How the First Olympics Worked

Ancient Greece Image Gallery These crumbling columns in a field of daisies at Olympia once supported a mighty temple during the time of the first Olympic Games. See more pictures of ancient Greece.
Gjon Mili//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Before today's spandex-clad (and some sequined) Olympians strived for the gold, silver or bronze, the inventors of the Olympic Games, the sixth-century Greeks, competed for victory -- and olive oil.

These men weren't the kind of live-breathe-and-eat the sport athletes that convene at the Olympics today. They were ordinary tradesmen in the ancient Greek world -- a mass of land that stretched from the Black Sea to Spain. Every four years, they trekked to Olympia to gain honor, political clout and social status through athletic victory.


These games were certainly about winning, but that wasn't their primary purpose. They were founded to build diplomacy across the Greek world and to honor the greatest of the Greek gods: Zeus.

While the first official games were held in 776 B.C.E., their origins stretch even further back. According to one myth, the very first games occurred during a battle between Zeus and Cronus, when the two gods fought for control as chief of the gods (Zeus won). Some time later, a demigod named Herakles held a festival of athletic events to honor Zeus for granting him military victory over the city-state of Elis.

What's the reason for these legends? Well, there's not a whole lot of information about the first Olympics. What we know about them comes from a few archaeological relics and the accounts of ancient travelers like Pausanias and the treatises of some early thinkers, such as Herodotus and Pliny.

Dicey as the details may be, the picture we have of the earliest Olympics reminds us of the games' real meaning. A fragmented world needed something to unify it, and a little healthy competition was just the thing. Not that these games were perfect -- there were scandals, sabotage and plenty of over-greased, over-confident men in the ancient stadiums. What were the stakes? Who stood to gain the ultimate victory, and whose bitter losses turned them into the laughingstocks of their city-states? And what caused some spectators to be thrown to their deaths off mountain-tops?


The Olympic Purpose

Much of our knowledge about the ancient Olympics comes from engravings on ancient pottery, like the scene drawn on this 5th century B.C.E. vase.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Some ancient texts hold clues that the games may have begun at Olympia as far back as the ninth or 10th century, B.C.E. [source: University of Pennsylvania]. The city of Olympia was located on Pelops, a western island in the chain of Greek Peloponnese islands. Yet another legend claims that it was on this island that Pelops (for whom the islands were named) initiated the first games. According to Greek mythology, Pelops, Zeus' grandson, became the darling of Mt. Olympus when the gods resuscitated his young body after his father killed him and served him to the gods for dinner. The gods took pity on Pelops, and revived him. Pelops became a great warrior, and reputedly, quite an Olympic athlete.

Whether or not Pelops established the games, Olympia is undoubtedly the site where it all began. Olympia was revered as a holy city and was the destination of many pilgrims who came to see the temple of Zeus (read more about it in How the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World Work).


The first Olympics evolved out of a religious festival that honored Zeus. Greeks convened from all expanses of the empire to attend the celebration. Whether it was Zeus, Herakles or Pelops, someone decided that it would be a good idea to honor the mortals, too, by showcasing their athletic prowess. The idea behind the Olympics was twofold: to exhibit the talents and development of young citizens and to bring Greeks together in a friendly, diplomatic setting. Not only were the games an athletic venue, they were also a time for political congress. In an unsettled and somewhat volatile warrior's world, the Greeks used the games as an opportunity to establish friendly connections with their neighbors and make allies.

­Because participants traveled from all corners of the Greek world to compete, it became necessary to protect them from the sometimes treacherous paths they traversed through hostile towns -- as well as the hostile politics they occasionally encountered at the games. In the ninth century, the city-state of Elis came up with the idea of an Olympic Truce. The truce, or Ekecheiria, called for a military cease-fire among all spectators and athletes [source: International Olympic Committee]. Just prior to the games, heralds from Elis traveled from city-state to city-state to declare the official start of the Olympics and to recite the truce.

776 B.C.E. marked the first official Olympics. Like today's Olympic Games, they were held every four years. The games' organizers added new events throughout the years and recruited more participants. What started as a one-day event grew to span five entire days. While some events took place in the stadium (a site that held more than 40,000 people), others were conducted in the Hippodrome, a large, leveled field. As the Olympics grew larger, gymnasiums were built for athletic practice and accommodations were constructed for the Hellanodikis -- judges. For the 12 centuries that the games were held, they changed locations four times, beginning in Olympia and ending in Nemea.

Next, we'll take a look at the events that made up the Olympic Games.


Olympic Events

A vase from around 450 B.C.E. shows an Olympic athlete using heavy stones for weightlifting.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The original Olympic events required minimal amounts of gear and equipment. They were tests of strength, agility and endurance. And at least one of them has mythical roots.

From 776 B.C.E. until 724 B.C.E., the only Olympic event was the stadion. The stadion was a running event -- specifically, a race spanning 600 feet (182.9 meters). Our knowledge of the stadion comes from its mention in ancient Greek poems and its depiction on pottery vessels. Some sources refer to the event as the stade race and estimate its length at 200 meters (656.2 feet) [source: International Olympic Committee]. Other running events added later included the dialous, a 400-foot (121.9 meter) race, and the dolichos, a race that ranged from 1,400 feet (426.7 meters) to 4,800 feet (1463 meters).


Some especially nimble athletes were skilled at the long jump. Jumpers strapped halteres (weights made of stone or lead) to their legs, which helped them gain greater distance. Before they landed, they'd rip off the weights and toss them aside to guarantee a safe return to the ground. Stone and lead weights were also used in the discus throw. The discus throw was pretty similar to the modern event, in which the thrower spins in a circle and releases a heavy disc toward markings within a confined space. Ancient Olympic discuses were later made from iron, lead and bronze.

In 708 B.C.E., the pentathlon became a part of the games. We don't know much about the pentathlon except that it was added after wrestling became part of the Olympic line-up and that it was loosely based on Spartan warrior techniques. Because the modern pentathlon includes archery, fencing, swimming, jumping and running, we can guess that the event was similar to a relay race in which athletes were tested by several diverse activities.

Wrestling and boxing were two of the most physically combative sports in the games. While wrestling was strictly hand-to-hand combat, boxing permitted use of primitive gloves called himantes. Himantes were little more than bands that wrestlers wrapped around their hands for support. In addition to supporting the wrestler, himantes could also do some serious harm to the combatant -- when struck across the face with the hard, rough leather himantes, the resulting wounds could permanently deform features [source: International Olympic Committee]. Pankration was an even more violent event. It was a gory showdown that combined the roughest boxing and wrestling maneuvers. According to Greek mythology, Theseus invented pankration to defend himself against the minotaur (a creature half-bull and half-man) he encountered in the labyrinth.

Equestrian events drew large crowds and some regal competitors to the Hippodrome. Chariot races in particular were very cutthroat events, and royals clamored to claim victory as preeminent charioteers. It wasn't unheard of for royals to cheat in these races in order to gain the title of champion. Not that all the royals competed -- the title went to the owner of the horse, not the athlete competing in the event. So some kicked back in the stands while commissioned athletes drove their horses to victory.

Just who were these ancient athletes? And did they really compete naked? Read on to learn more.


Olympic Athletes

This engraving shows the awards ceremony at the ancient Olympic Games, circa 600 B.C.E.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Only male citizens were eligible to compete in the Olympic Games. The term "citizen" refers to a man who participated in local politics, voted and provided military service. Citizens were of Greek descent and had jobs or trades -- they weren't enslaved people. Some of the most skilled competitors had humble job titles: The first Olympi­c champion was Koroibos, a cook who won the stadion race in 776 B.C.E.

"Athlete" translates from Greek as "one who competes for a prize" [source: University of Pennsylvania]. The ancient Greeks didn't bother classifying their athletes as amateurs or pros. All athletes shared the same passion for victory for a pretty simple reason: They wanted to strike it rich. The prizes they sought varied from the material -- ancient trophies like cauldrons or tripods -- to the immaterial -- lifelong respect and prestige. Some unusual prizes included women, olive oil, clothing and animals. Athletes typically were rewarded with cash prizes by their city-states when they returned home, and some even got pensions for their victories. Athenian Olympic champions were even guaranteed one free meal a day for life. Athletes who won more than three events were immortalized by statues commissioned in their honor. These were placed in the temple of Zeus at Olympia. A few talented equestrian champs even got their images imprinted on coins.


­With so much at stake, some athletes tried bribing the judges or cheating at their events. If someone was caught cheating, he was disqualified. Especially brazen cheaters had their likenesses carved into statues that lined a hall of shame in the altis, a pathway that led to the stadium.

When it was time for their big events, athletes greased themselves with oil and fought hard for victory. It's debated whether or not athletes competed in the nude. According to some ancient sources, athletes wore shorts. Others claim that the tradition of competing naked started when a runner named Orsippos was stripped of his shorts during his event. Still others assert that the Spartans started the trend in the eighth century. After the eighth century, it was acceptable for athletes to compete with or without clothes. This may have also been an effort to discern which athletes were women competing in disguise.

In some events, particularly wrestling, athletes fought to the death. At the end of an event, a victor was crowned with red ribbons and showered with flowers. When all the games had ended, a bigger awards ceremony was held to honor all victors. They were acknowledged by their names as well as their fathers' and their city-states' [source: International Olympic Committee].

Not all competitors could be big winners -- and not all competitors would live to tell about their Olympic experiences. Next, we'll learn what happened to the women who tried to compete in the games.


The Herean Games

This statue depicts a young competitor in the Herean games.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you were imagining a wrestler's loving wife watching her husband fight to the death, twisting a tear-stained handkerchief in her hands, you'd be wrong. Married women weren't permitted to watch the games, but historians aren't sure why. However, young virgins could join the throngs of spectators that crowded in the stadium. If a married woman was caught watching the games -- be it in the guise of an unmarried woman or even costumed like a man -- she'd be put to death. Violators were hurled off the pinnacle Mount Typaion, which stands about 490 feet (150 meters) high.

In the second century, a traveler named Pausanias wrote about the Herean Games. We don't have a lot of information about these games, but we do know that they were devised as a counterpart competition to the Olympics for women. The Herean Games were held every four years at the festival of Hera, Zeus' wife. Whether the games were founded at the same time as the Olympics or later, we can't be sure.


The Herean Games consisted only of running events. For some unknown reason, only unmarried women were allowed to compete. They wore modest tunics that exposed their right breasts and shoulders and ran with their hair undone. Did the winners receive prizes? Perhaps, but nothing as extravagant as the male athletes. An organization of 16 women that hosted the races may have given the winner an amphora, an urn-like vessel.

While the ancient Greeks made great strides toward including women in the grand tradition of the Olympic Games, there were still plenty of inequalities and scandals that marred the events. The games were fated to end, especially after increasing instances of bribery and cheating that disputed the honor of the games.

And in 393 C.E., the Christian emperor Theodosius banned the Olympics and the Herean Games for their promotion of polytheism (worship of many gods).

But this wasn't the end of the Olympics. In the late 19th century, an enterprising Frenchman revived the grand tradition of the games.


Planning the First Modern Olympics

The first Olympic committee, shown on June 1, 1896. Seated L to R: Baron de Coubertin (France), Demetrius Vikelas (Greece), A. de Boulovsky (Russia). Standing L to R: Dr. W. Gebhardt (Germany), Jiri Guth-Jarkovsky (Czechoslovakia), Francois Kemeny (Hungary) and General Victor Balck (Sweden)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 1800s, the Greeks began hosting athletic competitions again, hoping they'd gather the kind of steam that got the Olympics rolling. But the games didn't take off.

It took a real visionary to resuscitate a tradition that had been dead for nearly 1500 years. A French baron named Pierre de Coubertin thought that he could reform the French educational system by emphasizing the type of athleticism that the Greeks conceived of. Coubertin wanted to see his countrymen develop into great scholars and citizens as well as great sportsmen. Nurturing and pushing the body to its limits was just as important to Coubertin as challenging one's mind.


He proposed the idea of holding Olympic Games in France to the Union des Sports Athlétiques in 1892. No one was too keen on the idea, but Coubertin was determined to follow through with his athletic revival. Two years later, on June 16, a committee made up of international delegates embraced his idea when he framed the notion of the Olympic Games as a diplomatic opportunity to mend a fractured world. Coubertin got the support of Belgium, England, Greece, Italy, Russia, Spain, Sweden and the United States -- even his skeptical homeland, France, got on board [source: Scholastic].

While Coubertin wanted to host the games in France, the committee thought it proper to pay homage to the founder of the games by holding them in Greece first. So Coubertin compromised: France would host the Olympics at the start of the new century in 1900, but Greece would host the very first modern Olympic Games in 1896. The precedent of holding the games every four years was re-established, and a new precedent was created: The Olympics would be held in different locations each time they occurred.


The 1896 Olympics

Spiridon Louis, the winner of the marathon in the first Modern Olympic Games.
Mandatory Credit: Allsport IOC/Allsport/Getty Images

The Olympic Games of 1896 consisted of nine events, including cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, track and field, weight lifting and wrestling [source: Scholastic]. The most anticipated event was the marathon. A co-organizer of the event, Michel Bréal, devised the idea of paying the ultimate homage to Greece by including a track and field event that covered the famous route of Phidippides, the ancient Greek messenger. Phidippides ran 25 miles (40 km) to deliver an announcement of an important military victory and tragically died at the end of his arduous trek. The entire committee embraced the idea, and the Greeks were favored to win the event.

Fate was at work on the day of the race, and the Greek runner Spiridon Louis won the marathon -- even after stopping halfway through at the town of Pikermi to quaff a glass of wine [source: Lovett]. The marathon race course would be extended to its current length of 26.2 miles when London hosted the games in 1908.


In 1924, the first Winter Olympic Games were held in Chamonix, France. These icy-cold events were added to the four-year rotation of their counterpart summer games.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • "Ancient Olympic Games." International Olympic Committee. (1 February 2008).­_uk.asp
  • "Ancient Olympic Games -- More on the Athletes." International Olympic Committee. (1 February 2008).­_uk.asp
  • "Ancient Olympic Games -- More on the History of the Games." International Olympic Committee. (1 February 2008).­_uk.asp
  • "Ancient Olympic Games -- More on the Gods." International Olympic Committee. (1 February 2008).­_uk.asp
  • "Ancient Olympic Games -- More on Sports Events." International Olympic Committee. (1 February 2008).­_uk.asp
  • "Anecdotes About the Ancient Olympic Games." Dartmouth University. 2004 (13 February 2008).
  • "Are Today's Olympians Too Commercial? Depends…" University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 2007. (1 February 2008).
  • "The Athletes: Amateurs or Pros?" University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 2007. (1 February 2008).
  • Benagh, Jim. "Olympic Games." (7 February 2008).
  • "The Games." University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 2007. (1 February 2008).
  • "History." International Olympic Committee. (1 February 2008).
  • Lovett, Charlie. "The Games of the I Olympiad: Athens, 1896." Excerpted from Olympic Marathon. Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, Connecticut. 1997.
  • "The Politics of the Olympic Games." University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 2007. (1 February 2008).
  • Segrave, Jeffrey O., Ph.D. "Hitler's Ambitious Plans for the 1936 Olympics." 23 August 2004.
  • "Unearthing the First Olympics." NPR. 19 July 2004 (7 February 2008).
  • "The Women: Were the Ancient Olympics Just for Men?" University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 2007. (1 February 2008).