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.
Tags from the story
Written By
More from Edelia Corona

How did Augustus, Rome’s first Emperor, stay in power?

Forty-five years of unopposed rule seems an unlikely feat for any ruler in...
Read More

49 Comments

  • The Greeks proved to be one of the most competitive peoples of all time, and the Olympic games makes it clear. The Greeks took competitiveness to a whole new level, and I wonder how they trained. Sports in present time can sometimes get political but not as political as the Greeks did. I could only imagine what it would be like if we resolved political issues through sports.

  • This article is extremely informative. As someone who watched the Olympics, I had always wondered how the Olympics came to be and where it originated from. Little did I know bloody and gruesome the Olympics were in the past compared to the ones that take place today. However, the goal is the same. To win and be the best of the best. Overall, a very well written article with a great topic selection.

  • Nice article. The Greek Olympic games were extremely important to the Helens of ancient Greece. They were a furiously competitive people and the Olympic games were a way for them to vent their competitiveness in a less violent way then war. I like how you pointed out that the leaders of the different city states met and discussed important issues. The Olympics was a forum not just for athleticism but also for politics and agreements.

  • Such an amazing article, I enjoyed every bit of it. My family usually tends to gather to watch the olympics every year. I had always wonder where in came from how such a famous competition came to be. This article gave me an amazing explanation of how the olympics where on the Ancient Olympic Games. I had never imagine that this could go so far back.

  • The history behind the Olympics is incredible. I did not know such events happened that long ago, it shows that as humans we have always strived to compete in these types of events. I have always been a fan of the Olympics because it is not only a physical competition it also puts the mind into test, one may train harder than the other or be better prepared but if not mentally prepared they might fall under pressure and nervousness because of what is stake. Great Article!

  • This is such a good article. I love the Olympics and everything sports related. I liked how this article gave a description of just what the Olympic games were when it first started in the past. It is kind of crazy to me just how much the Olympics have changed from then to now. I do not know if I could watch the old Olympics because I do not like seeing a whole lot of blood. Overall this was a well written article.

  • Fantastic article! How cool it is to read more about the origin and early beginnings of the first Olympic games. It is fascinating to read how the Greeks were devoted to sport and worshipping the gods. When I see the Olympic games in modern times, it never crosses my mind how old this event is and the meaning behind it.

  • This was a very interesting article on the Ancient Olympic Games. These games greatly influenced the Olympic games that we have today. I did not know that there was an Olympic truce that was held between the athletes and the spectators, for the purpose of not engaging in warfare during the games. Overall, this was a great article that went into great detail on the Ancient Olympic Games.

  • Wonderful article, what a really great read! My family love to gather around the television to watch the Olympic games, every athlete is incredibly talented in their category. I enjoyed reading this article because the author did a fantastic job at clearly laying out the history of the games as well as the significance that Greeks associated with the games.

Leave a Reply to Julia Deais Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.