The Ancient Olympic Games

by B.H. and S.H.

The Olympics were a celebration of the almighty Zeus, the powerful King of the ancient Greek Gods. As in the modern games, these great contests brought athletes from many countries, including those from Africa and Spain. (Swaddling, 1984) There is only disputed evidence as to when the first Olympic Games were held. There are records that show the first games took place in 776 B.C.; however, there is evidence to the contrary. Greek festivals celebrating religion, music, and athletes are thought to have occurred perhaps centuries before that date. (Girardi, 1972)

How they began

How the games started is also a matter of great speculation. There are two main tales or myths that describe the founding of the Olympics, both occurring in Olympia, Greece. The first tale is of Pelops, a suitor seeking Hippodamia's hand in marriage. King Oeomaus, Hippodamia's father, challenged anyone who wished to marry his daughter to drive Hippodamia away in a chariot faster than the King can catch them. Thirteen brave suitors tried this feat, and they all failed, resulting in death by King Oeomaus' spear. The tricky Pelops, however, managed to bribe King Oeomaus' servant to rig the king's chariot with a faulty axle. As Pelops and Hippodamia were driving away, the King's chariot axle gave way and he fell to his death. Pelops then had a wedding celebration, including athletic contests, with his fellow Olympians. Supposedly, those contests were the first Olympics. (Kieran, Daley, and Jordan, 1977)

The other tale of the games' origin includes references to Greek mythology. Hercules, the son of Zeus, was forced by Hera to kill his children. In order to redeem his honor, he had to serve King Eurestheus, his cousin, who commanded him to complete twelve labors. Hercules supposedly organized the Olympic Games to celebrate his completion of the fifth labor, cleaning all of Augeas' horse stalls in one day. By holding the festivities, he was thanking Zeus for his help in completing the labor. (Girardi, 1972)


In the modern Olympics, there are only opening and closing ceremonies. However, in the ancient Olympics, there were ceremonies and little rituals all the way through the five day event. Swaddling (1984) notes that the judges and athletes had to swear to the statue and altar of Zeus Horkios that they would judge fairly and would not tell any secrets that they might discover about other athletes. Finley and Pleket (1976) note that, in Olympia, there was a shrine for Zeus Horkios, and one for Zeus Olympios. Finley and Pleket (1976) say that there were no games on the first day, just the ceremony before the statue and altar of Zeus. These ceremonies also included huge feasts. Swaddling (1984) adds that in later Olympics there were events for the boys, heralds, and trumpeters on the first day. On the second day, along with some sports, there were many festivities including feasting, a parade, and choral singing. On the third day, there was a procession to the altar of Zeus. At the alter, there would be a hekatomb, a sacrifice of 100 oxen (slay them and then burn their thighs). The rest of the meat was saved for later that night, when there was a huge feast. Also, on this day, all of the footraces were held. The fourth day was all sports, with no public sacrifices or ceremonies. On the fifth and final day, the prizes were awarded. There were also long feasts held for, and by, the victors. Then, the contestants and spectators finally went home.


The only event in the first thirteen Olympiads was the stade race. Keiran, Daley, and Jordan (1977) said it was ". . . the foot race of approximately 200 yards, straightaway, this being the length of the athletic ground minus the marginal requirements for starting and finishing. The athletic field inside the stadium itself was 234 yards long, and 35 yards wide." (p. 14) However, Swaddling (1984) disagrees and states, "It was the stade, or short footrace, that determined the length of the stadium at Olympia." (p. 44) The races were run in heats, and the last racer remaining was the winner.

Over the next 580 years, events were added and taken away. At the fourteenth Olympiad, 724 B.C.E., the diaulos was added. This race was two lengths of the stadium. At the next Olympiad, the dolichos was added. This race was twenty or twenty-four lengths. (Swaddling, 1984)

In the eighteenth olympiad, 708 B.C.E., different types of events were added- the pentathlon and wrestling. According to Swaddling (1984), the five events in the pentathlon were discus, jumping, javelin, running, and wrestling, in that order. Finley and Pleket (1976) state that in discus the contestants were each given five throws, and his best throws were counted. There were not many records of discus. One, however, states that a famous athlete had a throw of 30 meters (the current world record is 67.5 meters). Swaddling (1984) says that the long jump was the only type of jumping event in the ancient Olympics. "The Greeks used jumping weights called halteres." The jumper would swing them as far forward as he could during take-off and swing them backwards as he landed. (p. 54) The halteres came in different sizes and shapes, some looking like telephone receivers, and others like dumbbells with thumb and finger indentions. The javelins were usually made from light wood and a leather thong was used as a grip. In competition, an athlete would run with the javelin horizontal to his ear. When he reached the start line he would throw the javelin. The competitors would get three chances. Finley and Pleket (1976) and Kyle (July/August, 1996) say that the running portion of the pentathlon was probably about 200 meters long.

According to Swaddling (1984), there were two types of wrestling: upright and ground. "The distinction was in the type of hold and the method of deciding the victor. In the first (upright) the object was to throw the opponent to the ground. Three falls were necessary to win..." (p. 57) If your back, hip, or shoulder touched the ground, that was considered a fall. A ground wrestler lost by acknowledging defeat. He did this by raising his right index finger. Upright wresting was used in the pentathlon and the individual wrestling competition. Ground wrestling was used in a later sport, pankration. Milo was the most famous wrestler. He won five Olympiads, and attempted his sixth around the age of forty. He lost to a younger man, but the crowd still cheered for him and carried him on their shoulders (the winner also joined in the crowd). (Swaddling, 1984)

At the twenty-third Olympiad, in 688 B.C.E., boxing was added. Boxers fought until they either collapsed or admitted defeat. The boxer wore leather thongs on their hands as a sort of boxing glove. Swaddling (1984) says, "Although they were known as 'soft' gloves, their purpose was probably to protect the knuckles rather than avoid injury to an opponent." (p.64) As time went on, new boxing thongs were invented. They evolved to become harder and harder. If no one went down or gave up, the boxers often agreed to exchange blows until one collapsed.

Eight years later, in the twenty-fifth Olympiad, a four-horsed chariot race, or tethrippon, was added. Finley and Pleket (1976) note that although racers in the outside lanes had a longer distance to run, a mechanical device opened the gates in sequence. This way the outside lanes had a longer distance to travel, but they got to leave first. The owners of the horses were rarely the ones racing them. They would hire someone to race for them, but if the racer won, the owner would be proclaimed winner.

Later, in the thirty-third Olympiad, pankration was added to the list of events. This was like a form of extreme wrestling, where the only types of hits not allowed was gouging with the thumb and biting. Kyle (July/August, 1996) says, "Wrestling, boxing, and pankration were known as the 'heavy' events," (p. 31) because there were no weight classes or time limits. A pankriatist won the same way a boxer did. A famous pankriatist named Sostartos was nicknamed "Mr. Finger-tips," because he would break his opponents fingers early in the match to make them surrender. The horse-race was added at the thirty-third Olympiad also. The rider was usually paid by the owner, just like in the tethrippon. In this race, however, the jockey rode bare-back on one horse.

In 632 B.C.E., at the thirty-seventh Olympiad, a footrace and wrestling were added for boys between the ages of 12 and 18. Finley and Pleket (1976) say that the race was 22 meters long. In 628 B.C.E., the pentathlon for boys was added. However, it was immediately canceled for no apparent reason. Swaddling (1984) suggests that it was probably "too exacting," or strenuous. (page 49) At the forty-first Olympiad, boys boxing was added.

The last footrace to be added was the hoplitodromos, in which the contestants wore armor. This was added during the sixty-fifth Olympiad in 520 B.C.E. Swaddling (1984) says "Competitors wore a helmet and greaves (armor for the legs) and carried a rounded shield." (p. 44) Sometimes their bodies were covered entirely in armor. It is unknown, however, how long the race was.

The next event to be introduced was the apene, or mule cart race, in the seventieth Olympiad in 500 B.C.E. In 496 B.C.E., the calpe, or the single mare race, was added to Olympic competition. The apene and the calpe were both discontinued in 444 B.C.E. at the eighty-fourth Olympiad.

At the ninety-third Olympiad, in 408 B.C.E., the synoris was added. This was a race with two horses. Swaddling (1984) notes that this event was probably one of the oldest, since it is depicted on ancient pottery.

In the ninety-sixth Olympiad, a new innovation was introduced. There were competitions for the heralds and trumpeters. However, it is not known in which events they competed.

Chariot racing for teams of four colts were added three Olympiads later in 384 B.C.E. Swaddling (1984) says that in this race, "the rider dismounted for the last stretch and ran beside his horse." (page 73) Chariot racing for teams of two colts, added in the 128th olympiad, was presumably run in the same fashion. Another race for colts was added in the 131st olympiad, 256 B.C.E., and was probably conducted in the same manner as the horse race, riding on one horse with no saddle or stirrups. The last event to be introduced, according to Swaddling (1984), was pankration for boys in 200 B.C.E., at the 145th Olympiad.


Map of Olympia

The map at left shows the ancient structures where the athletes trained and competed. To see a large version of the map and see the identifications of the areas, click on the map.

The site of all these events was Olympia, Greece. It was about fifteen kilometers from the Ionian Sea. Olympia was built on a grassy plain, north of the Alpheios River and south of the forested hills of Kronos. The buildings of Olympia formed a small "V" around Kronos Hill. The most prominent structures of Olympia were the gymnasium, the stadium (for the footraces), and the hippodrome (for horse races). These were situated at the tops of the legs of the "V," the gymnasium on the left, and the stadium and hippodrome on the right. The altar at which the contestants took their oaths (on the first day) was believed to have been the place that Zeus threw a lightning bolt. The area was declared sacred and was where the sacrifice of 100 bulls took place. Each year, the ashes from the bulls were mixed with water from the Alpheios to make a paste. This paste was used in the formation of a stone base at the bottom of the altar. The temple of Zeus was another great site at Olympia. It took ten years to build and was finally finished in 456 B.C.E. Inside, it held the grand statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the world. (Swaddling, 1984)


Back in the ancient times there were no rich advertising contracts with shoe companies or other endorsement deals. These athletes competed mostly for pride, patriotism, and religious honor. However, some popular athletes were paid large sums of money, up to ten times the annual salary of a soldier, to participate in smaller athletic contests near their home towns. (Kyle, July/August, 1996) The Olympic winners received a wreath made of a sacred olive tree branch. The branches were cut from the tree which grew in the backyard of the Temple of Zeus and was supposedly planted by Hercules. (Swaddling, 1984) There is conflicting data dealing with when the wreaths were presented to the athletes and where the ceremonies took place. One version states that the athletes were crowned immediately following their contest, similar to medal ceremonies in the modern games. Another version is that after the contest, the victor was given a ribbon to be tied around their head. This would be a temporary prize until the end of the games, when the winners would all be awarded at the same ceremony in the Temple of Zeus. (Swaddling, 1984)

How they ended

The collapse of the ancient Olympics actually began before the Romans invaded Greece. A wave of interest in books and the arts swept through Greece turning the attention of the youth away from sports and honor. According to Paleologos (1976), the famous philosopher Socrates was charges with corrupting the youth because his teachings made them stray from athletics. When the Romans conquered Greece, they turned stadiums into amphitheaters (Paleologos, 1976) and replaced athletes with slaves who were forced to fight against wild beasts. While this new form of "sport" was enjoyed by the commoners and Roman soldiers, it took away from the ceremonial honor that the Olympics represented. Early Christians were against the Olympics because they were a celebration for the Roman gods. One of the first Christian emperors of Rome, Theodosius the Great, discontinued the Games indefinitely in 394 A.D., after 320 Olympiads and after about 1200 years (Henry and Yeomans, 1984) of competition to honor the gods.


For more information on this subject, check out these websites:

Tufts University

Dartmouth University

This webpage was written by B. Huberty and S. Hudzik, 3/23/98, for History and Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.

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