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
Like our Olympics, though, winning athletes
were heroes who put their home towns on the
map. 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 oneday 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 religious festival. 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 assembled. Some coins
from Elis had a thunderbolt design on
the reverse, in honor of this legend.
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
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 Greek environment. 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 equestrian events.
The Pentathlon became an Olympic sport with
the addition of wrestling in 708 B.C., and
included the following:
Running / Jumping / Discus Throw
Running contests included: the stade 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
stades - 400m foot race), dolichos (ranging
between 7 and 24 stades).
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
The discus was originally made of stone and later of
iron, lead or bronze. The technique was very similar
to today's freestyle discus throw.
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 (himantes) 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
THE CONTEXT OF THE GAMES
AND THE OLYMPIC SPIRIT
Today, the 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.
conflict between the
Olympic movement's high
ideals and the commercialism
accompany the Games has
been noted since ancient
Olympia was one of the oldest
religious centers in the ancient Greek
world. 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.
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, or
An international truce among the
Greeks was declared for the month
before the Olympics to allow the
athletes to reach Olympia safely. The
judges had the authority to fine whole
cities and ban their athletes from
There were 3 other major
games which were held
on 2- or 4-year cycles:
the Isthmean Games at
Games at Delphi, and
the Nemean Games at
Because it started 200
years before the other
Olympics remained the
most famous athletic
contest in the ancient
The 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
events as the owner of a
individual horse, and win
victories that way.
Not 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
track; 5/6 of a stade (about 160
m.) instead of a full stade (about
192 m.). The winners received
olive crowns just like Olympic
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
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
A 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
One city even built a private
Anyone 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 other competitions.
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.
The marathon was never one of the
ancient Olympic events, although its
origin dates back to another episode
in ancient Greek history.
In the 5th century B.C., the Persians
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
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 the spot.
The Olympic festival brought
huge numbers of visitors to
Olympia. Most people slept
although the wealthy and
members of official delegations
erected elaborate tents and
pavilions. Merchants, craftsmen,
and food vendors arrived to sell
The busy schedule included
religious ceremonies, including
sacrifices; speeches by wellknown philosophers; poetry
recitals; parades; banquets; and
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