6 Facts about the Ancient Olympic Games

The history of the Olympic games goes back over 2500 years. Here are six interesting things about the ancient games.

Sep 7, 2023By Anna Gustafsson, M.Sc. Communication & Arts, MA Archaeology

interesting facts ancient olympic games


The first Olympic Games were organized in Olympia, Greece, in 766 BCE. The games became extremely popular, and soon similar multi-day events were organized in other cities as well. The athletic games in ancient Greece were linked with religion and civil life. This is why many aspects of ancient games are completely different than in modern games. Why did the athletes compete naked? Who was the first woman to win in the Olympics, and why? Who sponsored the ancient games? Here are six questions about the Olympics and the surprising answers.


Did Athletes Really Compete Naked?

Panathenaic Prize Amphora depicting a running competition, made in Attika by the Auphiletos Painter, circa 530 BCE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Athletes in ancient art, such as in sculpture and paintings on pottery, are usually portrayed naked. This was, in fact, not an artistic choice but based on reality. Although during some time periods and in certain sports, athletes did also wear clothes, they mostly practiced and competed naked. The first athlete to competed without clothing is said to have been Greek runner Orsippus from Mégara. He won the sprint of one stadia in the 15th Olympic Games in 720 BCE. Sources disagree on whether he accidentally dropped his clothes during the race or went without from the start.


But why did the athletes go without clothing? Naturally, freedom from clothing allowed fewer limitations to movement. Nakedness also allowed the spectators to admire the exquisite physique and talent of the young male athletes very clearly. Yet these were not the only or even the most important reasons athletes did not wear anything.


In ancient Greece, athletic competitions were organized first and foremost to honor the gods. Portraying courage, strength, and beauty was linked to high religious values. Some scholars suggest that competing naked was a way of honoring Zeus by presenting him a natural human form without ornaments or pretensions. Secondly, in ancient times war and conflict were never far away. For young Greek males, showing off a body that was strong, healthy, and ready for combat was part of their duty as citizens. Thirdly, Greeks considered themselves unashamedly better than anyone else. Because the athletes were naked, it could be easily seen that they were Greeks and not barbarians.

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Did Ancient Athletes Receive Prizes? 

Panathenaic prize amphora depicting a pankration match, made in Attika by Kleophrades Painter circa 500 BCE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Even today, the glory and prestige of winning at the Olympics are more valuable than the actual gold medal. This was also the case at the ancient games. The typical prize at the ancient Olympics was an olive wreath. A wreath was also the prize in the other games that took place in ancient Greece. The wreaths symbolized different aspects of the gods to whom the games were dedicated. The athletes also received palm branches and ribbons and held a prominent position in the procession during the religious part of the games, as well as the following feast.


The Panathenaic Games of Athens were the most glorious event in the calendar of Athens. The games were organized in honor of the city’s patron goddess, Athena. A winner at the Panathenaic Games received an amphora filled with olive oil as a prize. This prize could be considered both symbolic and valuable. An olive tree was said to have been created by the goddess Athena as a gift to the Athenians. Olive oil was very valuable due to its importance in everyday life. Olive oil, named “liquid gold” by Homer, was used for cooking, lighting, religious ceremonies, cleaning the body, and also as medicine.


As athletic games became a more established element of Greek social life, the athletes became more professional. Later some athletes received monetary prizes from their home city-states or wealthy patrons who sponsored them. Some also received gifts such as food, clothing, or land. Some athletes even became well-known and traveled around the Greek world, getting paid to perform in events.


Did Women Compete in the Ancient Olympics?

Bronze figurine of a running girl, possibly from Laconia, made circa 520-500 BCE, via the British Museum


Women have been competing in the modern Olympics since 1900, but in the ancient Olympics, they were not allowed to compete in the same games as men. Especially after marriage, women’s lives centered around the home, and athletics was considered irrelevant to them. Sports were generally not part of women’s education, except in Sparta, where both boys and girls both did sports. Women of Sparta practiced running, discus, and even wrestling and ideally became equally strong with men.


A few years after the first Olympic games in Olympia, a similar competition for unmarried women was established. The Heraian games were organized every four years in honor of Hera, the wife of Zeus. The Heraian games featured only footraces, organized into three different age categories. The young women ran with their hair open, wearing a short chiton that left one breast uncovered.


This was not the only way women could participate in athletic games, however. Wealthy women could be winners in the games as owners or trainers of racehorses. The first such woman was said to be Kyniska from Sparta. She won as a chariot owner at the Olympics in 396 and 392 BCE. Proud of her achievement, she commissioned at least two life-size bronze statues of herself to commemorate the victories.


Married women were not even allowed in the audience of athletic games. This was forbidden under the threat of the death penalty. However, sometimes they did manage to sneak in anyway. On one occasion, Callipateira from Rhodes was so eager to see her son Peisidoros compete in boxing that she disguised herself as a male trainer. She was discovered as she jumped a fence to congratulate her son on his victory. Callipateira was spared from the death penalty because her father, brother, and son were all Olympic champions.


Were the Athletes in Ancient Games Professionals?

Part of a grave monument erected for an athlete in the Kerameikos cemetery in Athens, circa 510-500 BCE, via the National Archaeological Museum in Athens


The roots of athletic competitions of ancient Greece are undistinguishably linked with religion. Initially, athletes who competed in the games were young men who had received athletic training as part of their education. The motivation to compete was a desire to honor the gods. The heavy training and competing were done first and foremost for glory and not for personal financial benefit.


In the early decades of the games, young male athletes came from the elite classes and wealthy backgrounds. Only those with the resources needed could use their time at the gymnasium training. The meat-rich diet that was required to build strength was also unreachable for the poor. Usually, the torch race was the only way for men who did not come from wealth to participate in the games. The athletes took great pride in their bodies because they looked so different from laborers’. An unblemished, balanced, and harmonious body was ideal, and this could only be achieved by someone who had the time and the means to dedicate themselves to training.


But as the games grew in popularity, the prizes became more significant, and success in the games could be a stepping stone for a military career, for example. City-states saw the success of their citizens in the games as a way to raise their profile. Slowly, the ideal of the noble amateur athlete became less important, and the athletes got more professional.


What Was the Ancient Audience Like?

Fragment of a Black-Figured Cauldron, made in Athens circa 580-570 BCE, via the National Archaeological Museum in Athens


According to some estimates, as many as 50 000 people traveled to Olympia to see the games at the height of their popularity. The conditions at the event were, however, infamously horrible. In one anecdote, a miller from Chios threatened to send his lazy slave to see the Olympic games as a punishment for slacking off.


Many people from all over the Greek world traveled for days on foot or carriage to attend the games. This was a time when traveling was uncommon, as it was difficult and often dangerous. When they arrived at the games, they were met with thousands of others visitors. There was no accommodation. There were loud trumpeters and annoying hecklers. The spectators stayed in tents around the stadium or slept in fields or forests nearby. Conditions were not sanitary. There was no water supply or washing space for everyone. The weather was scorching hot; it was noisy and very crowded.


Men, both Greeks and foreigners, children, slaves, merchants, poets, musicians, politicians, priests, and philosophers filled the seats to see the events. Unmarried women and priestesses could also attend as spectators. The audience cheered and booed the athletes, placed bets, and demonstrated loudly if they disagreed with the judges on the results. During the religious ceremonies, hundreds of oxen and other animals were sacrificed to honor Zeus. The sounds of animals and the smell of blood and flesh must have been intense.


Did the Ancient Olympic Games Have Sponsors?

The Discobolus of Myron (detail), Roman marble copy of an originally Greek bronze sculpture by Myron, from circa 460-450 BCE, via the British Museum


Like today, a large event like the Olympics would not be possible without sponsors. Ancient patrons could be kings, tyrants, generals, politicians, priests, or city-states such as Athens, Sparta, Corinth, or Syracuse.


There were various reasons to support and sponsor an athlete. Some wealthy patrons did so out of their own pride as citizens. Sometimes sponsors hoped to boost the reputation and prestige of their hometowns by producing Olympic champions. Some patrons sponsored the games to associate some of the beauty and success of a beautiful athlete with themselves. Sometimes the motivation was religious. In return, the athletes were expected to be loyal and grateful and display the name or emblem of their sponsor during the competitions.


The patrons could help the athletes with travel expenses and sponsor training facilities, trainers, and food. One of the most famous patrons of the ancient Olympics was the king of Macedonia, Alexander I. He was an avid fan of the games and even participated as an athlete himself. As a patron, he built a gymnasium in Olympia so that the athletes had a place to train for the games.

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By Anna GustafssonM.Sc. Communication & Arts, MA ArchaeologyAnna is a writer and an archaeologist based in Athens, Greece. She graduated from the University of Athens (NKUA) with an MA in Greek and Eastern Mediterranean archaeology and has an M.Sc. degree in journalism, literature, and art studies. Anna loves to share her passion for history and arts through writing. Her special interests are the Bronze Era in the Eastern Mediterranean area, the visual arts of ancient Greece, and the archaeology of Cyprus. In her spare time, Anna enjoys studying languages, visiting archaeological museums and medieval churches, reading biographies of European royalty, and taking photographs.