10 amazing and surprising ancient Olympic facts - The Comprehensive Minds

10 amazing and surprising ancient Olympic facts


10 amazing ancient Olympic facts

Call a truce, strap on your running sandals, and say a little prayer to the gods. Today we're talking grit, gridiron, and Greeks. It's ten surprising facts you didn't know about the ancient Olympics. 

The Olympic Games Were Only One Part of the Entire  Panhellenic Games

The Olympic Games Were Only One Part of the Entire  Panhellenic Games

Just as the majestic art of horse dressage is one of many modern Olympic events, the original Olympic games were just one of many events that made up the greater Panhellenic Games. Made up of four distinct games held on a rotating annual schedule, the Panhellenic Games included the games at Olympia, which took place every four years, the games at Delphi, also every four years, the Isthmian Games every two years, and the Nemean Games, also every two years. 

The Panhellenic Games were intended to create a sense of unity and common identity during a time when Greece was a group of politically and economically independent city-states. The games became so important to Greek culture that they became the basis for their calendar, which measured the equivalent of four years at a time, also known as an Olympiad. 

The Games Were Established for Religious Purposes

The Games Were Established for Religious Purposes

What better way to show respect to the gods than by throwing a javelin as far as humanly possible? That was the initial idea behind the formation of the Olympic Games. In ancient Greece, sporting events were traditionally associated with funeral rituals for heroes and the fallen in battle. And some claim that, according to Greek mythology, the games were founded by Zeus himself to celebrate his victory over his father, Kronos.

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Each of the Panhellenic Games was held in honor of a specific god. The Olympic and Nemean Games celebrated Zeus, king of the gods. The game at Delphi celebrated Apollo, the god of light and knowledge, and the Isthmian Games celebrated Poseidon, the god of the sea. 

The site of the Games at Olympia even included a sacred area called the Altis, which included temples, sacrificial altars, and treasuries to store offerings to the gods. We bet there were even souvenir stands hawking jerseys with Zeus' name and foam fingers that said, "Let's go, gods." 

The Games Were Originally Just Foot Races

The Games Were Originally Just Foot Races

At their start, the games showcased a wide variety of athletic abilities as long as they fell under the category of foot races. The oldest and most prestigious event was the stadion-- a foot race that ran the length of the stadium, or stade, approximately 193 meters. 

According to Greek mythology, Hercules could run a stadion in one single breath, but the actual Olympic competitors may have had to huff and puff a bit more than that. For the first decade, the stadion was the only competitive athletic event at the games.


Around 724 BCE, the diaulos was introduced, which ran the distance of two stades, followed by the introduction of the dolichos, a long-distance race of around 40 stades, and a race that required runners to complete a multi-stade course in full battle armor. 

The Greeks took these foot races very seriously. Starting positions were decided by lots, and making a false start could result in corporal punishment. But winning these races would make you a star, like Leonidas of Rhodes, the greatest runner of the ancient Olympic Games. Undefeated on foot, he won three races on the same day in four consecutive Olympic Games, making him 12 for 12 over 12 years.


The Marathon was Not an Event at the Ancient Games

The Marathon was Not an Event at the Ancient Games

Contrary to popular belief, the marathon was not one of the many foot races that were part of the ancient Olympic Games. A marathon is a modern event that was brought in during the reboot of the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. 

The marathon honors the run of Pheidippides, who carried the warning of the Persians landing at the Marathon to the Spartans in Athens in 490 BCE. Though the marathon we know today is 26.2 miles, the original distance that Pheidippides covered, a round trip from Athens to Sparta and back, may have been a whopping 300 miles over the course of 4 days. 

According to some versions of the story, after reaching his destination and making his announcement, Pheidippides promptly collapsed and died. Someone should have told Pheidippides as he was running from Marathon not to sprint and to make sure to replenish those electrolytes. 

All Athletes Competed Naked

All Athletes Competed Naked

That's right-- the ancient Greeks competed in the games completely naked. There are two competing stories as to exactly why they stripped before hitting the field. One tale explains that Orsippus, a runner from Megara, was the first to run naked in the stadion race in 720 BCE when he lost his loincloth during the race. 

Another version of the origin story posits that nudity was introduced by the Spartans in the 8th century BCE as a show of civility in the face of their Persian enemies, who thought baring it all was uncouth. Nake-y games became the norm for ancient Greek athletes, who would cover their body in olive oil and dust it with fine sand to help regulate their body temperatures and protect them from the sun.


A buff bod completely in the buff soon became a symbol of Greek civilization and superiority, making the nude form an integral aspect of Greek culture and art.  

Art was a Major Part of  the Ancient Games

Art was a Major Part of  the Ancient Games

Aside from all the naked short-distance running, the ancient games also featured the arts as a major part of the event. Olympia became an artistic hub as the festival surrounding the games attracted large crowds, which was great for musicians, writers, and other artists to present their talents to the masses.


Music accompanied events like the pentathlon and the long jump, and at some games, contests in music and arts formed a separate part of the program, on par with the athletic events. They called these "musical contests," named after the Muses. Especially known for their musical contests were the Pythian Games, which honored Apollo, the god of music and poetry. Turns out that audiences have been going to see performances at the Apollo for thousands of years. 

Truces Had to be Put in Place Before the Games

Truces Had to be Put in Place Before the Games

Good sportsmanship is important for any competition, and it's hard to be a good sport when you're surrounded by an active war zone. According to legend, Iphitos, King of Elis, was told by the Oracle of Delphi to found a peaceful sporting competition in order to break the cycle of armed conflict in the area. And so the games and the military truces, or Ekecheiria, that went along with them were born. 

First adopted at the inaugural games of 776 BCE, truces were put into place to suspend all war and prohibit armies from entering the area before and during the games. The truces were faithfully observed and gave Olympians and visitors safe passage to the event. Way to keep it on the field, guys. 

Like Today Olympic Champions were Celebrities

Like Today Olympic Champions were Celebrities

Move over, Usain Bolt and Apolo Ohno. Ancient Olympic champions were celebrities, too, and they had even cooler names, like Astylos of Croton and Melankomas of Caria. Only freeborn Greek men and boys could compete at the games, and crowds as large as 40,000 would come from all over Greece to watch them compete. 

Olympic winners were given a victory crown of olive leaves and an olive branch cut from a sacred tree, which, according to Greek mythology, had been planted by Hercules himself. Leading athletes were considered heroes who were welcomed back to their hometowns with a procession where they rode a four-horse chariot and attended huge banquets held in their honor. Winners received glory and fame and were immortalized in art, victory odes, and statues-- the Wheaties boxes of their time. 

Statue of Zeus was Erected with the Money from Fines Paid by Cheater

Cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater. Now go pay for that statue. Cheating was not tolerated at the ancient games. When athletes disrespected the rules, the judge would whip them during the game. But more serious offenses also carried fines.

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The money from the fines was used to erect statues of Zeus, which featured the names of cheaters inscribed on their base. The punishment statues were placed around the stadium at Olympia and inside the gymnasium at Elis as a reminder to athletes that cheating is bad, okay? 

There Was a Separate Festival for Women

There Was a Separate Festival for Women

Women were not allowed in the ancient Olympic Games. They could only be admitted to the arena as spectators and only then if they were unmarried. There were, however, separate athletic competitions for women that took place every four years and included three separate races for girls, teenagers, and young women, as well as the Maiden's Footrace honoring Hera, the goddess of women, marriage, family, and childbirth. 

The Maiden's Footrace was held at the Olympic Stadium and was the length of 5/6 of a stade, rather than the full 6/6 of a stade that the men ran. Just 32 meters was all that separated the women's competition from the men's-- oh, and the fact that the women wore tunics while competing, unlike their nudie male counterparts. 

Incredible acts of athleticism and art and a whole lot of short-distance running... All this talk about people exercising 2,000 years ago has been really exhausting. Did we miss any Olympic facts? Run to the comments and let us know.

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