The Olympic Games in ancient Greece


By Aliki Ammerman



It’s time for the Games!

Every four years, Greeks from the four corners of the world gathered in Olympia to celebrate the greatest event in ancient Greece: the Olympic Games. They came on foot, by ship, by cart, and on horseback. They came from the mainland, the islands, and the colonies scattered along the shores of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.


Olympic truce

As midsummer approached, those city-states that were at war declared peace. This gave people a month’s time to make their journey to Olympia and back safe. Peace also allowed athletes from enemy states to compete with each other. A city which broke the truce paid a fine, while its athletes were banned from the Games.


Men only, please!

To compete in the events, or even watch them, you had to be a Greek male citizen.  No women or foreigners were allowed in the stadium of the hippodrome.

The games lasted for five days. Athletes competed in the pentathlon, boxing, pankration, and chariot races. The pentathlon was a group of five sports: javelin, discus, foot races, jumping, and wrestling. Pankration combined wrestling and boxing. Following the rule, athletes came to Olympia ahead of time in order to train. Before they could compete, they took an oath to abide by the rules of honesty and fair play, and those who broke the rules paid fines.

To win in the Olympic Games was the greatest honor a Greek man could wish for. The winners got a wreath woven from the branches of the sacred olive tree that grew in Olympia. But their home cities welcomed them like heroes, and often gave them large rewards, such as free meals for life, free front seats at the theater, positions in the government, and sometimes money. There were other rewards, too. Some cities placed the statues of Olympic winners in the market place, so that future generations would know and admire them. Others tore down the city walls to let them in; for they believed that they did not need walls, as long as they had young men like them to defend them. And the poets wrote poems called odes in praise of Olympic winners. This everlasting fame coming from the poems was the greatest reward any athlete could have.


No women! Do you hear?

Women were not allowed to enter the athletic facilities.

Young girls and single women could participate in a separate footrace held just for them. It was part of the festival in honor of Hera. Married women, however, could neither watch nor take part in the events; they were only allowed to sponsor a horse or a team of horses in the chariot races.


How did it all begin?

The origin of the Games goes back to the dawn of Greek history. The myths of Hercules and Pelops include athletic events in connection to funerals. During the Late Bronze Age, which lasted from 1400 to 1100 BC, the Greek kings held athletic competitions to honor their dead heroes.

The Greek poet Homer describes in great detail the games Achilles organized at the funeral of his best friend Patroklos, who was killed in battle: everyone left the battlefield to compete in foot races, discus, javelin, wrestling, and chariot races, events that were included later in the official Olympic Games.

The first Olympic games for which we have a written record were held in 776 BC, and included foot races only. As the years went on, more events were added. The four-year intervals between games were called Olympiads, and Greek historians used them to measure time; so if a war broke out in the third year of the fourth Olympiad, the date would be 762 BC.

The supervision of the games fell to ten judges who came from the city of Elis.


What was it like?

Picture an open area next to two rivers. Olive and pine trees cast their shade. Here thousands of people pitch their tents in the open, or find space under a tree, if they came early enough. Musicians and poets perform for anyone who wants to watch. Food vendors of all kinds make good business selling the basics: bread, olives, and fruit. Others sell other important items: cups, plates, perhaps blankets. Milling around among the stalls gives people a chance to meet old friends or make new ones. Carts and walkers make an awful noise and raise a lot of dust for sure, but, luckily, the river is nearby for a dip! In the stadium, spectators sit on the ground. They snack while they watch, and only their hats give them a bit of shade during the long, hot day. But how happy they are when an athlete from their home town wins!


Stop those Games!

The Games were dedicated to Zeus, the father of gods and men, and the athletes competed under his protection. This gave them a strong connection to the old Greek religion of the Twelve Gods.

During the Christian era, the emperors of Byzantium banned the old religion. They thought the games pagan and tried to stop them twice. First, Theodosius made a rule to ban them in 393 AD, but his capital was too far away, and the games continued on and off for some time. Then Justinian took stricter measures. By his order, all the temples and facilities in Olympia were torn down in 529 AD. The stones were carried away and used for building materials. And so, an institution that went on for 1300 years was wiped out overnight so to speak.


The Olympic spirit

The games were an opportunity for Greeks from all parts of the country to come together and have a good time. They all shared the ties of kinship and brotherhood; they all spoke the same language and had the same religion; and they all enjoyed a good performance. Any winner who followed the rules and won in fair competition gave them a sense of national pride, even those who came from other city-states. Outside the stadium, they had the opportunity to strike friendships and even make trade agreements with others from different cities.

     As for the athletes themselves, they aspired to compete in a fair way and win. The olive crown placed on the head of each winner was a symbol of these aspirations.

     And this celebration of personal and national values was the true spirit of the Games.




Click here for an activity on the Olympic Games

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Notice: This page is from the author’s e-book “Let’s learn about Greece” and is the copyrighted property of Aliki Ammerman. Permission is given to children and teachers to use the material on this page for educational purposes only. For more pages like this, as well as facts about Greece, order the book “Let’s learn about Greece” at:

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