What were the ancient Olympics like?

Ancient Olympia with the flame being lit
© History Skills

Today, the Olympic Games is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. However, the Olympics began way back in ancient Greece. The Greeks loved sport, just like we do, and enjoyed going to their own versions of the gymnasium.

However, the Olympic Games did not originally start out as just a sporting event. It began in the 8th century BC as a religious ceremony dedicated to the god Zeus.


It only had one event at the first games in 776 BC, but it quickly grew in popularity.


The games were held once every four years, and thousands of people from across the ancient Greek world travelled to the city of Olympia, in the Peloponnese region of Greece, to either spectate or take part.


This four-year period was known as an Olympiad.

Preparing for the Games

Despite their religious and athletic significance, the Olympic Games were also an important political and social event.


Diplomatic meetings were held during the Games, and athletic performance was seen as a reflection of a city-state's power and prestige. 


Competitors came from all over the Greek world to take part in the Games, and the Olympic Games became a symbol of unity and cooperation among the various city-states of Greece.


To encourage people to take part in the ceremony and sporting event, a special religious truce was declared, known as the Olympic Truce.


This meant that, during the time of the Olympic Games, all Greek city-states agreed that they would not be at war with each other.


Surprisingly, it appears that most Greeks followed this law, which indicates how important and popular this event was to them.

Ruins of ancient Olympia
© History Skills

What were the events?

Most of the sporting events at the Olympics were based around exercises that were meant to prepare people for battle. 


The focus was on individual athletic achievements, but there was also a strong emphasis on skill, strength, and perseverance.


This included running, wrestling, chariot racing and boxing. People would train for years in preparation for the events, and it was considered to be one of the greatest honours to be a champion in an Olympic event.


Stadion Race: This was the first event of the ancient Olympic Games and was a foot race over a distance of approximately 600 feet (192 meters).


Dolichos: This was a long-distance race that could last up to 24 laps around the track and was usually run by runners who also competed in the stadion race.


Pentathlon: This was a multi-event competition that consisted of five different events: running, long jump, javelin, discus, and wrestling.


Wrestling: This was a one-on-one contest in which opponents tried to throw each other to the ground.


Pankration: This was a combination of boxing and wrestling and was one of the most physically demanding events of the ancient Olympic Games.


Chariot Racing: This was a thrilling event in which teams of horses pulled chariots around the Olympic stadium at high speeds.


Hoplitodromos: This was a race in which runners wore full military gear, including a helmet, shield, and greaves.


Javelin Throw: This was a throwing event in which athletes tried to throw a javelin as far as possible.

Winning at the Games

Winners of the ancient Olympic Games were awarded a variety of prizes for their achievements.


The most important reward was the crown of olive leaves, which was considered a symbol of victory and honor.


This crown was made from the branches of a sacred olive tree that grew in Olympia and was a physical representation of the athlete's achievement.


In addition to the crown, winners received a variety of other prizes.


One of the most significant rewards was fame. Winning at the Olympic Games brought great fame and recognition to the athlete, as well as to their city-state.


Olympic champions were often treated as heroes upon their return home, and their achievements were celebrated in songs, poems, and stories for generations to come.


The Olympic Games provided a platform for athletes to showcase their skills and abilities, and winning at the Games was seen as a demonstration of excellence and mastery of their craft.


Another reward for Olympic champions was monetary rewards. While this was not a widespread practice, some city-states provided monetary rewards for Olympic champions.


This was seen as a way to show appreciation for their achievements and to provide some financial support for their future endeavors.


Public works were also dedicated to Olympic champions in some cases. For example, statues or monuments were erected in their honor, serving as a permanent record of their achievements and inspiring future generations.


This recognition also brought increased social status to the athlete, as well as to their family and city-state.


Finally, the names of Olympic champions were recorded and remembered for generations, serving as a source of inspiration and pride for their city-states.


The Olympic Games played a significant role in promoting the ideals of physical and moral excellence, and winning at the Games was seen as a demonstration of these ideals.


These rewards helped to promote the Olympic spirit and ensure that the achievements of Olympic champions would be remembered and celebrated for generations to come.

Women and the games

Unlike today, only men were allowed to compete in the ancient Olympic Games.


The Olympic Games were considered a male-only event and were seen as a celebration of male athletic prowess and strength. 


Women could attend, but only as spectators. However, if women were married, they were even banned from watching the events. 


However, many women still played a role in Olympic events as sponsors and trainers for athletes.


One of the most famous chariot racing winners in ancient Greek history was actually owned by a woman. 


While women could not participate in the Olympic Games, they actually had their own women-only festival at Olympia.


It was called the Heraean Games, named after the goddess Hera, who was believed to be the wife of the god Zeus. However, married women were still banned from taking part.


The Heraean Games were held in Olympia every four years and included events such as running, jumping, and throwing.


The event was open to unmarried women and was seen as an opportunity for women to showcase their athletic abilities and to demonstrate their strength and skill.


Despite the limited role that women played in the ancient Olympic Games, the Heraean Games provided a space for women to participate in athletic competition and to challenge traditional gender roles.


The Heraean Games were a significant cultural event, and the female athletes who competed in the Games were celebrated for their achievements. 

Women of ancient Greece watching the Heraean Games
© History Skills