43 Athletic Facts About The Ancient Olympics

Sammy Tran

The Olympics weren’t always the fun, respectful festival of competitions that thrive on sportsmanship that they are today—though even the modern Olympics don’t always live up to that standard (Looking at you Ryan Lochte).

Ancient Olympics  Facts

43. The OG

Known for its athletic competitions, the ancient Olympic Games were originally a festival in honor of Zeus. The actual origins of the games are unknown due to a heavily tangled history of mythical stories relating to the gods. Accordingly, the games received their name from the Olympian gods, who were said to live on Mount Olympus.

42. Ancient Rituals

The Olympic games were only one of two central rituals that Greece celebrated at the time. The other was an older, more grounded, religious festival called the Eleusinian Mysteries.

41. Women Were First

The origins of the first games are believed to have been a foot race that occurred annually between young women who competed to become the priestess for the goddess Hera.

40. Old Boys Club

The first recorded competition for women in the Olympic Stadium was the Heraean Games in the 6th century BC, which consisted of foot races for both men and women. By the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the games were restricted to male participants only.

39. Godly Tribute

Around this time, the Sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia contained an 13-meter-high ivory and gold statue of Zeus that was one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

38. Artistic Expression

Unlike today, art was also a major part of the ancient games, and the most famous artists from all around Greece would show their faces at the games and compete in art competitions. These artists strove to capture the harmonious natural movement of the human body in their works.

37. Victory Song

Poets were also commissioned to write songs dedicated to the victories of the Olympics. These poems were passed on from generation to generation.

36. Not Just a Baker

The first recorded winner of the Olympic Games was Coroebus, from the city-state of Elis, who won a foot race. Coroebus wasn’t one of the elite; he was just a baker (who probably made the meanest bread in all of Greece).

35. Good Job, Guy

Champions were showered with honor, received lucrative material rewards, and got an olive wreath (which symbolized a crown) and a red tunic to wear. The people believed that the god of Victory, Nike, chose the winner, thus giving the champions a status on the level of a god for a time.

34. It’s a Fake

The most famous statue symbolizing the original Olympic games is the Discobolus, sculpted by Myron in the 5th century BC. The one we have today, however,  is actually a Roman replica dating back to about the 2nd century BC.

33. Sacrificial Lamb—I Mean Oxen

During the middle day of the Olympic festival, 100 oxen would be sacrificed to Zeus.

32. How Many Olympiads Until…

The Olympics were so influential that the word “Olympiad” became a measurement of time, referring to the period in between games. The games were held at four-year intervals, so an Olympiad stood for four years’ time.

31. A Run Across the Stadium

The modern word “stadium” is derived from the Stade race, the first and only competition of the original games, which was a foot race of about 190 meters. It wouldn’t be until the 14th Olympics that the next event, the Diaulos (“long race”), was introduced.

30. War as Sport

The last running event added to the Olympics was the Hoplitodromos (“Hoplite race”) in 520 BC, which was based on the war tactic of surprising enemies by running full speed in full armor at them. So yes, the race involved men running at full speed in armor.

29. Who Can Do It All?

The Pentathlon was also introduced at the 18th Olympic festival, and was made up of five events: running, long jump, discus throw, javelin throw, and wrestling. The competition would take place over one day, but it is not known how in the heck a winner was actually decided.

28. No Need For Helmets

Boxing would be added at the 23rd games in 688 BC. There was no points system in this event—instead, the match ended when one man was completely knocked out.

27. The Baddest of Them All

At the 33rd Olympics, the Pankration was initiated into the games and soared in popularity. An early form of mixed martial arts, this event basically had two rules: No tearing your opponent’s eyes out, and no biting. The match would last until one man gave up, lost consciousness, or…died. Arrhachion of Philgaleia even won the competition at the moment of his death, as he toppled his opponent while crushed by a fatal chokehold.

26. Competition for Royalty

The most prestigious events to at the Olympic Games were horse racing and chariot racing, as only the wealthiest were able to compete.

25. Nero is Definitely NOT a Zero

Nero, the Roman Emperor, once competed in the chariot race at the Olympics of 67 AD. He was thrown from his horse and unable to finish the race, but was still declared as the champion, because, you know, if he just would have finished the race, he obviously would have won. No, that was actually the official reason he won.

24. Youth Can Do It Too

Eventually, youth events were added to the games, starting with the 37th Olympics in 632 BC.

23. Uh…Really?

You know that torch relay thing that famous people do at the start of the modern Olympics? Well, it wasn’t in the ancient games; it’s a modern—and Fascist—invention. It was actually conceived as a form of Nazi propaganda during the 1936 Berlin Olympics to show the superiority of the Aryan race.

22. Primary Source

Our primary knowledge of the games comes not from books or letters, but from the vase paintings of athletes from the Archaic and Classical periods.

21. Come Settle With Me

Olympic champions were used for colonial purposes: The victors would be sent to help establish settlements, because who would pass up a chance to live in a settlement with an Olympic hero? Gives a whole new meaning to “Olympic Village.”

20. Political Games

The games were used as a political arena, and the festival often announced alliances between city-states.

19. I’m One of Them Now

The Olympic champion Sotades started out as Cretan, and won the long race at the 99th festival. At the next games, after he was bribed by the Ephesians, he declared himself an Ephesian, causing some controversy. He was then banished by the Cretans. So not good for his brand.

18. Stop, Olympic Time!

The Olympic Games also brought about a truce between city-states: Armies were prohibited from entering Olympia, and legal disputes and penalties of death were forbidden.

17. What Truce Are You Guys Talking About?

The Spartans were once forbidden from attending the games because they launched an assault against the city of Lepreum during the truce. They would go on to claim that the truce hadn’t yet started.

16. Milo the Mighty Drinker

Milo Croton was the most decorated wrestler of the Ancient Olympic games, winning the competition six times despite his excessive, or perhaps necessary, drinking habits. It is reported that he drank up to 10 liters of wine every single day.

15. A King Not to Mess With

The last recorded Olympic champion was Varastades (for boxing), the Prince and future King of Armenia, at the 291st games in the 4th century.

14. Yup, They Were Naked

You may have thought that all of the art you’ve seen depicting the Ancient Greeks competing in the nude was just artistic liberty, but it wasn’t. Competitors actually were naked. Their bodies were symbols of eternal beauty, manifesting the symbiosis of the body and the soul. The tradition of nude competition was introduced in 720 BC by either the Spartans or the Megarian Orsippus.

13. Who Like the Gym?

The word gymnasium is derived from the Greek word gymnos, which actually means “naked.” That is actually a bit creepy when you think about it.

12. Hold Your Horses

If you weren’t the most confident guy around, however, you were allowed to wear a penis restraint. This restraint was referred to as a kynodesme, or “dog leash,” and it consisted of nothing more than a leather string. It was tied around the tip of the foreskin to keep the head of the penis covered, though leaving the rest exposed. I guess that’s a good idea?

11. Keep It Clean

Now, if you’re going to be wrestling naked a lot, you’ve got to keep up proper hygiene habits. Thankfully, these athletes did. They were trained with strict hygiene regimens, and performed a daily process of rubbing a mixture of olive oil and fine sand into their skin. Exfoliating!

10. Nope. Not Allowed Here

Married women were prohibited from attending the games, and could receive harsh penalties for doing so, due to the whole guys being naked thing.

9. Segregation Game

Greece is famous for its democratic ideals, but you were only afforded societal freedom if you were an upper class, Greek-born male. All others, including women, foreigners, and slaves were forbidden from participating in the Olympics.

8. Ancient Celebrities

Besides being a stage for politics, competing in the Olympic Games was a way for the wealthy families to attract attention and fame to their dynasties.

7. From Sparta With Love

The first woman to be listed as an Olympic champion was Cynisca of Sparta in 396 BC, because Sparta produced the most badass individuals maybe ever (don’t tell the Mongols). While she was indeed barred from attending the Olympics, but she found a loophole by owning a chariot in the race; in the competition, the owner of the horses won the victory wreath, not the rider.

6. One True Winner

There was no second place, third place, or participation medals. There was only one winner, one man who could be proud to have competed and won an Olympic event.

5. Not The Only Games To Be Played

While the Olympic Games were the most prestigious athletic competition, they were a part of the Panhellenic Games, which were four separate festivals held at two or four-year intervals. The others were the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games.

4. Fall of the Games

By 385 AD, the games were in serious decline due to barbarian invasion and the destruction of the buildings from earthquakes and flooding.


The Olympic Games came to an end in 394 AD, when Roman emperor Theodosius I abolished pagan celebrations; the Empire was developing into a Christian empire.

2. You Can’t Stop Us

Though the games were banned, there is archaeological evidence that they were still held, likely in a sort of secrecy, for years afterward.

1. Whip It Good

The Greeks took wrestling seriously—it was the first combat sport to be in the Olympics and they called it palé. The goal was to land three throws on an opponent, and if an athlete broke a rule during a match the referee was allowed to whip them with a large stick. It first appeared in the 18th Olympiad and was a mainstay for the rest of the games’ history.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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