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Ancient pottery depicting three men running

History of the Ancient Olympics

The 2024 Olympics are going to look a lot different to the very first Games that were held in Ancient Greece. They only had one event and every athlete competed naked!

Image: Marie-Lan Nguyen | (CC BY 2.5)

Every four years, the eyes of the sporting world turn to the Olympic Games. The athletic festival is heralded as the foremost multi-sports competition on the planet, with roots dating back thousands of years.

Let’s take a look at the history of the Ancient Olympics.


The first-ever Ancient Olympic Games took place in 776 BC. It was held in Olympia, near the city-state of Elis (modern-day western Greece), which became the administrative hub for the Games. The location was of great significance since it was a sanctuary dedicated to Zeus, the chief deity in Greek mythology. With Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, nearby, the Games were held in Zeus’ honour. For the ancient Greeks, the festival was as much about religion as it was about sport.

Any free Greek male was allowed to compete, regardless of societal stature, meaning anyone from a farmhand to royalty could enter the Games. They also competed completely naked with the Greeks seeing no shame in nudity. The physical display of athletes in peak condition was said to honour the gods.

The first Games included just one event - a running race known as the ‘stadion’ (origin of the word ‘stadium’). The race consisted of one lap around the track at Olympia which was said to be 192m, the exact distance Greek hero Hercules could run in one breath. The inaugural winner was a cook who received the first-ever victory wreath, cut from the nearby sacred olive tree of Zeus.

Whilst many more events were added to the Ancient Olympic roster, the stadion remained its most prestigious.

More than just sport

After 776 BC, the quadrennial athletic event became not only an integral part of Greek life, but also Greek identity.

By the 7th century BC, the Olympics were the most important games throughout all of Greece. The period between games became known as an Olympiad and held so much significance that the Ancient Greeks often measured long periods of time in ‘Olympiads’.

Thousands of people flocked from all over the Mediterranean to watch the Games. However, Greek city-states were often at war with each other, so to ensure people could attend the Games safely, an Olympic truce was declared in the run-up to the festival. Those travelling to Olympia were granted safe passage through any Greek state.

The evolution of the Games

Over the centuries, more events and days, were added to the Olympic festival. By the 5th century BC, the Games were at their most popular. Spread over five days, the festival could attract up to 50,000 spectators.

Running races had now been separated into several disciplines including a longer race, as well as one where participants ran in armour. The pentathlon had been introduced and consisted of the javelin, long jump, discus, running and wrestling.

Chariot racing was included and held at a separate location called the Hippodrome, whilst various combat sports such as wrestling, boxing and pankration, which was a combination of the two, were introduced. The latter had just two rules, no biting and no gouging, otherwise, competitors were allowed to do whatever it took to incapacitate their opponent. It was not uncommon for one of the combat sports to end in a fatality.

Over time a stadium was erected at Olympia and undertook various incarnations during the following centuries, until at the peak of the Games it could hold 40,000 people. Training facilities also popped up, including a gymnasium and a palestra (wrestling school).

A festival for all

For five days every four years, Olympia became the centre of Greece and erupted into a hub of frenzied activity. Outside of the sporting spectacle, there was much to see and do. Anyone from painters to orators flocked to the Games to showcase their works or talents. If you wanted to be noticed, Olympia was the place to go.

For example, large crowds often flocked during the Olympics to hear famous Greek historian Herodotus (who’d taken up perch outside a temple) read some of his recent works.

The focal point of the Games came on the third day. Anywhere up to 100 cows were sacrificed in honour of Zeus before a huge feast was put on for all to enjoy.

Famous winners

Whilst the Games offered no monetary prizes for the winners (only the victory wreath and a band/ribbon to tie around their head), the glory of winning at the Olympics was unmatched in the ancient world.

Victory granted the winner incredible prestige back home, with city-states often honouring local winners with statues, coins and poems. Once someone had proven themselves at the Olympics, they could earn vast sums of money at other games held throughout the Greek world.

Like the Roman gladiators, Olympic winners in Ancient Greece became huge celebrities, immortalised in stone or paper to be forever remembered by future generations.

Some of the most famous included Milo of Croton, a burly six-time wrestling Olympic champion who was once said to have carried a cow on his back, killed it, and then eaten the whole thing in one day.

Leonidas of Rhodes captured 12 victory wreaths in three running disciplines over four consecutive Games. A remarkable feat in both the ancient and modern Games.

However, not all winners were held aloft with high esteem. Unpopular Roman Emperor Nero has gone down in history as the most disgraceful competitor in Olympic history. Greece came under Roman rule in the middle of the 2nd century BC, so by the time Nero reigned supreme in 67 AD, Roman dominance over Greece was long established.

Audaciously flouting his authority, not only did Nero change the date of the Games and add in events such as poetry and singing (things he was good at) but he also took part in chariot racing with too many horses. He then fell off his chariot and still declared himself the winner.

Women at the Games

There were no events for women nor were women even allowed to watch the Ancient Olympics under penalty of death; although there is no record of that law ever being enacted. There is also some debate over whether the spectator ban on women was just for those who were married.

Whilst women were banned from competing, a loophole enabled some to claim Olympic wreaths. Kyniska, the daughter of a Spartan King, became the first woman to win at the Olympics after her chariot won in successive Games in 396 BC and 392 BC. Rules stated that in the chariot races the owner of the chariot was declared the winner, not the rider.

Decline and end

After Rome stripped Greece of its independence, the Games gradually dwindled over the following centuries. Whilst the Romans understood the political importance of the Games, continuing the festival well into the 4th century AD, with gladiatorial battles consuming Roman pastimes there was little thirst for Greek athletics.

Eventually, Emperor Theodosius I banned the Games in 393 AD due to its pagan affiliations. The spectacle remained dormant until its reincarnation as the modern Olympics in 1896, some 1,500 years after they were last played.