The ancient Olympic Games were primarily a part of a religious festival in honor of Zeus, the father of the Greek gods and goddesses. The festival and the games were held in Olympia, a rural sanctuary site (model shown here, courtesy of the British Museum) in the western Peloponnesos.

The Greeks that came to the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia shared the same religious beliefs and spoke the same language. The athletes were all male citizens of the city-states from every corner of the Greek world, coming from as far away as Iberia (modern day Spain) in the west and the Black Sea (modern day Turkey) in the east.

The sanctuary was named in antiquity after Mt. Olympos, the highest mountain in mainland Greece which was hundres of miles away. In Greek mythology, Mt. Olympos was the home of the greatest of the Greek gods and goddesses known as the 12 Olympian Deities.

According to the Olympic Register, an ancient document listing the known Olympic victors, the ancient Olympic Games began in the year 776 BC, when Koroibos, a cook from the nearby city of Elis, won the stadion race, a foot race 600 feet long. The stadion track at Olympia is shown here. According to some literary traditions, this was the only athletic event of the games for the first 13 Olympic festivals or until 724 BC when the second athletic event was introduced, the diaulos, a footrace 1200 feet long. From 776 BC, the Games were held in Olympia every four years for almost 12 centuries.


Contrary evidence, both literary and archaeological, suggests that the games may have existed at Olympia much earlier than this date, perhaps as early as the 10th or 9th century BC.

A series of bronze tripods have been discovered at the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia some of which may date to the 10th and 9th centuries BC. The tripods are both large and small and it has been suggested that they may have been prizes for contests that took place at Olympia before 776 BC.


The earliest Greek athletic contests are depicted on the Francois vase

The two horse chariot race of the Funeral Games of Patroklos are shown on this Attic Black-Figure kaylx crater from ca. 570 BC. Some of the prizes, tripods and cauldrons, for the athletes, are shown underneath the horses.

Go to http://www.polomusealetoscana.beniculturali.it/index.php?it/198/firenze-maf-museo-archeologico-nazionale

The marathon was NOT an event of the ancient Olympic games. The marathon is a modern event that was first introduced in the Modern Olympic Games of 1896 in Athens, a race from Marathon, northeast of Athens, to the Olympic Stadium, a distance of 40 kilometers.

The race commemorates the run of Pheidippides, an ancient “day-runner” who carried the news of the Persian landing at Marathon of 490 BC from Athens to Sparta (a distance of 153 miles) in order to enlist help for the battle. According to the fifth century BC ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Pheidippides delivered the news to the Spartans the next day. Pheidippides did not die as a result of his run.

The distance of the modern marathon was standardized as 26 miles 385 yards or 42.195 km in 1908 when the Olympic Games were held in London. The distance was the exact measurement between Windsor Castle, the start of the race, and the finish line inside White City Stadium.

In the modern day many believed that the story of Herodotus could not possibly be true - until during a modern event, the Spartathlon, run between Athens and Sparta the record time has been set at 20 hours, 22 minutes by Yiannis Kouros, an Arcadian who lives part of the year in Australia.

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Sign for the route of the Spartathlon in Tegea, Peloponnese

The Spartathlon is an ultra distance road race run in the modern day between Athens - Sparta, a distance of 153 miles (246 km). It commemorates the ancient day-runner, Pheidippides, who ran from Athens to Sparta in 490 BC to announce the Persian invasion at Marathon and to ask for Spartan assistance.

David Gilman Romano

Nudity at the Games

There are two stories relating to the question of nudity at the ancient Olympic Games. One story states that it was a runner from Megara, Orsippos or Orrhippos who, in 720 BC was the first to run naked in the stadion race when he lost his shorts in the race. Another tradition is that it was the Spartans who introduced nudity to the Olympic Games in the 8th century B.C. as it was a Spartan tradition. It is not clear if the very first recorded victor at Olympia, Koroibos, who won the stadion race in 776 BC wore shorts or not. It seems fairly clear that by the late 8th century nudity was common for the male contestants.


This Black-Figure lekythos from the Penn Museum was the subject of the US Olympic stamp that was issued in 2004, seen below.


From Ancient to Modern

Although the ancient Games were staged in Olympia, Greece, from 776 BC through AD 393, it took 1503 years for the Olympics to return. The first modern Olympics were held in Athens, Greece, in 1896. The man responsible for its rebirth was a Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who presented the idea in 1894. His original thought was to unveil the modern Games in 1900 in his native Paris, but delegates from 34 countries were so enthralled with the concept that they convinced him to move the Games up to 1896 and have Athens serve as the first host.

The Olympic Flame

The idea of the Olympic torch or Olympic Flame was first inaugurated in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. There was no torch relay in the ancient Olympic Games. There were known, however, torch relays in other ancient Greek athletic festivals including those held at Athens. The modern Olympic torch relay was first instituted at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

The Olympic Oath was introduced in 1920 and in 1928 the Olympic Flame was introduced in the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam.

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Los Angeles Coliseum during the Opening Ceremony of the 1984 Olympic Games.

Los Angeles Coliseum with the Olympic Flame during the 1984 Olympic Games. The Coliseum was also the site of the 1932 Olympic Games.

New York Magazine

Ancient Games Locations

Athletic Festivals were held in rural sanctuaries in different parts of ancient Greece. Of those festival sites, some became more important than others, and were referred to as "Pan-Hellenic Festival" sites. The contests at Olympia became the most well known in the ancient world but there were also other important sites.


The Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia was located in the lush Alpheios River valley in the western Peloponnese. According to the Olympic Register the earliest contests date to 776 BC although there are references in ancient literature to earlier festivals that predate these. Pausanias 5.8.5 relates that games were organized by Kings Iphitus and Oxylus before the date of the historical games. The festival was held every four years for almost 1200 years. There are two foundation myths about the Olympic Games, one includes Herakles and the other, Pelops.

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Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia looking north east.


On the slopes of Mt. Parnassos in Central Greece was, according to Greek mythology, the center of the Greek world. Zeus had released his two eagles from opposite corners of the known world and they crossed over what would become known as the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. It is known that musical and athletic contests were held at Delphi and, after a reorganization in 582 BC, the games were held every four years and were known as Pan-Hellenic. The games at Delphi were known as the Pythian Games because according to Greek mythology, Apollo slew the python at this site.



On the Isthmus of Corinth the Sanctuary of Poseidon was the site of the Pan-Hellenic Isthmian Games from 582 BC. Originally the games were founded as funeral games for Melikertes a local hero. The Pan-Hellenic games, athletic and well as musical competitions, were held every two years in honor of Poseidon.

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Sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia looking northwest.


The Sanctuary of Zeus at Nemea is located in a lush upland valley in the northeast Peloponnese. It was the home of the Nemean Games from 573 BC, held every two years. These games were originally funeral games in honor of a local hero Opheltes.



In the ancient Greek region of Arcadia in the southern Peloponnesos, the sanctuary of Zeus on Mt. Lykaion stands out for its great fame, mysterious rituals and wide-ranging significance. This site, located to the west of Megalopolis in southwestern Arcadia on the modern-day mountain of Agios Elias, held fascination for the ancient Greeks and has continued to be important for modern-day scholars of archaeology, classics, and Greek religion.Pausanias described the sanctuary of Zeus in great detail in his Guide to Greece (8.38.2-8.38.10) and indicated that the whole mountain was considered a sacred place by ancient Greeks. It was identified in Greek mythology as the birthplace of Zeus (at Cretea) and, according to Pausanias, on Mt. Lykaion there was a stadium and hippodrome in which athletic games for the Lykaion festival were held, a sanctuary of Pan, and, at the summit, a formidable temenos and altar of Lykaion Zeus. In front of the altar, Pausanias says, there were two columns crowned by gilded eagles.

The ancient Lykaion Games were contemporaneous with those held at Olympia (in Elis) throughout much of their histories, and the two sanctuaries were only 23 miles apart, as the eagle flies. Although we do not yet know when the athletic games originated at Mt. Lykaion, there are a number of hints to suggest that the games, as well as the cult of Zeus at Mt. Lykaion, are very old.

Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project

Learn more about the sanctuary of Zeus and the lesser known home of ancient athletic games in Greece.

Go to http://lykaionexcavation.org/

In antiquity, political and military conflicts occurred between the people of Arcadia and those of Elis, and one wonders what the relationship was between these two prominent and neighboring sanctuaries of Zeus. Since the earliest material found relating to the cult of Zeus at Olympia dates to the 11th century BC, and we are finding evidence from the earlier Mycenaean period on the altar at Mt. Lykaion, perhaps the Sanctuary of Zeus at Mt. Lykaion influenced the developments at the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia.

Mt. Lykaion

“Olympos” vs. “Olympia”

Mt. Olympos is a mountain in northern Greece, located on the border between Macedonia and Thessaly. It is the tallest mountain in Greece, elevation 2917 m (9570 feet). In Greek mythology Mt. Olympos was the home of the Greek pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses, the “12 Olympian deities.”

Olympia was a rural sanctuary in the Western Peloponnesos dedicated to Zeus. It was located 15 km (7 miles) from the Ionian Sea. The sanctuary was located near the meeting of the Alpheus and Kladeos rivers at the base of the Hill of Kronos.

Ancient Athletic Events

In the entire history of the ancient Olympic Games, almost 1200 years, there were only 23 events contested. They were divided into men’s track and field events (8 events), equestrian events (8 events), boys events (5 events) and specialty events (2 events).

Ancient Athetic Events at Olympia

List of ancient olympic events, categories, and olympiad years.

Olympiad Year Event Category Notes
1 776 BC Stadion Men's Track and Field
14 724 BC Diaulos Men's Track and Field
15 720 BC Dolichos Men's Track and Field
18 708 BC Pentathlon Men's Track and Field
18 708 BC Wrestling Men's Track and Field
23 688 BC Boxing Men's Track and Field
25 680 BC Tethrippon Equestrian Four horse chariot race.
33 648 BC Pankration Men's Track and Field
33 648 BC Horse race Equestrian
38 628 BC Pentathlon Boy's Track and Field Discontinued same year.
38 632 BC Stadion and Wrestling Boy's Track and Field
41 616 BC Boxing Boy's Track and Field
65 520 BC Hoplitodromos Men's Track and Field Race in armor.
70 500 BC Apene Equestrian Mule cart race, discontinued 444 BC.
71 496 BC Calpe Equestrian Race for mares.
93 408 BC Synoris Equestrian Two horse chariot race.
96 396 BC Competitions for Heralds and Trumpeters Specialty
99 384 BC Chariot racing Equestrian Teams of 4 colts.
128 268 BC Chariot racing Equestrian Teams of 2 colts.
131 256 BC Races for colts Equestrian
145 200 BC Pankration Boy's Track and Field

Any Winter Games?

The first modern Winter Olympic games were held in 1924 in Chamonix, France. There was no winter Olympic festival in ancient times. Separate Winter Games were first authorized in 1911 to be held in 1916, but due to World War I they didn’t occur until 1924, in Chamonix.

Starting with Lillehammer in 1994, it was decided that every other year will be an Olympic year (with Summer and Winter Games alternating), rather than holding Summer and Winter Games every 4th year. This was done to accommodate TV networks and audiences.


The celebration of the Olympic Games in antiquity was an occasion for citizens of scattered Greek city-states to assemble. At the Games they discussed important political issues, celebrated common military victories and even formed political and military alliances.

But the Games were not only a forum in which to discuss political events; they were also the cause of political conflict.

Control of the Sanctuary and the Games brought with it prestige, economic advantages and, most importantly, political influence. As early as the 7th century BC we hear of disputes over the control of the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia between the city of Elis (30 miles to the north) and the small neighboring town of Pisa.

In 668 BC, according to Pausanias (a 2nd century AD Greek traveler), the powerful tyrant of Argos (named Pheidon) was asked by the town of Pisa to capture the Sanctuary of Zeus from the city-state of Elis. Pheidon, with his army of well-trained hoplites, marched across the Peloponnesos, secured the Sanctuary for the town of Pisa, and personally presided over the conduct of the games. But Pisa’s control of the Sanctuary was brief: by the next year Elis had regained control.

The Olympic Truce was instituted by the city-state of Elis to protect against military incursions which interrupted the Games. Every four years, special heralds from Elis were sent out to all corners of the Greek world to announce the approaching Olympic festival and games. Along with this news, they would announce the Olympic Truce, which protected athletes, visitors, spectators and official embassies who came to the festival from becoming involved in local conflicts.

Perhaps the most notable example of a military incident occurring during the ancient Olympic Games was in 364 BC. In that year, Elis had again lost control of the Sanctuary of Zeus to the neighboring town of Pisa which was directing the festival and the Olympic Games. Elis chose precisely this time to attack the Sanctuary of Zeus. Xenophon, a contemporary 4th century historian, gives us a firsthand account of the situation:

The horse race had been completed, as well as the events of the pentathlon which were held in the dromos. The finalists of the pentathlon who had qualified for the wrestling event were competing in the space between the dromos and the altar… The attacking Eleans pursued the allied enemy… The allied forces fought from the roofs of the porticos… while the Eleans defended themselves from ground level.

Hellenica, 7.4, 29-31

What followed was a day-long battle involving thousands of soldiers.

Although Elis eventually regained control of the sancturary, the Olympic Games of 364 BC lost their legitimacy as far as the Eleans were concerned since the Sanctuary had been in the hands of the Pisans during the festival.

Later, political tyrants of the 7th and 6th centuries BC attempted to achieve influence by more peaceful means. They participated in the athletic and equestrian contests of the Olympic Games and dedicated conspicuously lavish offerings to Olympian Zeus at the site of the games.

Any violation of the Olympic Truce was punishable
by a substantial fine to Olympian Zeus. The 5th century historian Thucydides gives us details of such an instance:

In 420 BC the Spartans engaged in a military maneuver in the territory of Elis during the Truce, using 1000 hoplites. As a result, and according to law, the Spartans were fined 200 drachmai per hoplite, a total of 200,000 drachmai. The Spartans refused to pay the penalty, claiming that their maneuver had been completed before the Olympic Truce was officially announced. As a result, the Spartans’ participation in the Olympic Games that year was prohibited.

History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.49-50


Are today's Olympians commercial by ancient standards?

These days you don’t have to look far to see the connection between salesmanship and sports—some would even say that the line between sales pitching and fast pitches has become completely blurred.

At Olympic competitions, athletes’ uniforms and equipment bear the discreet but readily identifiable trademarks of their manufacturers.

After the Games, we are presented with images of Olympians endorsing products and appearing on cereal boxes. Later, some Olympic celebrities become commodities themselves, as TV shows and record labels cash in on their fame.

Sculptures of Athletes… Commercial Appearances?

Sculptors were commissioned to create statues of victorious athletes to be set up in the Sanctuary or in the home town of the athlete. According to Pliny, most of the statues set up in the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia were idealistic images of athletes. We are told that only if an athlete had won three Olympic victories could a realistic likeness of the athlete appear in the Sanctuary.

Statue Base.PNG

Pausanias, a 2nd century AD Greek traveler, describes a great number of the statues that he saw in the altis, the sacred precinct of the Sancuary of Zeus. From the inscriptions on the stone statue bases and from local guides, Pausanias gives us detailed information — almost too detailed:

Dikon, the son of Kallibrotos, won five foot races at Delphi, three at Isthmia, four at Nemea and one at Olympia in the race for boys besides two in the men’s race. Statues of him have been set up in Olympia equal in number to the races he won. When he was a boy he was proclaimed a native of Caulonia, as in fact he was. But afterwards he was bribed to proclaim himself a Syracusan.”

from inscriptions on stone statue bases in the altis

Olympia, Zanes bases.jpg

Cheating and Bribery? At the Oympics? Unbelievable!

But true. There were statues set up in the altis to commemorate athletes who had been caught cheating or bribing at the Olympic Games. These monuments were set up on the roadway leading from the heart of the altis to the vault that leads to the stadion, not coincidentally the very path that athletes walked to enter the place of athletic competition. In the model above you can see this roadway passing in front of the row of treasury buildings.

Did You Know?

Even without Wheaties, ancient Greeks honored and even “marketed” their athletic heroes. As early as the 5th and 4th centuries BC the victories won by the athletes were widely celebrated. Poets were often commissioned to celebrate these victories with odes, and sculptors were employed to render an image of the victorious athlete. In addition coins were struck to commemorate equestrian victories.

Water is preeminent and gold, like a fire burning in the night, outshines all possessions that magnify men’s pride. But if, my soul, you yearn to celebrate great games, look no further for another star shining through the deserted ether brighter than the sun, or for a contest, mightier than Olympia where the song has taken its coronal design of glory, plaited in the minds of poets as they come, calling on Zeus’ name to the rich radiant hall of Hiero.

Pindar, Odes, Olympian 1
Translated by Frank J. Nisetich

Odes such as this one were commonly commissioned by an athlete, an athlete’s family or a rich political leader to commemorate an athletic or equestrian victory. In the case of Hiero, the athlete and the rich political leader were same person!

Modern Games

Modern Olympic Summer and Winter Game Host Cities

Year Games Host City Notes
1896 Summer Games Athens, Greece
1900 Summer Games Paris, France
1904 Summer Games St. Louis, Missouri USA
1906 Summer Games Athens, Greece
1908 Summer Games London, UK
1912 Summer Games Stockholm, Sweden
1916 Summer Games Berlin, Germany Cancelled due to World War I.
1920 Summer Games Antwerp, Belgium
1924 Summer Games Paris, France
1924 Winter Games Chamonix, France
1928 Summer Games Amsterdam, Netherlands
1928 Winter Games St. Moritz, Switzerland
1932 Summer Games Los Angeles, California USA
1932 Winter Games Lake Placid, New York. USA
1936 Summer Games Berlin, Germany
1936 Winter Games Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
1940 Summer Games Helsiniki, Finland - Tokyo, Japan Cancelled due to World War II.
1940 Winter Games Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany - Sapporo, Japan - St. Moritz, Switzerland Cancelled due to World War II.
1944 Summer Games London, UK Cancelled due to World War II.
1944 Winter Games Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy Cancelled due to World War II.
1948 Summer Games London, UK
1948 Winter Games St. Moritz, Switzerland
1952 Summer Games Helsinki, Finland
1952 Winter Games Oslo, Norway
1956 Summer Games Melbourne, Australia - Stockhold, Sweden Equestrian events were held in Stockholm due to quarantine regulations.
1956 Winter Games Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy
1960 Summer Games Rome, Italy
1960 Winter Games Squaw Valley, California USA
1964 Summer Games Tokyo, Japan
1964 Winter Games Innsbruck, Austria
1968 Summer Games Mexico City, Mexico
1968 Winter Games Grenoble, France
1972 Summer Games Munich, West Germany
1972 Winter Games Sapporo, Japan
1976 Summer Games Montreal, Quebec Canada
1976 Winter Games Innsbruck, Austria
1980 Summer Games Moscow, Soviet Union
1980 Winter Games Lake Placid, New York USA
1984 Summer Games Los Angeles, California USA
1984 Winter Games Sarajevo, Yugoslavia
1988 Summer Games Seoul, South Korea
1988 Winter Games Calgary, Canada
1992 Summer Games Barcelona, Spain
1992 Winter Games Albertville, France
1994 Winter Games Lillehammer, Norway
1996 Summer Games Atlanta, Georgia USA
1998 Winter Games Nagano, Japan
2000 Summer Games Sydney, Australia
2002 Winter Games Salt Lake City, Utah USA
2004 Summer Games Athens, Greece
2006 Winter Games Torino, Italy
2008 Summer Games Beijing, China
2010 Winter Games Vancouver, British Columbia Canada
2012 Summer Games London, UK
2014 Winter Games Sochi, Russia
2016 Summer Games Rio, Brazil
2018 Winter Games PyeongChang, South Korea
2020/1 Summer Games Tokyo, Japan Pandemic delay 2020/1
2022 Winter Games Beijing, China
2024 Summer Games Paris, France
2026 Winter Games Milan, Italy
2028 Summer Games Los Angeles, California USA

Modern Olympic Flag

The Modern Olympic flag of five linked rings, each with a primary color used in the flags of the nations competing in the games, was introduced in 1908. There is no ancient basis for this modern symbol.

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