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The Ancient Olympics

According to historical records, the first ancient Olympic Games can be traced back to 776 BC. They were dedicated to the Olympian gods and were staged on the plains of Olympia. They continued for nearly 12 centuries, until Emperor Theodosius decreed in 393 A.D. that all such "pagan cults" be banned.


Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic Games, is in the western part of the Peloponnese which, according to Greek mythology, is the island of "Pelops", the founder of the Olympic Games. Imposing temples, votive buildings, elaborate shrines and ancient sporting facilities were combined in a site of unique natural and mystical beauty. Olympia functioned as a meeting place for worship and other religious and political practices as early as the 10th century B.C. The central part of Olympia was dominated by the majestic temple of Zeus, with the temple of Hera parallel to it.

The Games and religion

The Olympic Games were closely linked to the religious festivals of the cult of Zeus, but were not an integral part of a rite. Indeed, they had a secular character and aimed to show the physical qualities and evolution of the performances accomplished by young people, as well as encouraging good relations between the cities of Greece. According to specialists, the Olympic Games owed their purity and importance to religion.

Victory Ceremonies

The Olympic victor received his first awards immediately after the competition. Following the announcement of the winner's name by the herald, a Hellanodikis (Greek judge) would place a palm branch in his hands, while the spectators cheered and threw flowers to him. Red ribbons were tied on his head and hands as a mark of victory. The official award ceremony would take place on the last day of the Games, at the elevated vestibule of the temple of Zeus. In a loud voice, the herald would announce the name of the Olympic winner, his father's name, and his homeland. Then, the Hellanodikis placed the sacred olive tree wreath, or kotinos, on the winner's head.

The Athletes

Through the 12 centuries of the Olympic Games, many wonderful athletes competed in the stadium and the hippodrome of ancient Olympia's sacred area, moving the crowds with their great achievements. Although mortal, their Olympic victories immortalised them. Of the best athletes who left their mark on the sacred valley of Olympia, some surpassed all limits and became legends by winning in successive Olympic Games and remaining at the forefront of their sport for more than a decade.


All free male Greek citizens were entitled to participate in the ancient Olympic Games, regardless of their social status. Married women were not allowed to participate in or watch the ancient Olympic Games. However, unmarried women could attend the competition, and the priestess of Demeter, goddess of fertility, was given a privileged position next to the Stadium altar.

The Sports Events

The ancient Olympic Games were initially a one-day event until 684 BC, when they were extended to three days. In the 5th century B.C., the Games were extended again to cover five days. The ancient Games included running, long jump, shot put, javelin, boxing, pankration and equestrian events.


The Pentathlon became an Olympic sport with the addition of wrestling in 708 B.C., and included the following:

  1. Running / Jumping / Discus Throw

    1. Running

      Running contests included: the stade race, which was the pre-eminent test of speed, covering the Olympia track from one end to the other (200m foot race), the diaulos (two stades - 400m foot race), dolichos (ranging between 7 and 24 stades).

    2. Jumping

      Athletes used stone or lead weights called halteres to increase the distance of a jump. They held onto the weights until the end of their flight, and then jettisoned them backwards.

    3. Discus throw

      The discus was originally made of stone and later of iron, lead or bronze. The technique was very similar to today's freestyle discus throw.

  2. Wrestling

    This was highly valued as a form of military exercise without weapons. It ended only when one of the contestants admitted defeat.

  3. Boxing

    Boxers wrapped straps (himantes) around their hands to strengthen their wrists and steady their fingers. Initially, these straps were soft but, as time progressed, boxers started using hard leather straps, often causing disfigurement of their opponent's face.

  4. Pankration

    This was a primitive form of martial art combining wrestling and boxing, and was considered to be one of the toughest sports. Greeks believed that it was founded by Theseus when he defeated the fierce Minotaur in the labyrinth.

  5. Equestrian events

    These included horse races and chariot races and took place in the Hippodrome, a wide, flat, open space.

Adapted from – Ancient Olympic Games


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