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 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
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
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 equestrian events.
The Pentathlon became an Olympic sport with
the addition of wrestling in 708 B.C., and
included the following:
Running / Long Jump / Discus Throw/Jabalin
Running contests included:
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
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
This was highly valued as a form of military exercise without
weapons. It ended only when one of the contestants admitted
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 opponent's face.
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
Today, the Olympic Games are the world's
largest pageant of athletic skill and
nationalism, commerce and politics. These
two opposing elements of the Olympics are
not a modern invention.
Olympia was one of the oldest religious centers in the ancient
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, or Egypt.
An international truce among the Greeks was declared for the
month before the Olympics to allow the athletes to reach
The judges had the authority to fine whole cities and ban their
athletes from competition for breaking the truce.
There were 3 other major games
which were held on 2- or 4-year
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.
The Olympics were open to any freeborn Greek in the world.
There were separate mens' and boys'
divisions for the events.
Women were not allowed to compete
However, they could enter equestrian
events as the owner of a chariot team
or an 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
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
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
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
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 the spot.
The Olympic festival brought huge numbers of
visitors to Olympia.
people slept outside, under the
stars, although the wealthy and members of
official delegations erected elaborate tents and
Merchants, craftsmen, and food vendors arrived
to sell their wares.
ceremonies, including sacrifices; speeches by
well-known philosophers; poetry recitals;
parades; banquets; and victory celebrations.