How the First Olympics Worked

Olympic Athletes

This engraving shows the awards ceremony at the ancient Olympic Games, circa 600 B.C.
This engraving shows the awards ceremony at the ancient Olympic Games, circa 600 B.C.
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 slaves. 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.

"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.