Close

Topic Guide: Ancient Olympics

Temple at Olympia

© By Ronny Siegel (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

    • On your marks, get set, here we go - Show Me's topic guide about the Ancient Greek Olympic Games, which covers: when the Olympic Games started, why the Olympics were held, women in the Olympic Games, Ancient Greek athletes, Olympic stadia, Olympic sports and the Olympic flame.

      When did the Olympic Games begin? Experts think that the Ancient Greek Olympics began in 776BC. That’s 2,672 years before the modern games, which started in 1896.

      Why did the Ancient Greeks hold the Olympic Games? The games were held in honour of the Greek god Zeus. The statue of the god in the temple at Olympia was 47 feet tall – bigger than a double decker bus. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World but it has disappeared! We can guess what it looks like from coins and accounts from the time. It could have looked like this statue in the State Hermitage in Russia, which was inspired by the lost wonder.

      A photograph showing the statue of Olympian Zeus at Russia's Hermitage Museum© George Shuklin [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
      Could women compete in the Olmpics? Women couldn’t compete in the ancient Olympics, but they had their own sporting festival called the Heraia in honour of the goddess Hera, Zeus’ wife. The British Museum have a small figure of a running girl, which they think is related to the Heraia.

      You can see it at the British Museum's website.

      Ancient Greek Athletes: Did you know that Ancient Greek athletes competed naked? It’s true! But why? One theory put forth by the ancient historian Pausanias  is that it was because of a runner called Orsippos. An inscription records that as Orsippos was competing in the short sprint event in 720BC, his loincloth fell off as he ran. After he won, the other athletes thought it might have been because he was naked and so after that, nobody wore any clothes.

      Where did the Olympic Games take place? The Ancient Olympics took place in the stadium at Olympia, which could seat 50,000 people – that's 30,000 more than can fit in the O2 arena in London.

      Not all events took place in the Stadium; some events such as chariot racing took place in the hippodrome. The Greek word for horse was hippos and dromos meant race, so naturally a hippodrome is where the horse racing happened. It was a very popular event, and some vase painters were inspired to decorate their pots with images of the races. You can see an excellent example of one from the British Museum.

      What were some Ancient Olympic events? One Ancient Olympic sport was the deadly pankration (pan-crat-eon) which was a little bit like boxing and wrestling, but without the rules. Officially the only rules were no biting and no gouging your opponent’s eyes but some competitors ignored this. This vase from the Metropolitan Museum in New York shows two people competing in pankration

      A photograph of a black figure Greek vase showing two athletes competing in pankration.© Metropolitan Museum of Art
      Speaking of wrestling, have you heard of a famous Ancient Greek wrestler known as Milo of Kroton? He won the wrestling competition a staggering six times. There are a couple of stories about him. According to one story, Milo tried to use his strength to chop down an old oak tree, but ended up getting stuck in it and eaten by a lion. Many artists have been inspired Milo's story; here's one example from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

      A circular relief sculpture showing Milo of Kroton stuck in a tree being eaten by a lion.© The Walters Art Museum
      Some parts of the Ancient Greek Olympics are still a bit of a mystery to us, such as what is actually going on in this vase from the British Museum.

      A photograph of a black figure vase showing the Ancient Greek version of long jump.© By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
      Although experts think this is an early version of the long jump, they still aren’t sure why the athlete is holding what appear to be weights. Could they be to propel the athlete forward? Or maybe they were to make the jump more difficult? Why don’t you experiment and see which works better?

      The Olympic flame: The spirit of the Ancient Greek Olympic Games is still a big part of our modern Games. The special Olympic flame is lit in the ruins of the Temple in Olympia and travels to the wherever the games are being held. This video shows the flame being lit and leaving Greece for the London 1948 Olympic Games.



      If you're interested in the Ancient Greeks, have you seen our Ancient Greece Topic Guide?
Share This