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Olympics Sports Illustrated

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Pictures of the Events in The Ancient Olympics
Two athletes: the one on the left holds a strigil; the one on the right an aryballos.

Pisticci Painter, Cyclops Painter Two athletes: the one on the left holds a strigil; the one on the right an aryballos. Lucanian red-figure oinochoe, c. 430–420 B.C. From Metapontum. At the Louvre. H. 24.8 cm (9 ¾ in.), Diam. 19.3 cm (7 ½ in.)

PD Courtesy of Marie-Lan Nguyen.
The ancient Olympics was a major 5-day (by the fifth century) event that took place once every four years, not in Athens, but at the religious sanctuary of Olympia, near the Peloponnesian city of Elis. Not only were the Olympics a series of often dangerous athletic competitions (agōnēs/αγώνες --> agony, protagonist) that conferred tremendous honor and benefits on the athletes, but they were supplemental parts of a major religious festival. The Olympics honored the king of the gods, Zeus, as represented in the colossal statue of him sculpted by the Athenian Phidias/Pheidias/Φειδίας (c. 480-430 B.C.). It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

There was a lot of excitement about these games, just as there is today. Adventure, new people to meet, souvenirs to take home, maybe danger or disease (at least a hoarse throat from cheering on favorites) and a bit of the "what happens at Olympia stays in Olympia" mentality.

The games conferred honor, like today, on athletes (some of whom were deified), the athletic trainers, and their sponsors, but not on their countries, since the games were restricted to Greeks (at least until the fifth century [see Brophy and Brophy]). Instead, honor went to the individual city state. Victory odes [see: The 1st Olympics] would include the victor's name, his father's name, his city, and his event. Greeks from all over the Mediterranean wherever Greeks had set up colonies could participate, provided they fit certain requirements: the most basic of which was revealed by the required dress code -- nudity.

[5.6.7] As you go from Scillus along the road to Olympia, before you cross the Alpheius,there is a mountain with high, precipitous cliffs. It is called Mount Typaeum. It is a law of Elis to cast down it any women who are caught present at the Olympic games, or even on the other side of the Alpheius, on the days prohibited to women. However, they say that no woman has been caught, except Callipateira only; some, however, give the lady the name of Pherenice and not Callipateira.

[5.6.8] She, being a widow, disguised herself exactly like a gymnastic trainer, and brought her son to compete at Olympia. Peisirodus, for so her son was called, was victorious, and Callipateira, as she was jumping over the enclosure in which they keep the trainers shut up, bared her person. So her sex was discovered, but they let her go unpunished out of respect for her father, her brothers and her son, all of whom had been victorious at Olympia. But a law was passed that for the future trainers should strip before entering the arena.
Pausanias (geographer; 2nd century A.D.) Translated by W. H. S. Jones

Short Quiz on the Ancient Olympics

Sources for This and the Following Pages

  • Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, by Donald G. Kyle; Blackwell: 2007
  • "Interactive Offerings: Early Greek Dedicatory Epigrams and Ritual," by Joseph W. Day; Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 96 (1994), pp. 37-74.
  • A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics, by Neil Faulkner; Yale University Press: 2012
  • "Deaths in the Pan-Hellenic Games II: All Combative Sports," by Robert Brophy and Mary Brophy; The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 106, No. 2 (Summer, 1985), pp. 171-198
  • The Ancient Olympic Games, by Judith Swaddling; University of Texas Press, 2000
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