The ancient Olympic Games in Olympia, Greece were a spectacle of sports, sacrifice, statuary, and suffering in a station sanctuary filled with sex.

Oak and wild olive were sacred in
the ancient Altis sanctuary of Olympia.

Mythology states that the Greek hero Herakles (Hercules) marked out the first Olympia site that later developed into the Altis, or temple complex, in the meadowlands between the rivers of Alpheios and Kladeos that drained the Arkadian Mountains, long before 776 B.C.  He then named the mount above the stadion the Hill of Kronos.  The sanctuary of Olympia honored Zeus Olympios, great-grandson of Kronos.  The Peloponnese Peninsula was named after Pelos, the great grand-father of Herakles.

King Iphitos, of Elis, sought to revive the games, but it was Phillippi, (meaning friendship) who organized the 776 B.C. games to spread peace and harmony (hormonoia) amongst the squabbling Hellenic tribes. Olympia was never a town; a board of nine governed the games from the local town of Elis to prevent corruption, which rarely occurred.

Olympia was considered a sacrosanct sanctuary by the Hellenics and the quadrennial event was always in August during a full moon.  A “Sacred Truce” was enacted to give participants and athletes safe passage to the site;  wars were often curtailed during the competition, including the Peloponnesian War between the oligarchy of Sparta and democratic Athens in the early 4th century B.C. after the City States evolved.

A column from the Temple of Hera.

As the games expanded with new events, more than 45,000 spectators watched 1,200 athletes compete over five days. The games were for Hellenic men only, from Hellenic parentage; women were not allowed, and the penalty was death; no slaves or foreigners either.  The only exceptions were the High Priestess of Demeter, sister to the fertility goddess Hera, and the courtesans (male and female) who thronged into the Altis in the night and then were gone in the morning. 

It is not known if Alexander the Great visited Olympia, but he commissioned the completion of the Temple of Hera, with gold and ivory busts of his relatives in the chamber; the first modern Olympic torch was lit at the altar within the crumbled Temple of Hera for the Berlin Games of 1936.  There was no marathon or torch relay in ancient times. The original marble throne of the High Priestess was pulled from the muck and now stands in the stadion across from the judges’ enclave near the original grooved sprint line where tourists line up for photos.

Olympia’s religious rituals included processions, hymn singing, incense burning, animal sacrifices, incantations from linen clad priests, music of the flute and lyre, mythical storytelling, and probably pleas to Zeus to win.   The stadion stretched between packed embankments nearly 200 meters long and served as an art gallery of busts of past winners.  Ode writers and sculptors created works on the spot to elevate the winning athletes to legendary proportions.  Other fringe events included lectures, philosophy, poetry, astrology, and hucksters. There were no prizes for the athletes, only glory (kudos), acclaim for themselves, and their tribes, and later, the City States.

The original Olympia Stadion was 200 meters in length.

The stadion portal was once covered.

The first Olympiad in 776 B.C. was a one day event, a short running sprint, called a dromo, with local Peloponnese athletes attending only. Other games were added for the fourth and subsequent religious festival. As the events evolved the order of the games saw first chariot and horse racing, then the pentathlon; then boxing and pankration, then the race in armor.  Boys’ contests were on a separate day, with banquets throughout. 

The most popular contest was the first event, the four horse chariot race (tehrippon) which took 12 double laps or 24 turns around the Hippodrome for about nine miles.  In ancient times the Alpheios River washed away the Hippodrome which once stood south of the stadion. The Hippodrome was named after the famous princess equestrian Hippodameia (sub-duer of horses), daughter of Arkadian King Oinomans, who also bore a son called Pelo who was thought to be the inspiration of the mythical games. The wealthy owners bought the four horse teams and drivers but rarely participated themselves, but if their steeds won, they received the glory of wild olive victory garlands (stephanos). A wall was built around a wild olive tree in the Altis where the garlands were cut and bound  together.

The Altis was once walled.

The pentathlon included wrestling, running, jumping, javelin hurling, and discus throwing. There was no time limit in wrestling; when an opponent was thrown prone on the ground three times (triakter), he lost.  

The shortest run was a dash called a stade, the length of the stadion, about 192 meters.  Running up and down the stadion was called a diaulos; the longest race was the dolichos, or 24 times up and down the stadion or about 5,000 meters.  There was no marathon in the ancient games; the first modern marathon of 26 miles was to Athens’ old marble stadion (4th century B.C., seating 75,000) from the battle site of Marathon during the 1896 Olympics.  The relay with torches was part of a religious ceremony, and not attributed to the Olympia games.  A premature start in running induced a whipping.  In the 720 B.C. Olympiad a winning sprinter’s loin cloth fell off; others thought that was the winning edge and later all events but the chariot racing (added in 680 B.C.) went nude.

Boxing (pygme) was nearly bare-knuckles, only a thong of ox leather wrapped the fists. Many marble busts in the Olympia museum sport cauliflower ears, a testimony to the bloody bashing.

The ornate Philippeon Circle Temple.

Another popular event was the pankration, or all power thing, or total force; there were penalties for biting and eye gouging, but kicking, flailing, strangling, or even killing was okay; the most famous pankration fighter was Polydamas from Thessaly in the 408 B.C. games.

Bronze Hoplite helmets.

The last event was a race in armor or hoplitodromos,  beginning in 560 B.C. as a sprint over two lengths of the stadion in full bronze regalia: helmet, round shield, and knee greaves.
It was the closest event to para-militarism.

Most athletes were backed by aristocrats called Agonothetes, who would sponsor an event or an athlete To the athletes the games were agones or agon, which leads to the modern word agony; thus the clever  hark, “The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat”. Even King Herod The Great sponsored the entire ancient Olympics once.  Athlete is derived from the Greek word athleuo which means “I struggle, I contest, I suffer”.

There were no tickets sold or VIP seats, it was first-come first-served at Olympia. In the heat of summer with garbage and sacrificial ash piled high, cleanliness was a problem.  There were no sewers, but later shafts were dug for water; better to drink from the rivers where many encamped for miles around, where today olive groves stand.

The workshop of Phedias, the sculptor
who carved busts of the winners.

The agones were held uninterrupted for over 1,200 years, even after Greece’s glory faded with the professional armies of Macedonia and Rome over-running their homeland and sacred games. Nero attended the games in 67 AD (his villa foundations and walls are found in the Altis temple complex) but he fell out of his chariot in the Hippodrome, but still won the garland crown. Corruption had infiltrated the pure games. Before then the Greeks were honored to stand in the hallowed temple of Zeus to receive the laurels. The seated gold and ivory statue of Zeus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The fenced UNESCO site saw the reconstruction after six years of one of the Temple of Zeus columns in honor of the 2004 games held in Greece. The ancient winners were lionized in statuary around the known world.

The ancient Greeks believed
beauty (kalos) was a fit body.

In ancient Greece it was a civic duty to remain fit (eumorphia), not just for beauty (kalos), but necessary in time of war, which seemed to be all the time. Boys came of age at 18 (called ephebeia)  and were required to train for war (hoplomachia) in archery, siege-craft,  and hand-to-hand combat. After proving their prowess the ephebeia swore an oath and were granted spears, bronze helmets, and shields at state expense, then it was two years of active military service; they were now called hoplites.  Not all ephebeia became hoplites, some became athletes, or often they were both, but they all trained in the local gymnasiums to achieve manliness (andreia).

The athletes trained in their local gymnasium at least ten months in advance of an Olympiad throughout Greece, often receiving livestock, money, recognition, amphoras of olive oil, and idoltry.  A place that lacked a gymnasium was not classified as a city.  Gymnos meant unclad, and so they often trained in the nude. The coaches were called gymnazesthai.

Statuary live on in the Olympia Museum.

The gyms were usually located next to running water, and not all were enclosed; a roofed gym was a xystos.  

Famous gyms were the Academy in Athens, and the Lyceum (secondary gym, also in Athens),  and Sparta’s Platanistas, named after the shady plane tree (plantanoi).  Delphi had a famous two-tiered gym on Mount Parnassus   A track open to the elements was called a paradromos

Each gym had a magistrate (gymnasiarchos) who served on a rotating basis for a year, who had to supply olive oil to the pupils. Those barred from the gym were slaves, prostitutes, drunkards, the mentally ill, and market traders.  Training was around a four day cycle called a tetrad on the three tenets of body fitness or muscular development (euexia), military drills (eutaxia), and love of training (philoponia), all to achieve manly excellence (arête).

A palaistra was a wrestling school often connected to a gym. Gyms were open to the public, even women, but a palaistra was often a private enterprise for men only. There were no gladiator or mock combat events in ancient Olympia. Upright wrestling (orthos pale) was useful for war but not on the ground, according to Plato.  But the gyms offered shadow skirmishes (skiamachein) to learn rapid hand movements and sham fights using blunted spears and soft missiles. The Athenian hoplites performed an unusual dance called the Pyrrhiche, an imitation of war (mimesis or mimic). Hand-to-hand grappling in the palaistra was in a sand pit (skamma).

Wrestlers trained in the skamma at the Olympia Palaistra.

The Olympia palaistra was 66 meters square with the central skamma open to the sky.  Changing rooms (apodyterion) were located along the sides of the palaistra. Athletes anointed themselves in the oiling room (elaiothesion) before entering the skamma but their skin was so slick they also added body powders (konis) in the konisterion, or rolled in dust (alindesis).  They also practiced on punch bags (koriboi) filled with fig seeds and sand that were hung in the konisterion.  After a bout they scrapped the mud and muck off with a scraper (strigil).  At Olympia there was also a large bath (Leonidaion Thermae) 1.4 meters deep in the corner of the courtyard to cleanse the body (somata).

Professional athletes attended many sports festivals, such as the Panathenaic (all Athenian) in Athens, which began in 566 B.C. The principal athletic circuit (periodos) were the four Sacred Crown Games, held every four years at Olympia honoring Zeus, the supreme god, and the Pythian Games which began in 590 B.C. in Delphi, honoring Apollo, and every two years at Nemea (beginning in 573 B.C. in NE Peloponnese), and Isthmia (or Corinth beginning in 582 B.C., honoring Poseidon).  The Sacred Crown Games were open to all freeborn male Greeks — thus Panhellenic.

Votives and ceremonies were performed in the sanctuary.

At Olympia the athletes were first paraded and scrutinized (dokimasia) and screened by 12 judges (Hellanodikai) clad in purple cloaks.  It was determined if the respective athlete would compete with the men (andres) or boys (paides);  boys events were added in 632 B.C.  The horses were inspected for age and stamina.  Opponents were then matched by physique and drew lots (sortition) for bouts, lanes, and heats; an urn was passed with two tokens each marked with alpha, beta, delta, etc.  Athletes drawing tokens with the same letter were then matched for the Olympiad.

The Temple of Zeus was an ancient wonder.

The athletes swore an oath in the Zeus Temple that they had trained for ten months; the judges oathed they would take no bribes.  The oaths were over seen by three senior theokoloi or servants of the gods who were elected priests who rotated duties each four years; they resided in the Theokoleion south of the palaistra. A wild boar was then sacrificed at the Temple of Zeus altar and drinking parties (symposia) followed in the symposium.

The parade of victory (kornos) on the last day was raucous.  As the winners approached the Temple of Zeus they were showered with flowers, twigs, and fruits in a ceremony called phylobolia. The Temple of Zeus was built in 460 B.C. with four sculpted panels (metopes) on each facade depicting the Labors of Herakles, which now reside in the Olympia museum.

Just one of the Glories of Greece.
at the Olympia Museum.

The gigantic statue of Zeus held out a hand offering  up the female winged victory of Nike as the ceremony called Nikephoros or victory-bearing proceeded.  Later there was a banquet in the victory hall or Prytaneion. When athletes arrived home they were honored with front row seats at the theatre, life time meals from the city, and tax exemptions. 

In ancient Greek athlon or athols meant a prize or fight of sportsmanship that attained the prowess of Herakles and the athletes were elevated to the ranks of the Olympic gods in epinikion melos or victory odes, many of which survive today, the most famous penned by Pindar.

The most interesting way to see the ancient archaeological sites of ancient Greece is on an Insight Vacations “Glory of Greece” motorcoach tour. 

The tour operator owns its own large window coaches, and each night finds you in the best of local accommodations, such as the family owned Antonios Hotel in the village of Olympia. We dined pool-side with plated service on linen with the spring flowers enfusing the air. 

Temple entrance tickets are included as are most meals in your tour. Insight Vacations offers its own English/Greek speaking historians such as our guide, the exceptional Anna Zora whose emphatic narratives brought the silent stone to life. Each visitor received an individual “whispering device” with earphones; you are free to roam the Altis while Anna explains in emphatic detail the history of the sanctuary. 

Insight Vacations brings the past to the present with "insight" and they make your vacation an adventure.  Visit

— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.