race,
which was the pre-eminent test of speed,
covering the Olympia track from one end to the
other (200m foot race), the diaulos (two
stadium - 400m foot race), dolichos (ranging
between 7 and 24 stadiums).
Athletes used stone or lead weights called halteres
to increase the distance of a jump. They held
onto the weights until the end of their flight, and
then jettisoned them backwards.
The discus was originally made of stone and later of iron, lead or
bronze. The technique was very similar to today's freestyle discus
This was highly valued as a form of military exercise without weapons.
It ended only when one of the contestants admitted defeat.
Boxers wrapped straps around their hands to strengthen their wrists
and steady their fingers.
Initially, these straps were soft but, as time progressed, boxers started
using hard leather straps, often causing disfigurement of their
This was a primitive form of martial art combining wrestling and
boxing, and was considered to be one of the toughest sports.
Greeks believed that it was founded by Theseus when he defeated
the fierce Minotaur in the labyrinth.
These included horse races and chariot races and took place in the
Hippodrome, a wide, flat, open space.
THE CONTEXT OF THE GAMES
AND THE OLYMPIC SPIRIT
Olympic Games are the world's largest
pageant of athletic skill and competitive spirit.
They are also displays of nationalism, commerce
and politics. These two opposing elements of the
Olympics are not a modern invention.
The conflict between the Olympic movement's
high ideals and the commercialism or political acts
which accompany the Games has been noted
since ancient times.
Olympia was one of the oldest religious centers in the ancient Greek
Since athletic contests were one way that the ancient Greeks
honored their gods, it was logical to hold a recurring athletic
competition at the site of a major temple.
Also, Olympia is convenient geographically to reach by ship, which
was a major concern for the Greeks. Athletes and spectators traveled
from Greek colonies as far away as modern-day Spain, the Black Sea,
An international truce among the Greeks was declared for the
month before the Olympics to allow the athletes to reach Olympia
The judges had the authority to fine whole cities and ban their
athletes from competition for breaking the truce.
were 3 other major games which
were held on 2- or 4-year cycles:
The Isthmean Games at Corinth, the
Pythian Games at Delphi, and the
Nemean Games at Nemea.
Because it started 200 years before the
other competitions, the Olympics
remained the most famous athletic
contest in the ancient Greek world.
Olympics were open to any free-born
Greek in the world.
There were separate mens' and boys'
divisions for the events.
Women were not allowed to compete in
the Games themselves. However, they
could enter equestrian events as the
owner of a chariot team or an individual
horse, and win victories that way.
only were women not permitted to compete personally,
married women were also barred from attending the games,
under penalty of death.
Athletic competitions for women did exist in ancient Greece.
The most famous was a maidens' footrace in honor of the
goddess Hera, which was held at the Olympic stadium. There
were 3 separate races for girls, teenagers, and young women.
The length of their racecourse was shorter than the men's
5/6 of a stade (about 160 m.)
,instead of a full stade (about 192 m.).
The winners received olive crowns just like
Athletics were a key part of education in ancient Greece.
Many Greeks believed that developing the body was
equally important as improving the mind for overall health.
Also, regular exercise was important in a society where
men were always needed for military service.
The palaestra (wrestling-school) was one of the most
popular places for Greek men of all ages to socialize.
Many accounts of Greek daily life include scenes in these
wrestling-schools, such as the opening of Plato's Charmides.
Young men worked with athletic trainers who used long
sticks to point out incorrect body positions and other
faults. Trainers paid close attention to balancing the types
of physical exercise and the athlete's diet.
The Greeks also thought that harmonious movement was
very important, so athletes often exercised to flute music.
victor received a crown made
from olive leaves, and was
entitled to have a statue of
himself set up at Olympia.
His success increased the fame
and reputation of his community
in the Greek world.
It was common for victors to
receive benefits such as having
all their meals at public expense
or front-row seats at the
theater and other public
One city even built a private
gym for their Olympic wrestling
champion to exercise in.
who violated the rules was fined by the
judges. The money was used to set up statues of Zeus,
the patron god of the Games at Olympia.
In addition to using bribes.
Other offenses included deliberately avoiding the
training period at Olympia. One athlete claimed that
bad winds kept his ship from arriving in time, but was
later proved to have spent the training period
traveling around Greece winning prize money in
Another athlete was so intimidated by his opponents
that he left the Games the day before he was to
compete, and was fined for cowardice.
marathon was never one of the
ancient Olympic events, although its origin
dates back to another episode in ancient
In the 5th century B.C., the Persians
invaded Greece, landing at Marathon, a
small town about 26 miles from the city
of Athens. The Athenian army was
seriously outnumbered by the Persian
army, so the Athenians sent messengers to
cities all over Greece asking for help.
The traditional origin of the marathon
comes from the story how a herald
named Phidippides ran the 26 miles
from Marathon to Athens to
announce the Greek victory and died on
Olympic festival brought huge numbers of
visitors to Olympia.
Most people slept outside, under the stars, although
the wealthy and members of official delegations
erected elaborate tents and pavilions.
Merchants, craftsmen, and food vendors arrived to
sell their wares.
The busy schedule included religious ceremonies,
including sacrifices; speeches by well-known
philosophers; poetry recitals; parades; banquets; and