Ancient Olympic Games: The Era of Competition

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 53 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Ever since I was a little girl I have always been fascinated by watching the Olympics. Furthermore, I have always had a soft spot in regards to the Greeks. Not only have I been fascinated by their history, but their Gods and practices. I find it pretty crazy how what was an event for ‘fun’ and ‘bodily obsession’ has turned into one of the most popular events to watch and attend, still. I thought it was pretty interesting to read about how they had a total of 7 days with the first being honoring the Gods. To me, the relays were just relays and never thought about the reasoning/dedication behind the events. Crazy how a running relay originated from honoring a greek God.

  2. Avatar

    A very interesting and informative article about the beggings of the Olympics. It is quite interesting to learn that the Olympics were essentially just created for honoring the gods and to admire the human body. I knew the Olympics were eventually stopped being held but I had no idea it was because they were “pagan acts”.

  3. Avatar

    I love the information that was implemented in this article about the history of the olympics. It’s well known that the Greeks loved competing and loved showing off their bodies back then. They loved to be better than everyone else, even if it meant getting into deathly fights. It’s cool that the olympics went from seriously fighting to the death with someone to sporting events such as swimming and gymnastics. I enjoyed learning about the different ways they created games back then and the ways in which they created games for unmarried women to compete in. This article was very informational about the way that the olympics came to be.

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