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GREECE: The Ancient Olympics

The Ancient Olympic Games were a series of competitions held between representatives of several city-states and kingdoms in Ancient Greece. These games featured mainly athletic but also combat and chariot racing events.

The Olympics were of fundamental religious importance, featuring sporting events alongside ritual sacrifices honoring both Zeus - whose famous statue by Phidias stood in his temple at Olympia and Pelops, divine hero and mythical king of Olympia.

At the first one-day Olympic Games, the only event was a short sprint from one end of the stadium to the other.

Gradually more events were added to make four days of competitions. They included wrestling, boxing, long jump, throwing the javelin and discus, and chariot racing. In the pentathlon, there were five events: running, wrestling, javelin, discus and long jump. One of the toughest events was the race for hoplites, men wearing armour and carrying shields.

Only male citizens were eligible to compete in the Olympic Games. The term "citizen" refers to a man who participated in local politics, voted and provided military service. Citizens were of Greek descent and had jobs or trades, slaves were not allowed to compete.

Some of the most skilled competitors had humble job titles: The first Olympi­c champion was Koroibos, a cook who won the stadion race in 776 B.C.
Winners were given a wreath of leaves, and a hero's welcome back home.

Winners might marry rich women, enjoy free meals, invitations to parties, and the best seats in the theatre.

The running track was much wider than a modern one. Twenty people could run at once.

Olympic gamesmanship?

Probably the pankration or all-in wrestling was the nastiest event. There were hardly any rules. Biting and poking people's eyes were officially banned, but some competitors did both!

While it does not seem very sporting to us, all-in wrestling was very popular. Boxing was tough too. The fighters wore leather gloves and a boxer was allowed to go on hitting his opponent even after he'd knocked him to the ground!

However, cheating was punished. Anyone caught cheating, trying to bribe an athlete for instance, had to pay for a bronze statue of Zeus, as a punishment.

The Olympic Games reached their peak in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, but then gradually declined in importance as the Romans gained power and influence in Greece.

Olympic facts

1. No-one actually knows when the Olympic Games began. The earliest recorded event was at Olympia, Greece in 776 BC, but it was probably held even earlier.

2. From 776 BC onwards, it was held every four years, and the ancient Greeks calculated their calender in four year periods called 'Olympiads'.

3. The word "gymnasium" comes from the Greek root "gymnos" meaning nude. In fact, the literal meaning of "gymnasium" is "school for naked exercise." This makes more sense when you find out that athletes in the ancient Olympic Games would have participated in the nude!

4. The ancient Olympics ended in AD 393 when the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned the games because they were becoming too pagan.

5. The earliest games were held to honour Zeus and included a ceasefire in all wars in the region.

6. When the modern Olympics began in Athens in 1896, only 13 countries took part.

7. The five Olympic rings represent the five major regions of the world – Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceana, and every national flag in the world includes one of the five colors, which are (from left to right) blue, yellow, black, green, and red.

8. The last Olympic gold medals that were made entirely out of gold were awarded in 1912. Nowadays, each medal must be at least three millimeters thick and 60 millimeters in diameter. Also, the gold and silver Olympic medals must be made out of 92.5 percent silver, with the gold medal covered in six grams of gold.

9.  During the 1900 Olympic archery competition, live pigeons were used as targets.

10. Britain has always won at least one gold in every modern Olympics - however, one was the grand total of gold medals for the UK in 1904, 1952 and 1996 - embarrassing!

11. Because of World War I and World War II, there were no Olympic Games in 1916, 1940, or 1944.

12. During the ancient Olympic games, married woman were barred from watching the games. In fact the only only married woman allowed in was the Priestess of Demeter - a goddess of the harvest.

13. Women were first allowed to participate in 1900 at the second modern Olympic Games.

14. Three continents – Africa, South America, and Antarctica – have never hosted an Olympics.

15. The 'Berlin Olympics' held in 1936 were the first Olympic games ever to be broadcast on television. 

16. Olympian Oscar Swahn of Sweden is the oldest olympian to have participated in any of the olympic events so far. He was a shooter who participated at the 1920 Antwerp Games at the age of 72 years.

17. Baron Pierre De Coubertin of France is known as the father of the modern olympics.

18. The very first modern olympics were held in Athens, Greece 1896.

19. The famous wrestler Milo was said to train by carrying a calf every day. As the calf grew heavier, his muscles got stronger.

For related articles click onto: 

ATHENS: How to get to Athens City from Athens International Airport
ATHENS: The Caryatids
ATHENS: The Parthenon
GREECE: The Ancient Olympics
GREEK HISTORY: Who was Archimedes?


  1. Interesting list of facts, thank you! Brushed up some of my knowledge and learnt a copule of new facts. Greece is such a fascinating country, I fell in love with it two years ago when visited it for the first time. It's been holding the most special place in my heart ever since. It seems it's not very difficult to get greek citizenship by investment which would be a dream come true! Counting days till May when I'm visiting Athens again