Top ten facts about the ancient Olympic Games

There was wrestling, boxing, and running, but did you know that there were separate games for women, and that rule violations resulted in physical punishments?

By Andrew Binner
Picture by 2005 Getty Images

The first ancient Olympic Games took place almost 2,800 years ago in the town of Olympia.

They were the oldest, and largest, of the four PanHellenic Games - four separate sports festivals held in ancient Greece.

The Olympics became an integral part of ancient Greek society. Every four years from 776BC to 393AD, thousands of people from all over the Greek world congregated for the competition.

The event was so popular, that when the Persians invaded in the summer of 480BC, the allied Greek city states had to delay military preparations as so many men were at the Olympics!

But unlike the modern Olympics, there was no torch relay, no female competitors, and events would often become brutal.

Below, we take a look at ten interesting facts you may not have known about the ancient Olympic Games, including why they came to an end.

Greek gymnast Lefteris Petrounias runs through the ancient stadium at Olympia before the Rio 2016 modern Olympic Games.
Picture by 2016 Getty Images

1 - The ancient Olympic stadium

The Olympics were named after Mount Olympus, but they were actually held in the rural sanctuary of Olympia, in Greece’s western Peloponnese region.

It was a hugely sacred area, featuring picturesque olive tree plantations and a giant statue of the god Zeus.

By the second century BC, the main stadium held approximately 45,000 people, who stayed in tents around the building.

2 - Religious origins of the Olympic Games

There is some historical dispute over the reason behind the ancient Olympics.

One theory is that it was a festival in honour of Zeus. This would help explain why it was named after Mount Olympus - where the Greek gods were said to have lived.

However, some historians believe that the ancient Olympics were actually funeral games held in honour of deceased local heroes.

This is entirely plausible, given that sporting events were often associated with funeral rituals.

During the festival, a vast number of oxen were sacrificed in honour of Zeus. After a small part of each animal was burned for the god, the rest of the meat was consumed by the people at a grand banquet.

A recreation of the monumental statue of Zeus at Olympia.

3 - An Olympic Truce between Greek city states

Prior to the Games, messengers called ‘spondophoroi’ were sent out across the Greek world to announce the Olympic Truce or ‘Ekecheiria’.

Each participating city-state had to sign up to the truce, which meant that no war was permitted and no arms could be carried into Olympia.

This in turn facilitated the safe passage of athletes and spectators travelling to the festival.

Initially, the truce was for one month but it was later extended to three.

A large crowd, combined with a peaceful atmosphere, meant that the Olympics became a perfect opportunity for merchants, artists, and musicians to display their wares and talents.

4 - Who could take part?

All free male Greek citizens were entitled to participate in the ancient Olympic Games, regardless of their social status. Several emperors even took part.

Women were not permitted to compete.

There was, however, a loophole to this rule. In chariot racing, the horse owners were declared Olympic champion, and not the riders.

Anyone was allowed to own a horse and Kyniska, daughter of King Archidamos of Sparta, subsequently became the first female Olympic victor in Antiquity. Her four horses won in the 396BC and 392BC Olympiads.

A separate festival called the Heraean Games, dedicated to the goddess and wife of Zeus, Hera, was created for women.

These Games were also held in Olympia, and featured young girls competing in a footrace on a track one sixth shorter than the men’s equivalent.

A discus thrower, a jumper and two javelin throwers take part in the Ancient Olympic Games.

5 - Events at the ancient Olympics

For the first 12 ancient Olympics, the only event was a short footrace of about 190m - or one length of the stadium - called a ‘stade’.

Eventually, the Games expanded from one day to five, as a total of 18 events were added to the programme.

The earliest additions were running events of different lengths, as well as wrestling, pentathlon, boxing and for the wealthiest competitors, chariot racing.

Like it’s modern equivalent, the ancient pentathlon included five different events. These were the discus, long jump (using weights from a standing jump), javelin, running, and wrestling.

Among the various horse races was the ‘kalpe’ where the rider would jump off their mare and run alongside them for the last lap.

Each event was intended to train men for war, which was perhaps best personified by the ‘hoplitodromos’ race, where athletes had to complete between two and four lengths of the stadium wearing a full set of hoplite armour.

The most brutal sport was ‘pankration’. This event was a combination of wrestling and boxing, where neck holds and strangling were permitted, and only biting and eye-gouging were forbidden. Athletes could resign through waving a finger in the contact sports, but death was still commonplace.

The Michael Phelps of the ancient Olympics was undoubtedly Leonidas of Rhodes. The runner won a total of 12 titles across four-consecutive Olympiads (164-152 B.C.) and was hailed as a hero among men.

Interestingly, the marathon event - despite being named after an ancient Greek city - was not part of the ancient programme. It was introduced at the first modern Olympic Games, at Athens in 1896.

Although shot put was not an ancient Olympic event, the qualifying rounds of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games took place in the Ancient Stadium of Olympia.
Picture by 2004 Getty Images

6 - Physical punishment for breaking the rules

The ancient Greeks didn’t rely on good will to ensure fair competition during this often brutal period in history.

Athletes who broke rules during the Olympics were publicly whipped.

Whether it was a foul move in wrestling, or a false start in running, officials called ‘alytes’ had the power to punish any competitor they felt was trying to gain an unfair advantage.

In addition to the floggings, athletes could also be slapped with hefty financial fines.

A physical reminder of what awaited rule-breakers lay in the row of statues of Zeus lining the athlete’s path to the Olympia stadium, which were paid for by the fines.

A lack of courage was also highly frowned upon, and there was even an athlete that was fined for cowardice after backing out of a competition.

This Greek pottery depicts a discus thrower being watched closely by an official with a whip.

7 - Athletes competed naked

If you’ve ever seen the depictions of ancient Olympians on pots, bowls, and in other artworks, you will have noticed that they competed in the nude.

There are thought to be several reasons from this, ranging from a tribute to Zeus - whom they wanted to show their physical power - to drawing a distinction between themselves and their barbarian enemies, who were afraid to show their bodies.

Whichever it was, nudity was a fundamental part of ancient Greek culture, and the athletes would show off their physiques during parades in the stadium.

In addition, wrestlers also covered their bodies in oil to keep sand out of their pores, before dusting themselves with a fine powder to ensure they could be gripped.

Men would also work out in the buff, and the word ‘gymnasium’ actually comes from the Greek word ‘gymnos’, meaning naked.

An early Olympiad depicted on an ancient Greek vase, where the competitors ride naked.
Picture by 2005 Getty Images

8 - Prizes and rewards for the winners

There were no gold, silver, and bronze medals on offer at the ancient Games.

In fact, prizes were awarded only to the winners, which began with a wreath made from the leaves of the sacred olive trees at Olympia.

Victors were also allowed to erect a statue of themselves in the sacred Altis grove - the sanctuary of the Gods - at Olympia, now a UNESCO world heritage site, although only the wealthiest could afford to do this.

‘Odes’ were dedicated to the first-place finishers by famous poets, which would be performed when the athlete arrived back in his home state.

At the end of the festival the winners, along with their families and supporters, were invited to an elaborate feast.

A performer dressed as an ancient Greek statue awards a winner's wreath at the opening ceremony of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
Picture by 2004 Getty Images

9 - The ancient Greek Olympics took place during the hot summer

Greece is known for its searing summer temperatures, and that is exactly when the Games were held.

While this will seem unnecessarily punishing on the athletes, it was the only option.

This is because summer was the quietest time of the year for agricultural work, which was the lifeblood of the Greek economy. Not even the Olympics were more important than that.

Consequently, a summer Games meant that significantly more people were able to compete at and enjoy the festival.

A happy by-product was that the Games would rarely be affected by rain!

Summer temperatures would have created a swelteringly hot environment at the Ancient Olympic stadium.
Picture by 2004 Getty Images

10 - The final (official) ancient Olympics

The ancient Olympics were so popular, that they were allowed to continue when Greece was conquered by the Romans.

However, as time went on, the Games began to decrease in size and prestige, along with historical recordings of them.

The site at Olympia deteriorated due to numerous enemy invasions, in addition to earthquakes and floods.

The ancient Olympic Games officially came to an end around 394 AD, when Roman emperor Theodosius I outlawed pagan celebrations.

The first modern Olympic Games took place 1503 years later, at Athens in 1896.


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