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The Olympic Games in Ancient Greece

Hermes of Praxiteles (340-330 BC) was found at the temple of Hera and it now is at the museum of Ancient Olympia. The perfect polish of the marble and the combination of the rythm and naturalism of the statue are the reasons why this statue is regarded as one of the most important works of art from classical antiquity. It depicts the god carrying the infant Dionysos to his nurses.


In the ancient times, every four years in the summer period, a major event, which lasted seven days, was held in Olympia, a city in Ancient Greece. Officially established as a pan-Hellenic celebration at the beginning of the 9th century BC with a law, it included religious rituals and athletic games. With the same law, the area of Olympia was considered a sacred place while a truce- ekehiria- was initiated: during the Olympics, all the conflicts among the ancient Greek cities-states stopped.

Preparation for the Olympics

The Palaestra, a square building-3rd century BC consists of an open peristyle countryard with rooms round it. It was an area in which athletes trained for wrestling, boxing and jumping.

The temple of Hera (600 BC), one of the earliest doric temples in Greece. The Hermes of Praxiteles was found in its cella

The first written testimonies with the names of winners, date back from the year 776 BC. There were specific preparations for the event which were:

The Stadium, where the athletic games were held, was 212.54m long and 28.50m wide. There were no seats, apart from the stone exedra of the Hellanodikai standing opposite the altar of the goddess Demeter Chamyne, and the embankment could easily seat 45,000 spectators. In the first picture, there is a general view of the stadium and in the second the exedra.

Myself at the entrance of the stadium

  1. The organizers sent messengers to all Greek cities to announce the time of the event. Meanwhile each city had chosen the athletes who would participate and a month before the games all the athletes came to Olympia in order to be trained. The athletes should be Greeks; later, during the Roman years, Romans had the right to participate as well.
  2. The cities' representatives and other people came to the sacred place one day before the beginning of the event. During their trip to Olympia no one had the right to harm them, while all conflicts all over Greece stopped.

The Leonidaion (330BC) was used as a guest house for the official visitors to the sanctuary.

The Games

A general view of Ancient Olympia as it is today.

Religious rituals were held at the beginning and the end of the games. On the first day, the athletes and the judges swore in front of Dias' statue (Dias was the supreme God in ancient Greek religion, the father of the Gods and humans) and the athletes were classified to the various games. Simultaneously, sacrifices were offered to the Gods by the organizers, while all the other visitors watched the rituals and listened to the various poets, philosophers and orators who presented their work there.

The Bouleutirion built in the 6th century BC. The athletes swore the required oath before the games at the altar of Zeus Horkios here.

It is important to stress that this "food for the mind" was offered to all visitors during the breaks of the games.

On the second day the games started with the race at the stadium and finished on the 6th day at the hippodrome with horse and chariot races. At the end of the third day the winners of the first two days were crowned and the winners of the rest 3 days were crowned at the 6th day. Thanking sacrifices to the Gods were offered by the winners at that day.

Taurus dedicated at a temple in Olympia, today in the Museum of Olympia.

The seventh day included a great parade of the winners, the judges and the cities' representatives from the hippodrome to the stadium, sacrifices to the altar of the Gods and a symposium for the winners.

The temple of Zeus, the most important building in the Altis (470-456 BC). In its cella stood Pheidias' masterpiece, the chryselephantine statue of Zeus. The sculptural compositions from the pediments are on display in the Olympia museum

An important notice is that except the priestesses, women were not allowed to watch the games and mothers and sisters of the athletes stayed at the opposite side of the nearby river.

One of the treasuries: small buildings in the form of temples which housed valuable dedications made in the sanctuary.

All the winners were crowned by the judges with a wreath of a wild olive tree which was called "cotinos". This olive tree was behind the temple of Dias. The names of the winners were insrcipted in a stone slab and all of them had the right to create their statue but the statue had to be as big as their real body size.

After the Games

All the visitors returned to their cities in large companies and if they were lucky to have a winner from their city, they created a hymn for him and sang it during their trip home.

When the winner returned, all citizens having been informed in advance by messengers, were waiting for him outside of the city, expressing this way their gratitude to him for the honour he had offered to the state. If the city had walls around it, they used to pull down the part near the gate, because they considered that the victory was too great and the winner needed more space to enter. After that, of course, they had to rebuild it.

Some personal thoughts comparing the ancient Olympics to what is being done today.

According to my point of view two things must be stressed:

The Nike of Paionios (421BC) - Museum of Ancient Olympia. The sculpture was dedicated by the people of Naupaktos and Messene to Zeus to commemorate their victory over the Lacedaemonians in 421 BC.

Photos: Spiros Tzelepis except the ones with the Hermes of Praxiteles, the Nike of Paionios and the Taurus which are from the museum of Olympia. Text: Spiros Tzelepis


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Reconstruction: July-August-September 2002

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