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The Ancient Olympic Games

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The ruins of Ancient Olympia in Springtime.

The modern Olympic Games have been around since 1896. This puts them into the class of 'new invention' when compared with the original Olympic Games, which ran every four years in ancient Greece for over a thousand years.


Unlike the modern games, which are held in a different location every four years, the ancient games always took place in Olympia, a site in the Western Peloponnese of Mainland Greece. The games were part of a festival in honour of the god Zeus, most important of the Greek gods.

Olympia is not a city, but a religious site. It is in the wide valley of the river Alpheios, one of the biggest rivers in the Peloponnese. A smaller river, the Kladeos, flows into the Alpheios, and Olympia is situated at the junction of the two rivers. Unusually for Greece, the area is wooded. The heart of Olympia was a particular grove known as the 'Altis' which was considered sacred to Zeus: a temple was built to honour the god. Olympia took its name from Mount Olympos, the supposed home of Zeus, although that mountain is in a different part of Greece.

Around the start of the 8th Century BC, a competitive running race took place as part of the religious rites. There are two different legends describing how this started:

  • In one, Heracles, the superhuman son of Zeus, instituted the race as a celebration of his success in the fifth of his 12 Labours. He was given the task of cleaning the Augean Stables in a single day, and did it by diverting the Alpheios river through the stables.

  • In the other legend, the hero Pelops defeated the evil King Oenomaus of Pisa in a chariot race, by cheating – he bribed the professional charioteer to remove the axle pin from the chariot. During the race, the wheel came off and the king was thrown to his death. Pelops became king in his stead. He instituted the foot race at Olympia as a thanksgiving to Zeus for allowing him to succeed.

Legends notwithstanding, the race probably took place informally on a few occasions, but was formalised as the first Olympic Games in 776 BC. Subsequent to that, the games took place every four years (with one exception we'll mention later) until they were finally disbanded in 393 AD. The cycle of games was so regular that Greek histories count their dates from the Olympics – for example, the 3rd year of the 77th Olympiad. The games took place at the second1 full moon after the summer solstice, so they were in early August.

The Games become Famous

As the games became more famous throughout Greece, more and more spectators arrived, and the events became more elaborate. The original games were just a single day. Eventually the festival was extended to five days and people came from all over the Greek-speaking world. Where there are crowds, there is money, so Olympia grew rich, and more temples were built. A much bigger temple was built to Zeus, and the original temple was rededicated to his wife, the goddess Hera.

As the games became more lucrative, two rival cities fought for control of the games and the income from them. One was Pisa, a city just two kilometres to the east of Olympia. The other was Elis, about 35km to the north-west. The fighting between these two cities eventually became a full-blown war, with Elis trouncing Pisa in about 500 BC. After that, the control of the Olympic Games was entirely in the hands of Elis for the rest of their history.

The Games probably reached their greatest renown in about the 5th Century BC. The site was able to afford to build a massive statue of Zeus for the temple, so big it was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Decline and Fall

In later years, the games became less important, and by Roman times, they were considered to be a bit of an oddity; by then, many of the athletes were professionals rather than the original amateur volunteers. Nevertheless, the games continued to be held every four years, and still in honour of the god Zeus.

Eventually, in 393 AD, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I decreed that Christianity, which up to then was the principal religion of the Empire, should become the only religion. The old pagan gods were outlawed, and the Olympic Games, because they were in honour of Zeus, were closed down.

The statue of Zeus was removed and brought to the capital of the Empire, Constantinople, and was later destroyed in a fire. The site of Olympia was abandoned. Earthquakes and landslides demolished the buildings and covered most of them up. Flooding from the nearby Kladeos and Alpheios rivers covered up or swept away the rest and eventually even the location of Olympia was forgotten.

The site was rediscovered in 1766 by Englishman Richard Chandler, and excavated by German archaeologists in 1875. With the exception of a few bronzes which went to the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens, everything found on the site was kept there, and is on display in the Museum adjacent to the site. What they found was so impressive that it was a direct impetus for the establishment of the modern Olympic Games, which took place a few years later in 1896.

Olympia is now one of the major tourist sites in Greece, and a beautiful place to visit, particularly in Spring when the trees are all in flower.

The Truce

Ancient Greece was not a single country. It was a collection of independent cities, each with its own system of government. Some were republics, some had a king, and at least one (Sparta) even had two kings. For much of their history, the Greek 'city-states' were at war with each other.

During the Olympic Games, there was a sacred truce which guaranteed free passage to anybody travelling to or from the games. This meant that even if there was a war on, athletes and spectators alike could still go to the games.

Only twice in the history of the games was the truce broken. On one occasion it is recorded that the Spartans were banned from attending the games due to truce breaking, although nothing further is known about the incident. In 364 BC, the cities of Pisa and Arcadia fought a war which eventually spilled over into Olympia. The spectators who had come to see demonstrations of athletics got to see two armies fighting it out in the sacred grove.

The Spectators

The spectators came to the Games from all over the Greek-speaking world, including from as far as what are now southern Italy and the coast of Turkey. There were two categories of people who were specifically banned from attending the games even as spectators:

  • Married women – any married woman found within the precinct was executed by being thrown from the Typaion Rock. Records do not mention whether unmarried women were allowed, and it seems that they could be spectators, although they were not allowed to compete.

  • Slaves were not allowed either to compete or to attend as spectators.

Officials from the many cities of the Greek world were welcomed at the games as spectators. They were given meals and accommodation in the buildings outside the sacred precinct. The rest of the spectators were not so lucky. They had to pitch tents around the valley and provide their own food. An account from the 2nd Century AD tells of the crowding, the intense heat, and the difficulty in keeping clean, but of the great excitement of the events themselves. It sounds just like a modern rock festival.

The Athletes

Athletes were expected to train for the events for ten months before the games. For the last month, they trained at special facilities in the city of Elis.

Only men were allowed to compete. Young, unmarried women could compete in a separate set of games, also held every four years, in honour of Hera, the wife of Zeus. Married woman were not allowed to compete at all, but anybody, man or woman, could enter a team into the chariot-racing events where professional drivers would race the chariots around the hippodrome. The winner in these cases was considered to be the owner of the team, rather than the driver, so there are some recorded cases of women as winners in the Olympic Games.

Competitors had to be Greeks – they had to have Greek as their first language. This excluded barbarians who could speak Greek as a second language. As mentioned already, slaves were not allowed to compete.

The men competed naked. This was not just because of the heat. Ancient Greeks had a relaxed attitude to sexuality, and the display of well-muscled naked bodies was as important to the spectators as the things those bodies did. The athletes were oiled with olive oil before the events to make them look even more godlike.

The Events and the Champions

Originally the games consisted of just one event: a single, straight foot race the length of the Stadion (600 feet); but over the years other events were added, sometimes only for a few years, including wrestling, boxing, a form of no-holds-barred wrestling called the pankration, horse racing, mule cart racing, chariot racing, trumpeting and the pentathlon. The boxing event was more brutal than modern boxing. The competitors wore serviceable knuckledusters in the form of leather thongs studded with iron knobs.

Unlike modern events where usually prizes are given for first, second and third places, in the ancient games there was only a prize for first place. The winner received a wreath of olive leaves, sacred to Zeus, and his name was inscribed in the book of records. These records are all still in existence.

Olympic champions got great prestige from the event. They were honoured by their home city. One report says that an Athenian who won in the Olympics was entitled to a free meal at the city hall every day for the rest of his life. They could also make a living from opening a sports establishment and training younger men.

An athlete who won the Olympics three times was entitled to erect a statue of himself in the sacred grove. As time went on, the number of these statues grew and grew. By the time of Pliny the Elder (the 1st Century AD), there were more than 3,000 of them.

The Link to the Modern Olympics

The modern Olympic Games are considered to be the direct descendants of the ancient Greek ones. To symbolise this, since 1928, a torch is lit from the rays of the sun in Olympia, and is carried by a relay of runners to the Olympic stadium, wherever it is in the world, and is used to light the Olympic Flame. Such torch relays were common in Ancient Greece, although the ancient Olympics did not include one.

Visiting Olympia

The remains of Olympia are still very impressive although most of the buildings exist only as foundations or low walls.

Within the wall marking the edge of the 'Altis' or sacred grove lie all the temples: the Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Hera, and the circular Philippeion Temple. Also within the Altis are the small buildings known as 'treasuries'. Each city had its own treasury at Olympia and gifts to the gods from the city were stored there.

To the east of the Altis were the Stadion, the arena where most of the events of the games took place, and the much bigger Hippodrome, where the equestrian events were held. The Hippodrome is long gone, washed away by the Alpheios river, but the Stadion is still intact.

On the west and south sides of the Altis were all the administrative buildings and the sports complex. You can see where the wrestlers used to train and the workshop where the sculptor Pheidias created the giant statue of Zeus.

To the north of the sacred site is a museum which holds all the archaeological finds from the site.

Some Notable Winners

The only event at the very first recorded Olympic Games in 776 BC was a foot race of about 600 feet. This was won by Coroebos, a cook from the town of Elis near Olympia.

A wrestler in the pankration event, Arrhachion of Phigaleia, entered the record books by being the only dead athlete ever to win an Olympic event. His opponent, whose name is not recorded, was simultaneously applying the (perfectly legal) holds of a scissorlock and a stranglehold, when Arrhachion, in his death throes, broke the opponent’s toe. The other wrestler let go and conceded defeat, but sadly the stranglehold had already done the trick and the victor’s wreath had to be placed on a corpse. Arrhachion’s drop-dead victorious record still stands and right up to the present day no other athlete has attempted to equal it. It can hardly be bettered, except by being carried dead to the starting line.


The Roman emperor Nero liked to think that he was the best at everything. In 67 AD, he competed in the Olympic Games. The Games should actually have been held in 65 AD, but Nero decreed that they should be delayed by two years so that he would have a chance to compete. He decided that to make a particularly spectacular show, he should drive a ten-horse chariot, something which had never been tried, before or since, even though all the other competitors should only have standard two-horse models. Nero's performance was so bad that he didn't even finish the course, being thrown from the chariot, but was still declared the winner.

He also competed in various events of a musical nature specially created for the Games and won those too. Nero was overthrown in a rebellion the following year and committed suicide. His name was expunged from the record of winners.

A Note on Dating

The Olympic Games were first held officially in about the 8th Century BC. Most modern guide books confidently state that the date was 776 BC, and that all subsequent dates in Greek history were dated from this time. Dates were often given as 'in the third year of the 77th Olympiad' or the like2. As Oscar Wilde said, 'The truth is rarely pure and never simple.' Pamela-Jane Shaw points out in her Discrepancies in Olympiad Dating and Chronological Problems of Archaic Peloponnesian History that blindly adopting this dating system leads to various contradictions in recorded history such as an athlete winning an event a hundred years before the event was instituted. While the names of all the winners are recorded, there is not one single way of recording the numbers of the Olympiads, so any exact date such as 776 BC should be treated with suspicion.

Dates after about 500 BC are probably safe enough, because they are recorded elsewhere and in different ways.

1Or possibly the first.2This would be 469 BC by the conventional reckoning.

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