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Olympic Games in Greece

No people of antiquity attributed as much importance to sport as the Greeks.

The true spirit of competition, from which the principles and ideals of the Olympic Games derived, is first found amongst the Achaean Mycenaean's, who developed the first Greek civilization, as successor to the Minoan. From the Cretans they adopted acrobatic displays, but they were particularly interested in boxing and wrestling, and introduced two new contests - the foot race and the chariot race. As in Crete, so in Mycenaean Greece, games invariably formed part of religious festivities. They also commonly found in the form of funeral games held to honor distinguished dead kings and heroes.

Agon, the virtue of rivalry: One of  the most characteristics of the ancient Greeks was their competitive nature, which was manifested in every expression of their lives and world view. Rivalry and confrontation in the arena of creative intellectual and physical development pervades the whole of ancient Greek civilization. The prizes, humble wreaths of laurel, olive and wild celery, crown the names of an ageless band of victors at Olympia, Nemea, Delphi and Isthmian in the catalogues of memory and proclaim and hymn the physical and moral stretch of those who competed in the arena. Prizes for intellectual contests embellish the songs of the tragedians, adorn works of large-scale sculpture and painting and bestow eternity on the writings of the philosophers, the pre-eminent trainers of the mind

Olympic Games in Greece

ZEUS AND HIS CULT. Zeus was the dominant god in the sanctuary at Olympia and his cult there was one of the oldest in Greece. According to one mythological tradition, Oxylos, the leader of the Aitolians who came from north-west Greece and settled in the area in the 11th c BC, dedicated the sanctuary to Zeus and celebrated games for the first time. A different version has it that the worship of Zeus in this region was established by the Herakleidai the descendants of the hero Herakles. A late tradition also emphasises the link of the site with Zeus by identifying it as the location of Zeus's victory over his father Kronos.

Evidence for the nature and kind of the early cult of Zeus at Olympia is provided by more than 6000 dedications placed by visitors to the sanctuary in the ashes of the great altar of Zeus (10th-late 8 c. BG). The military character of the god's cult is attested by bronze and clay figurines of warriors (depictions of the god himself or of the dedicator), charioteers and chariots. Numerous figurines of animals most of them bulls or horses are to be explained as offerings made by a farming and stock-raising community. Bronze tripod cauldrons, which were vessels of great value, were probably erected in the open areas of the sanctuary.

Olympic Games in Greece

From 700 BC on, spoils of war, and later entire buildings (treasuries) were dedicated by city-states; these too, had a military and political character and attest to the geographical range of the sanctuary's reputation. The military dimension of the cult of Zeus is further illustrated by the existence in the sanctuary of an oracle devoted mainly to military questions, according to the accounts of ancient writers. In this context, depictions of Nike (Victory) on coins issued by Olympia, terracotta figures of Nike used as akroteria on buildings, and independent statues of her found in the area of the sanctuary will have had a military rather than an athletic symbolism. The famous gold and ivory statue of Zeus enthroned, holding a scepter in one hand and Nike in the other gave clear expression to Zeus's role as Lord of the world, preserver of law and order, and judge of all contests on earth. The Olympic festival and games were held in his honor and the victors dedicated statues of themselves to him in thanks.


The appearance of institutionalised games at Olympia in the 8th c. BC marked a revival of a large number of Mycenaean customs and practises within the changed religious historical, ideological and political context of the new age that followed upon the collapse of the Mycenaean world.

Olympic Games in GreeceIn ancient literature, the foundation of the Olympic Games is regarded simply as a matter of their revival after a long period of interruption. Their beginnings are sought in the local cult of the hero Pelops, who was looked upon as the mythical founder of the games which recall elements of Mycenaean hero cult and the funeral games in Homer's Iliad, organised by Achilles in honour of his dead friend Patroklos. The oldest and strongest ancient tradition as to the foundation of Olympic Games is cited in the poem by pseudo-Hesiod, Catalogues of Women, and states that the founder of the games was the Phrygian Pelops. Having defeated the king of Elis. Oinomaos, in a chariot race, Pelops took his daughter Hippodameia as his wife and became king of a large area – giving his name, indeed, to the whole of the Peloponnese. Another tradition, first recorded by Pindar in the first half of the 5th  c BC, represents the great Theban hero Heracles as founder of the games, after his victorious campaign against Augeias, the king of Elis, who refused to recompense Heracles for cleaning out his stables. The former version, involving Pelops, is attributed to the Pisatans the old Mycenaean inhabitants of the  region, while the latter version, with Heracles, is associated with the new Dorian tribe that conquered Elis and established their own god at Olympia, Zeus, who became the great deity of the sanctuary and the games. Peloponnese Tour

Olympic Games in Greece


The Olympic Games were held without a break from 776 BC to AD 393, a period of 1169 years. They took place every four years at the second full moon after the summer solstice, a date that coincided with the eighth solar month of the Eleian calendar (Apoffonios or Parthenios), which corresponded with August in the modern calendar. The duration of the games was directly related to the number of the events. From the beginning (776 BC) down to 684 BC when only athletic events were held, they lasted a single day. From 680 BC (25th Olympiad), when chariot races were introduced, the period was increased to two days, and in 632 BC (37th Olympiad) with the introduction of the boys' events, a third day was added. Finally, two more days were added in 472 BC (77th Olympiad) to ensure a smoother organisation of the events, making a total of five days. The responsibility for the organization and conduct of the Olympic Games lay with the Eleians. One of the most important institutions at the Olympic Games was the Sacred Truce - the suspension of all hostilities between belligerents for a brief period before, during and after the end of the games to enable them to be conducted, properly. Belief in this institution is reflected in the fact that, despite the continuous warfare in ancient Greece, the Olympic Games were never cancelled until they were finally abolished by the Roman emperor Theodosios.

Olympic Games in Greece

Special officials called spondophoroi traveled in groups of three to all the Greek cities to announce the beginning of the Sacred Truce and the exact date of the games. The Eleians prepared and maintained the areas of the sanctuary and the athletic venues a Olympia, and attended to the reception and housing of the athletes and their attendants and of the official representations sent by the Greek cities. The senior officials of the games were called Hellanodikai. Initially there was just one such official, called diaitater (referee), and the office was hereditary and held for life. By the time the programme of events was finally settled in 348 BC. (108th  Olympiad), there were ten Hellanodikai who were elected for a single Olympiad. The task of the Hellanodikai was to organize and hold the games, to ensure that everyone strictly observed the rules, to supervise the events, to award the prizes, and to punish any form of infringement by inflicting fines or corporal punishment.

The most common infringements were late arrival by the athletes, ignoring the instructions given by the responsible officials breaking the rules of the events, and bribing athletes. In the last case, the athletes were not only disqualified but fined a sum of money, part of which was expended on the manufacture of bronze statues of Zeus known as Zanes (the plural of Zeus). The rules and regulations of the games and individual events were formulated gradually. From the 6th c. BC onwards, they were codified and written on stone stelai that were erected in the Agora of Elis and the sanctuary at Olympia.


Two essential requirements had to be met for athletes to compete in the Olympic Games: they had to be Greeks, and they had to be born free of parents who were themselves free citizens.

Olympic Games in GreeceAs Greeks, they had a common religion, customs, language and ideals. As free citizens they were members of a community and shared the same perception of the existence of the free individual who trained to become the best.

Athletes had to travel to Elis, the headquarters of the organising city, one month before the beginning of the games. This regulation was strictly enforced by the organizers of the games. The interval of one month was essential for the Helfanodikai to check the origins and physical condition of the athletes so that they could exclude from the games those who were incapable of matching up to the fierce competition. They associated with the athletes on a daily basis, and assessed not only their ability and talent, but also their ethics and character. At the same time, the athletes trained in the two gymnasia' and one palaestra at Elis. Here they gave a practical demonstration that they knew and practised the principle of fair play, which they had been taught in the gymnasia of the cities from which they came. During the month of preparation, the judges were required to assign the athletes to categories, depending on their age.

At Olympia there were two such categories, for men and boys, while other games also had a category for “ beardless youths”. Originally, young men did not engage in special exercises, but trained, nude (gymnasium derives from the Greek word gymnos = naked), simply by competing, under the supervision of their paidagogos (tutor), the man who also attended to their education. Later, however, views on physical development changed, thanks mainly to the science of medicine, and the supervision of athletes was assigned to specialist trainers, who were usually themselves veteran athletes. The names of three of these have survived: the gymnasts, who drew up the training program, the paidotribes who supervised their training, and the aleiptes, who massaged them with oil. Many champions honoured their trainers by erecting statues of them next to their own.

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THE CHAMPIONS. The glory and fame surrounding an Olympic champion in the ancient world was itself a great blessing, and for an athlete to be crowned by the kolinos woven of branches of the sacred wild olive was the highest honour that could befall a mortal.

Of the 4237 athletes who will have been declared champions at 293 Olympiads over the 1169 years of the life of the institution (776 BC - AD 393), the names, place of origin, and event is known in 921 cases. Their names were recorded in the list of Olympic champions compiled in the 4th c. BC by the sophist Hippias of Elis, who presumably based it on the official archives, kept in the Bouleuterion at Olympia. The names of later champions were included in lists to be found in later historians, mainly of the Roman period, and a number of gaps can be supplemented by evidence scattered in papyri, on bases for statues of champions, seen by Pausanias, and in a large number of inscriptions found during the excavations.

After the victors had been announced and received their prizes, sacrifices were made on the attar of Zeus, followed by a celebratory banquet given for the champions by the Eleian organisers in the Prytaneion at Olympia. When the champions returned to their native cities, they were given a welcome on a par with that for generals returning from victorious campaigns. They entered the city riding in a four-horse chariot through a section of the fortification wall that was demolished for the purpose. The champion dedicated his wreath to the patron deity of the city, on whose altar he offered a sacrifice. He enjoyed certain privileges for life, such as free meals in the Prytaneion, exemption from taxes, and seats of honor in the theatre and at festivals and games. Poets wrote victory hymns in honor of the champions. Famous Olympic champions in ancient times include Milon of Kroton, Dillgoras of Rhodes, Theagenes of Thasos, Leonidas of Rhodes, Eubatos of Cerene, and others.

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RUNNING. Foot races were held in the stadium, a level defined space, the length of which differed from region to region depending on the length of the foot used as the unit measurement (0.32045 m. Olympia, 0.296 m. at Delphi, etc). The stadium at Olympia was 192.28 m. long that at Delphi 177.5 m and so on. The starting and finishing lines were originally simply scratched in the earth, but balbides were introduced in the 5th C these were permanent long narrow stone slabs with two parallel grooves along them. Posts were fixed in positions to separate the positions of the runners. The starting system in the stadium at Isthmia was even more complicated. In the case of races involving more than one length of the track, there was a turning point called kampter, which was marked by a column or a post.
The running events were as follows:
The stadion / stadium was the main sprint race, in which the runners had to complete one length of the stadium. It corresponds roughly with the modern 200 m. race.
The diaulos was another sprint, in which two lengths of the stadium had to be completed, corresponding roughly with the modern 400m.
The hippios was a middle-distance race over four lengths of the stadium corresponding roughly with the modern 400 m.
The dolichos was a long-distance race, the distance covered varying from 7-24 stadia (about 1400-4800 m).

RACE IN ARMOR. The race in armor was a sprint in which the runners had to wear a helmet and greaves and carried a shield as the completed two and more rarely four lengths of the stadium. The greaves were abandoned in the 5th c. BC and the helmet in the 4th c. BC, after which the runners held only the heavy shield, made of wood sheathed with bronze.

WRESTLING. The oldest and most common contest, was held both as an event in its own right and as part of the pentathlon. It required a combination of skill, flexibility and strength. It was divided into 'upright wrestling' and 'ground wrestling'. At the start of the fight, the two opponents stood facing each other with their legs bent and slightly apart, ready to take advantage of any weakness in their opponent and apply the holds would lead to a fall, which was the objective of the contest. To be declared the winner, a wrestler had to achieve three falls at his opponent's expense.

BOXING. Was one of the oldest and most popular events. The boxers competed in pairs determined by lot. To protect and support their finger joints and wrists they wore soft thongs called strophia or meilichai. Down to the 4th c. BC these consisted of thin strips of soft leather. From the 4th c. BC oxeis (sharp) thongs were used, which were reinforced by leather strips. The Roman caestus was strengthened with iron or lead. The opponents began by standing facing each other with their left arm extended to defend themselves and the right bent ready to deliver a punch. Essentially, all the punches were thrown at the head. There was no time limit on the match and the athletes competed until one of the two fell unconscious or was obliged to submit and admit defeat.

THE PANKRATION. Was a combination of wrestling and boxing and involved throwing one's opponent. The objective was to oblige one's opponent to admit defeat by whatever means possible. The pankration was the toughest and most dangerous of the heavy events, since everything was permitted except biting and gouging the eyes ( which was allowed only at Sparta). The event was divided into 'upright pankration', in which the contestants fought standing and 'ground pankration', in which the contest continued on the ground. The larger part of the contest took place on the ground as the athletes strove to compel their rival to submit by punching or applying holds.

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BOY'S GAMES. The introduction of the boys' contests to the Olympic Games  in 632 BC (37th Olympiad) resulted in the addition of a third day to the competition programme. Initially the young athletes competed in the  foot race and wrestling. During the 38thOlympiad 628 BC) the pentathlon was introduced into the boy's games, but it was not retained. From 616 BC (41st Olympiad) boxing was introduced into the boy's games, while in 200 BC (145th Olympiad) the pankration was incorporated.

According to the programme of the games (that is, in an Olympiad with the complete competition programme) the boys' contests where held on the second day. After the ceremonial entrance the young athletes competed in the preliminary heats of the stadium race. The final followed immediately after the completion of the preliminary races. Thereafter followed the boys' wrestling. In the afternoon of the same day the young athletes competed in the boxing and the pankration.

THE SPECTATORS. Famous citizens and ordinary pilgrims came from the ends of the Greek world to the sacred grove at Olympia to watch the games. The spectators belonged to various social classes, they were anonymous and famous, rich and poor, poets and philosophers, singers and dancers, and all had the right to watch the games without restriction, even barbarians and slaves apart from women. The huge crowds lived and slept in the open air in tents outside the Altis and near the rivers.

In addition to this vast crowd of pilgrims, there were also official missions from the cities, called theoriai. These consisted of eminent citizens, known as theoroi, led by architheoros. The cities sent valuable gifts to Zeus and also to the magistrates of Elis. The Greek cities also strove to ensure that the theoria they sent to the Olympic Games was the most magnificent of all for reasons of civic pride and for propaganda purposes.

The Olympic Games were attented by politicians, and also by men of letters and the arts, who came not simply to watch the events, but also for professional reasons: they included poets ( Simonides , Bacchylides, Pindar), orators ( Gorgias. Lysias, Isocrates), sculptors (Pythaforas of Samos, Polykleitos of Argos and Lysippos of Sikyon) and great philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Thales of Miletos).

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WOMEN AND PHYSICAL EXERCISE. Women were forbidden completely from competing in the Olympic Games, and even from entering the Stadium to watch the events. Women who broke this prohibition were cast down from Mount Typaion. The only woman allowed to watch the games was the priestess of Demeter Chamyne, a long - established local goddess connected with the earth and farming. The priestess sat on the goddess's altar on the north embankment of the Stadium. The only exception to the general absence of women from the Stadium at Olympia was Kallipateira of Rhodes, daughter of the Olympic champion Diagoras and a mother of a family of Olympic champions. At the 96th Olympiad (396 BC) she violated the prohibition and entered the Stadium secretly to watch her son Peisidoros compete and win the boxing. She was not punished by the Hellanodikai out of respect for the glorious athletic history of her family.


The only women's events held at Olympia were the Heraia. These were instituted at Olympia and held every four years in honor of the goddess Hera. wife of Zeus, in a different year from the Olympic Games. The games are said to have been organized first by Hippodameia, to give thanks for her marriage to Pelops. The competitors in the Heraia were young girls, not married women, who ran a distance of 500 feet that is about 160 meters. There were there different categories: young girls, adolescents, and young women. The athletes ran with their hair untied, wearing a short chiton and the winners were awarded a wreath of wild olive and portions of the sacred cow sacrificed in Hera's honor. Women, however, might be and were declared Olympic champions in the equestrian events, as owners of horses. The first of them was Kyniska, daughter of the Spartan King Archidamos


The most important athletic disciplines were running, with races over different distances one even in armour (hoplitodromeia) discus and javelin throwing, long jump, boxing, wrestling and pancration a contest involving boxing and wrestling. Before training, under the eye of his coach, or taking part in a contest, the athlete performed a preparatory ritual consisting of covering his body with perfumed oil from a leather aryballos. When his strenuous physical exertions were over, and before taking a relaxing bath, he then scraped his skin clean of dust, oil and sweat with a strigil, a curved instrument designed for this purpose. Restricted to the wealthy were disciplines involving horses, including chariot racing. Musical, vocal and poetry contests were commonly associated with the athletic events, further evidence of the idea of unity that characterized the education of young Greeks.

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What sports were contested in Athens 2004?

In Athens, athletes from nearly 200 countries will compete in 28 sports in 296 events. The sports are: aquatics (diving, swimming, synchronized swimming and water polo) · archery · badminton · baseball · basketball · boxing · canoe-kayak · cycling · equestrian · fencing · field hockey · gymnastics · handball · judo · modern pentathlon · rowing · sailing · shooting · softball · soccer · table tennis · taekwondo · tennis · track and field · triathlon · volleyball · weightlifting · wrestling

How does a sport get added to the Summer Games? For a sport to be included in the Summer Games, it must meet the following criteria: It must be widespread in at least 75 countries and 4 continents (men's sports).
It must be widespread in at least 40 countries and 3 continents (women's sports).

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