Ancient Olympic Games: The Era of Competition

Crowning of Victors at Olympia. Painting by James Barry. 18th Century | Courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org
Crowning of Victors at Olympia. Painting by James Barry. 18th Century | Courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

As the Olympic Games of 2016 come to an end, one may ponder the origins of such an influential event. It was in 776 B.C.E. when the first Olympic game made its appearance in history. The location is quite interesting on its own, since it was in Olympia, Greece. Olympia is where Greeks would come and honor the gods, and they held several festivals in their honor. The name of the city and game comes from the nearby mountain named Olympos, which was not only the highest mountain in Greece, but it was also once home to the greatest Greek gods and goddesses, according to Greek mythology. The motive for starting such a competition was because Greeks had a deep appreciation for the human body and competition. According to the Greek philosopher Socrates, it is a “disgrace for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength in which his body is capable.”1 In addition, the competition provided a platform for establishing a sense of collective identity among the different city-states that competed. Officials and competitors flocked to the events in Olympia, which included foot races, long jumps, boxing, wrestling, and many others. Unlike today’s Games, winners then did not receive gold medals. Instead, olive leave wreaths were given to the winners of the events, and the admiration of their city-states was another plus.2

The games were held every summer, every four years, in Olympia in honor of the mythological god Zeus. The competitors were strictly males from poleis all around the Greek Mediterranean. Those who had the time and money to train and to attend the events were usually from the elite class. For a time women were not only banned from participating in the events, but they were also restricted from watching. One reason for this was that in the boxing and wrestling matches, the contestants were so set on winning that the fights became too bloody to watch.3 In addition to this, the athletes competed covered in olive oil, to emphasize their obsession with the human body. Nevertheless, it was not deemed suitable for women or young audiences to watch. Eventually, after the Greeks saw the influx of people coming in from all parts of the Greek world, they held a festival where only women who were not married could participate. It consisted of mostly foot races and was dedicated to honor the goddess Hera, Zeus’s wife.4

This is the original marble Discobolus from the collection of Massimo-Lancellotti. It is currently in the National Roman Museum and was discovered in the villa Palombara, Esquilino. | Courtesy of upload.wikimedia.org

The first and only event for the first thirteen Games was a foot race. Over time, officials added longer and shorter distances to attract more competitors. When more participation from the city-states increased, they added sports such as wresting, the long jump, and discus. Boxing made its appearance not long after in the 18th Olympic Game. One of the rules in the boxing matches was that there was not a time limit or a weight limit, so opponents were essentially chosen at random. Equestrian sports, such as the chariot race, was introduced in 680 B.C.E. Realizing how popular and time consuming the sports had become, officials extended the games to seven days. One reason for this was because the games had more competitions than could be fit in a day or several days. The first day was reserved for honoring the gods in ceremonies, and after the fifth day of competition, the day was reserved to award prizes and to feast.5 To challenge the contestants further, officials added an armored race, which consisted of two grueling laps around the stadium wearing twenty-five pounds of armor. By the end of 580 B.C.E., a whopping fifty events were in motion.

The ancient Olympic Games were very important to the Greeks. Not only did competitors train for years just as athletes do now, but leaders from all around the Greek world journeyed to Olympia for the games. Major leaders from the city-states and beyond went and supported their athletes, while also getting the opportunity to discuss political and economical matters face to face with the other leaders. It was not often that the leaders met face to face. An Olympic truce was called upon athletes and spectators during the games in order to ensure that it was the main concern. Truce bearers traveled to each participating Greek polis and ordered them not to engage in any warfare during the games. 6 One reason for this was that Greeks rarely agreed on anything political or economical, so the truce forced them to oblige. Bringing home a champion from the games was considered a very high and honorable award. It brought prestige and pride to their polis, and it connected them to each other in a way nothing else could. Athletes did not compete for the prizes they won; they competed for the fame and glory of being the victor.

Despite all of its glory and fame, the last Olympic game was held in 393 C.E. when Emperor Theodosius banned the games by claiming they were “pagan acts.” 7 Twelve glorious centuries of the games inspired many aspects of life in Greece from religion to literature. Literature and sculpting competitions were a part of the Olympic games, and it gave many artists a platform to debut their talents to larger audiences. Religion in ancient Greece was devoted to the worship of mythological gods and goddesses, and so the games became extensions of their religious practices honoring their mythological gods. It took 1500 years for the games to be revived again after 393 C.E. After the reestablishment of the games it was evident that the motives remain the same in appreciating the marvels of the human body and competition.

  1. Tom Griffith, Essential Thinkers – Socrates (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004), 128.
  2. Jerry Bentley, Herbert Ziegler, and Heather Streets Salter, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History Volume 1, 4 edition (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015), 144.
  3. Judith Swaddling, The Ancient Olympic Games, Second Edition (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 78.
  4. Swaddling, The Ancient Olympic Games, 43.
  5. Swaddling, The Ancient Olympic Games, 53.
  6. Swaddling, The Ancient Olympic Games, 11.
  7.  Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2015, s.v. “Olympic Games in the Ancient World,” by Thomas J. Sienkewicz.

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This Post Has 70 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Jake Faryniarz

    This was a very interesting article over the Olympic games when it first was created. I thought it was surprising that they had an Olympic truce where no one was allowed to start warfare during the games. I didn’t know that the Olympic games back then also gave opportunities for other leaders to talk face to face about political and economic matters. This article was very informative about the beginning of the Olympic games and how it ended during Emperor Theodosius rule.

  2. Avatar
    Nadia Manitzas

    To know that the Olympics has been around for such a long time is amazing. Being a sport guru, it’s interesting to see that most of the sports we play today we’re used in the past just more modified. Now we have all the countries participating in these games!

  3. Avatar
    Camille Kwan

    I found it amazing to hear about all the similarities the Olympics back then had to modern day olympics. The hours of training, the four year break, and the different events that were held to honor the body that God gave us. I remember reading something that the olympians used to only be men and they would fight completely naked and I thought that was super funny. overall, a very informative article for the background of our modern day olympics.

  4. Avatar
    Micheala Whitfield

    Great way to write about the games. I enjoyed, reading this. You referenced their obsession for the human body and what it’s capable of. Greeks history has strength written all over it. They worshipped and listened to the story of the gods and their incredible strength they exceed in their stories. All the way down to the demi-gods. Not to mention, competition comes natural to humans. Especially in men. It’s not to be put in a bad manner, for men it’s just how they are friendly to one another, not to mention to show off in attracting a partner. It was this simple festival that turned into a way for all humans, to drop what’s going on around them, to celebrate a bit of competition, just for fun.

  5. Avatar
    Andrea Degollado

    The Olympics are popular all across the globe, however i don’t think i ever put much thought into where it originated from. This article was very informative and very well developed. I think this article does great in explaining the purpose of the Olympics and how important they were and are considered. This article was great to read. Great job!

  6. Avatar
    Ana Cravioto Herrero

    My family has never been much about watching the olympics, but I have always been very interested in them. Despite what is politically going on, athletes from all around the world gather at this event and it is amazing to see all of us come together as one. It is very interesting to hear about the events origins and as basic as it may be, it was funny to hear that it was named after Olympia, the city where it all started.

  7. Avatar
    Meadow Arriaga

    I never thought about where the Olympic Games started from prior to reading this article. It never crossed my mind just how long this has been a tradition. The city where it started is in its name, Olympia, Greece itself, yet I am just learning this now. I think it’s beautiful that part of the reason for this competition was to admire the human body.

  8. Avatar
    Brandon Torres

    Having watched various Olympic events on television throughout the years, I never knew this much history existed in this ear-old event! I really loved how the author focused on joining the fact that just as (almost) everyone comes to compete for the medals and such, as did various competitors in the olden ages! This parallel really made me see these events as not so different, even though the name remained the same, and so did the principle! I also enjoyed how although this remarkable event was celebrated, it still had negative connotations around the end times regarding Emperor Theodosius.

  9. Jose Chaman
    Jose Chaman

    This article is very informative. It is interesting how many of us attend these world-class events without questioning their origins. For example, I did not know that the name comes directly from the city of Olympia, nor that the first competition for thirteen consecutive games was foot race. Even it seems really incredible that during the first Olympic games thousands of athletes from other nations attended!

  10. Avatar
    Kasandra Ramirez Ferrer

    I’ve always known the Olympics and have watched movies about them now and then, I also know how and where they formed but only the basic part of it. This article is really good and it shares the purpose of the Olympics since they were formed and how important they were considered around all the Greek world. It’s good that the games were reestablished with the same motives people used the first time.

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