runners at the Panathenaic games in 530 BC
The Greeks saw competition as a way to earn respect and honor. They considered an athlete to be, in the words of the Historian Pindar, one "who delights in the toil and cost," and the Greek word for athlete, in fact, was the same as the one for "miserable" and "wretched." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Athletes were required to be freeborn males of Greek descent. Contrary to myth, Olympic athletes were not amateurs. They were often well paid and backed by sponsors, patrons or head's of state and spent all of their time training. Top athletes were given money, tax exemptions and draft deferment. They traveled around with entourages and were paid appearance money as well as prize money. Although they competed for their home city states it was not uncommon for some to switch allegiance for money. The same held true for sought after coaches.

But not everyone admired these ancient Olympians. Euripides wrote "Of all the countless evils throughout Hellas none is worse than the race of athletes...In youth they strut about in splendor, the idols of the city, but when bitter old age come upon them they are cast aside like worn out cloaks." Galen, one of the founders of medicine, added "they spend their lives in over-exercising, in over-eating, and over sleeping like pigs. Hence they seldom live to old age and if they do they are crippled and liable to all sorts of diseases.”μ

Greek athletes were not all that different from their modern counterparts. They both had secrets to success. In 668 B.C., a Spartan athlete attributed his victory in the 200-meter dash to a diet of dried figs. There was also pressure and high expectations. One athlete called an Olympic victory "the wreath or death." They also said similar things. When asked what will be right way to live, the wrestler and philosopher Plato said, "A man should spend his whole life at 'play.'"

Ancient Greek Olympics and Nudity

Boxing scene
Olympians competed in the nude. In some competitions and during the opening and closing ceremonies they often covered themselves in perfumed oils. Even jockeys wore nothing. Wrestlers in the nude often had their foreskin tied over the tip of the penis for protection. The only exception was the charioteers who wore long white robes. Nudity was seen as a way of making all competitors equal by stripping social ranks they could otherwise express with their clothes.

The athletes competed in front of an almost all male audience. There is some confusion as to whether women could attend events. There are accounts of women being threatened with being tossed from a cliff if they were discovered in the stands although the punishment it seems was never carried out but the same source also described a special seat for a woman priest. Most scholars believe married women were barred although unmarried women and girls were allowed in the stands.

In the first few Olympics the athletes competed with their clothes on and no one is exactly sure why they decided get rid of them. Some historians say the precedent was set in a race in 720 B.C. in which Orsippus of Megara lost his shorts in the middle of the race and won anyway. Other historians recall a runner who was leading a race but tripped and fell and lost when his shorts slipped down.μ

Olympic Training in Ancient Greece

The gymnasium (derived from the Greek word for “place to exercise naked”) was where the athletes worked out. It was usually nothing more than an open area adjacent to the sacred grove. Athletes arrived with bags with oil flasks and strigils used for scraping their body clean after exercising. There were special training facilities for athletes. One of the most famous in the Italian colonies was Krotons. The athletes from this city were so adept that during one Olympics the top seven finishers in one footrace were Krotoniates. "Not only did Kroton have the best athletes, it had the most beautiful women," one historian told National Geographic, "The great painter Zeuxis came here to find models for a painting of Helen of Troy."

The strigil was a strange-looking device usually made of bronze. It was used mostly by athletes to scrape dirt and oils off their bodies after competitions and training. The athletes did this rather than wash with soap. The strigil looked sort of like a long spoon with the spoon part stretched and elongated and bent forward and the handle stretched and bent backwards. Strigils first appeared in Greek art in the 6th century B.C. and became symbols of athletes, some of whom where found to have them buried with them in ancient graves. One vases shows an athlete presenting his strigil to a dog to lick.

Athletes used oil to protect their skin form injuries, reduce sweating and make wrestlers slippery to their opponents. Some have suggested it was also done to make their bodies more aesthetically pleasing for the audience.

A typical Greek gymnasium was an open court surrounded by columns with areas for running, jumping and throwing and a covered area for wrestling and bathing. Young men often spent a greater part of their day in the gymnasium, occupying themselves as much with chatting and hanging out as working out. It is no surprise that Sophists conducted their first meetings in gymnasiums and Plato set up his Academy and Aristotle set up his Lyceum next to gymnasiums.

Athletes in the ancient Olympics ate honey for energy and meat for strength. Boxers used primitive punching bags and head-gear for training. Massage was an important element of training. One reason the athletes performed and trained in the nude is because it was easier to massage oils into their body, which was regarded as a key to victory.

On the subject of training too hard Galen wrote: “perhaps someone will say that they have a blessing in the pleasure of their bodies. But how can [that be] for during their careers athletes are in constant pain and suffering not only because of their exercise but also because of their forced feedings? And when they reach the age of retirement, their bodies are essentially...crippled.”

Olympic Rules and Cheaters in Ancient Greece

The Olympic events were presided over by judges who wore indigo robes and flower garlands. Everyone had to submit to the local laws of Olympia when they entered the competition. A great deal of effort was made to ensure that competitors fought on equal footing regardless of their wealth, social standing or popularity. Before the competitions, athletes were required to take an oath on a slice of boar’s meat that they had not used any magic to boost their performance. There were stories about Olympic athletes who took psychedelic mushrooms of a competitive edge.

The hysplex was a complicated devise designed to prevent false starts. Runners that made false starts were beaten by the official whip bearers. Cheaters were fined and the money was used to build "Zanes," statues that bore the name and offense of the cheater so he would go down in infamy for his humiliation. Some of the statues were built with money taken in from fines taken from athletes caught taking bribes.

The ancient Olympics were not immune from corruption and scandal. In the Olympics in 396 B.C., sporting judges were punished for making dishonest decisions. Later the boxer Eupulos was caught paying a rival to throw a bout. Philip of Macedonia, Alexander the Great's father, payed Olympic organization large sums of money to allow Macedonians, regarded as Barbarians, to participate. He also bought off rivals in chariot races. The legendary Prince of Pelops fixed the race against his main rival by hiring someone to sabotage his chariot axle by substituting a wax fittings for a metal one, causing the chariot to break apart in mid race, killings it driver, a rival king. Pelops in turn won the hand of a beautiful woman who became his wife.

In 66 A.D. the Roman Emperor Nero arrived at the Olympics with a retinue of 5000. He entered several events, and with his bodyguards standing ominously close, he won them all. During the chariot race he fell off his mount and all the other contestants stopped until he got back on. He later went on to win the race even though he did not finish.◂

Olympic Winners in Ancient Greece

Diagoras of Rhodes
The winners at the Olympics were awarded an olive wreath cut from a sacred tree. It was the equivalent of a gold medal. In the Nemean Games they received a crown of fresh celery. In the Delphi Games the crown was made of bay leaves. At the Isthmia Games it was made from dry celery There was no second or third prize, nor were records important. The only thing that mattered was winning. The exception was the Panathenaea at Athens There, prizes were given to the winner and the top five runners up. Some of the prizes could be quite lavish. On scholar estimated the winner of the boy’s foot race won an amphorae filed with 1,944 liters of olive oil. The amphora themselves were decorated with images of the event won and were like trophies.

It was the obligation of the victor's city state to give the victor a grant usually around five times the average wage of a working man. Winners were also given free meals, the best seats at festivals and exemptions from taxes. Statues were erected in their honor. All around Olympia were statues of athletes among the statues of gods and goddesses. Some winners were given a pension for life. By some estimates an Olympic victory could be worth half a million dollars in today's money.

Some Olympic winners were extolled with odes, given slaves and oxen and provided with free food for life. A common prize was 100 olive-oil filled amphorae (olive oil was very valuable in ancient times). When the winner returned home he was garlanded again with wreath of olive leaves and a statue was raised in his honor. Sometimes a hole was punctured in the city's fortification with the understanding being that the victor was so strong he would deter any incursions.

Ancient Greek Poems for Olympic Winners

An ode for the winner of boy’s footrace in 460 B.C. went: Now for the Alkimedon: blessed with victory at Olympia, by the slopes of Kronose. On first sight he was splendid; sure he proved his beauty in the test. Triumphant form each bout. He puts his homeland on the heralds’ lips’ “Aegina of the long oars!”

By contrast losers sometimes came home in humiliation. A lament for one unsuccessful athlete went: “the loser’s hateful return, the jeering voices, the furtive back alleys.”

On winning itself Pindar of Thebes wrote in the late 5th century B.C.: In athletic games the victor wins the glory his heart desires as crown after crown is placed on his head. when he wins with his hands or swift feet. There is a divine presence of a judgment of human strength. Only two things, along with prosperity, advance life’s sweetest prize: if a man has success and then gets a good name . Don’t expect to become Zeus. You have everything if a share of these two blessings comes your way .

Famous Ancient Greek Athletes

hero cult
Milo, who lived around 500 B.C., was perhaps the most famous Olympic athlete during ancient times. He the Olympic wrestling champion six times. In 520 B.C. he was the only wrestler. Everyone else it seems was afraid to challenge him. In addition to his wrestling skills, he was also known for his appetite. In a typical meal it was said he ate 7 pounds of meat, 7 pounds of bread and a gallon of wine. Once he reportedly carried a full grown bull around the stadium, then ate it one day. To show off his strength he used to have chords wrapped around his head and bust them by holding his breath and expanding the veins of his temples. But despite his awesome powers he died after being eaten alive by a pack of wolves when he got his hand stuck in a tree.◂

Theogenes was another popular athlete. One night one of his enemies was killed while trying to flog his statue, which fell on him. The statue was tried and found guilty of murder and dumped in the sea. The next year Thasos experienced an unprecedented famine. When the Thasos elders consulted the Oracle of Delphi they were told to bring back the political exiles. When this didn't work it was suggested that maybe the exiles referred to was the statue of Theogenes. The statue was then dredged up, replaced and chained down so it wouldn't fall over again. The famine soon ended and people returned to worship the statue for another five hundred years.μ

According to the Guinness Book of Records, Leonidas of Rhodes won a record 12 running titles in the ancient Olympic games between 164-152 B.C.

Women in the Ancient Greek Olympics

Spartan woman
Nearly all the competitions in the Olympics were between males, although sometimes unmarried girls, divided into different age groups, competing in running events at a separate sporting event called the Heraea held at a different time than the Olympics at the Temple of Hera. The girls competed with "their hair hanging loose" and with a "tunic reaching to a little above the knee, with the right shoulder bare as far as the breasts."

In Sparta women competed in front of the men nude in "gymnastics," which at that times meant "exercises performed naked." The Spartan women also wrestled but there is no evidence that they ever boxed. Most events required the women to be virgins and when they got married, usually the age of 18, their athletic career was over. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Otherwise women competitors were barred from the games and not even allowed to go near the stadium. The mother of a boxer once disguising herself as her son's trainer and was revealed for what she was when her robe slipped after embracing her victorious son. The judges spared her life with the understanding she would never show up again. The boxer's mother episode, some say, is another reason why male competitors competed in the nude.

In 396 B.C. Princess Kyniska became the first woman to sponsor a winning entry in the tethrippon, a four horse chariot race, at the Olympics.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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