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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49 Comments

  • Wow, this article was fascinating. I have never been intrigued by the Olympics and never looked into it. Nonetheless, have I researched the how it was created. It’s interesting to read that it was also used as a place leader would meet. I find it bizarre to just imagine how bloody and gruesome the Olympics were in the past compared to the ones that take place today. However, some things never change in history. There is always the desire of being the victor and represent proudly where one is from. Overall, great article on a good topic.

  • Socrates had a very good point. It is kind of a shame to ignore the development of your body´s capabilities. It was amazing how much importance was given to the idea of honor and glory. The event could last seven days and many matches were so bloody that they were unbearable to watch, and all for some recognition and olive leave wreaths. It is amazing how can we keep alive an event of more than 700 years and give it worldwide recognition. Great article and interesting topic.

  • I love the Olympic games of today’s society but based on what I read in the article I would probably like the ancient games better. The way that they competed for victory instead of prizes meant that they would do anything to win. People going all out and doing their best would make for the best matches in any sport even if it resulted in the death of someone.

  • Watching the Olympics is one of my favorite things to do, especially watching the Summer Olympics. I like watching competition all around the world and seeing how each country interacts with one another. This competition is not only interesting to watch but horrifying realizing what these humans are doing to their bodies for this. It is great that the Olympics were revived after being banned in 393 C.E., but I just wish making money was not the highlight and it was more about the crucial conditioning the athletes go through to win.

  • It was really cool to hear how the games consisted of different games and how they originated because of the gods. It really made upset though to learn that women weren’t allowed to watch for the fact that they couldn’t see “gory” scenes, but it was pleasing to read that after a while they could enter a certain game to honor Zeus wife. There are some similarities between the Games then and the modern Games, which could be the fact that many train for years to gain the respect in their profession.

  • I always found the Olympics interesting to watch, mostly the swimming and gymnastics area of that. Swimming is so fun to do and when I was little I wanted to learn how to do what they did and I lived the dances and how they can move their bodies in the gymnastics part of it. It is really interesting to know that the Olympics didn’t always have so many sports that it was just a footrace, so knowing that they didn’t have that was really a mind opener.

  • I’ve always been interested in how the idea of the Olympics came about, although this doesn’t really go into that it could have been a contributing factor. I love their concept of seeing what their bodies are capable of doing before they grow old. The only activity that they competed in was a foot race which was very intriguing to me. What wasn’t shocking to me is how the women weren’t involved in the games for it was deemed to violent. This article makes you realize how far we’ve come with our variety of sports and gender equality.

  • I wouldn’t goes as far to say that I am athletic, but I am an active person when it comes to playing sports in an unprofessional manner. Its because of my lack of athleticism that I don’t really pay attention to the Olympics when they come around. In fact, the only time that I have learned or discussed anything about them was in my business class back in high school. So, I don’t doubt that the original Olympics were about the “…marvels of the human body and competition…” , but in this particular century I would say that the Olympics has become more about making money. For example, majority of the athletes that participate automatically go to corporations so they can make some money while they compete, because they don’t make any money for competing. I believe its great that the Olympics were revived after being banned in 393 C.E., but I just wish it was less about making money and more about the extraordinary conditioning of the human body.

  • Growing up I participated in boxing and I ran track and I always imagined myself as an Olympian on the big stage. That was before I knew that it was way older than what I thought and reading the article made it more clear that the Greeks knew how to please their Gods and Goddesses. I can’t imagine a boxing match with no time limits or weight classes, we are pretty coddled now in the sport. I did enjoy how the author made it very clear that it was an honor to bring back a winner, and I feel like the Olympics now don’t have that feel with some people. You train all your life for a few moments of glory, I think that’s pretty impressive.

  • I was never a huge fan of watching the olympics while growing up, but when I lived in Colorado, I would pass an Olympic training center nearly every day. Since then I’ve gotten more interested and began to wonder how the Olympics came to be so I’m glad to have found this article. It’s very intriguing to know that the only competition for the first thirteen years was a footrace. It’s interesting to know that females couldn’t compete or even watch the games because of how gruesome things would get. It was also very admirable that the author spared no details in writing this article. It really helped me see the growth of the games.

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