Ancient Greek Olympics

The ancient Greeks were passionate athletes. They loved the sport and attended many “Pan-Hellenic” (all-Greek) games. The biggest sporting event was the Olympic Games.

Every four years for about a millennium (776 BCE – 393 CE), the strongest and fastest athletes in the Mediterranean would gather and compete at the place called Olympia on the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece.

Facts about the Ancient Olympics

  • The celebration of Gods – The games were a part of a great religious festival. The participants celebrated the victory of the king of gods, Zeus, over another god, Chronos.One legend says that the first winner and founder of the Olympics was Hercules, who raced against his brothers and earned a wreath made of sacred olive.
  • Wars would stop. – The Olympics were so important to the Greeks that they would stop all the wars and battles between the city-states during the course of the games.That way, people from all parts of the Greek world could come and participate in this huge event.The Athenians, Spartans, and other Greeks would compete against each other, in the spirit of fair play.
  • Only free-born Greeks were allowed to contest.Only the wealthy could dedicate the time and resources to attend the Olympics.
  • No one kept the record of times and distances that the victors achieved.The aim was not to beat a record. It was only important to win over everyone else and be the best of the best.
  • The contestants were completely nude during all the major events.
  • Ancient Greeks counted time according to the Olympics. A four-year interval between the games was called an Olympiad.
  • Girls had a separate competition. – During the Olympics, unmarried young women competed in a 25-meter foot race called the Heraean Games, in honor of the goddess Hera.Also, women could take part in the main games as chariot owners.
  • Huge prestige – The winners of the ancient Olympic Games, as well as their descendants, used to be highly esteemed.That’s why Alexander the Great participated (and won) the games. Before he was allowed to participate, Alexander had to prove his Greek ancestry. Roman emperors Tiberius and Nero also won the games.
  • Cheating was strictly forbidden – people who were caught cheating were publicly humiliated and bitten.
  • Even a winner could die – the famous Arrhichion of Phigaleia who had won the pankration (see below) more than once, died at the very moment when his challenger admitted he was beaten.
  • The famous wrestler, Milo of Croton, who won at five games in a row, had an interesting method of training.He would take a grown-up cow and carry it around for months.
  • Before Michael Phelps won his 13th Olympic medal, the man who held the record for the largest number of individual Olympic titles was Leonidas of Rhodes.Leonidas had won 12 titles in three disciplines: stadion, diaulos and hoplitodromos.
  • The emperor Theodosius I banned ancient Olympic Games around 393 CE, along with all other pagan festivals.

The Original Olympic Disciplines

  • Running – the stadion, the diaulos, the dolichos, and the hoplitodromos
    • The stadion (or stade) was a 200-meter sprint race, and it was the only Olympic discipline in the first thirteen competitions.
    • The diaulos was a race to the end of the stadium and back.
    • The dolichos was a long-distance foot race (no one knows for sure, but it was somewhere between seven and twenty-four laps of the track).
    • The Hoplite race (hoplitodromos) was a sprint race under full armor.
  • Combat – wrestling, boxing, and the pankration
    • Wrestling rules were very strict. To win, someone needed to force his competitor’s back, shoulders, or hips to the ground three times in a row.
    • Ancient boxers wore leather strapping instead of gloves, and there were no rounds – a match would last until someone was knocked out.
    • Pankration was extremely violent and dangerous. It involved boxing and wrestling techniques, as well as kicks and chokes.In fact, everything except biting and gouging was allowed. Many contestants died during the fight.
  • Pentathlon consisted of five disciplines. During one day, the athletes would compete in discus and javelin throw, running, long jump, and wrestling.If somebody managed to win the first three events, he would be proclaimed the winner and the remaining two events would be canceled.
  • Equestrian – the horse races and the chariot races were hugely popular.They were also the most prestigious events in the Olympics, because you needed to be really wealthy to own and transport such horses.


What was the prize at the Olympics?

The winners did not receive material prizes other than a wreath of olive or laurel leaves. The main prize was the fame of being an Olympic victor.

Were women allowed to compete?

Unmarried women could participate as chariot owners, and they could race in the Heraean.

Which sport was most dangerous?

It was pankration.

Which Greek and Roman emperors won the games?

Alexander the Great, Tiberius, and Nero

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