Amateur vs. Professional

One of the things we’ll hear argued about the modern Olympic Games is the question of amateurism (and professionalism) of athletes.

This was not a concern of the Greeks since ancient athletes regularly received prizes worth substantial amounts of money. In fact, the word athlete is an ancient Greek word that means “one who competes for a prize” and was related to two other Greek words, athlos meaning “contest” and athlon meaning “prize.”

Our first glimpse of organized Greek athletics is in the 23rd book of Homer’s Iliad, where Achilles organizes funeral games for his friend Patroklos who was killed during the Trojan War. In each of the eight events contested on the plain of Troy, material prizes are offered to each competitor, including tripods, cauldrons, valuable metal, oxen, and women.

Material awards
were routinely given as prizes (more info under "Commercialism") at most of the athletic festival sites all over the Greek world. During the 8th, 7th, and 6th centuries BC, dozens of athletic events were established as parts of religious festivals honoring heroes, gods, or even victorious battles.

Athletes who won at any of these Pan-Hellenic games could be assured of great wealth when they returned home.

According to the Roman author Plutarch, an Olympic victor who was a citizen of Athens could expect to receive in the year 600 BC a cash award of 500 drachmai, a literal fortune. An Isthmian victor would receive 100 drachmai.

From an Athenian inscription of the 5th century BC, we learn that Athenian Olympic victors received a free meal in the City Hall every day for the rest of their lives, a kind of early pension plan.

Later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, pensions for athletes became more formalized and could actually be bought and sold.

This evidence suggests that there were no amateur athletes in ancient Greece, but there were no professional athletes either, for there was no distinction between the two categories, all were simply "athletes."

The concept of “amateur athletics,” developed in the 19th century AD, would have been very foreign to the ancient Greeks since the winning of a valuable or prestigious prize was an important part of being an athlete.

Greatest Ancient Athletes

The names of over 794 ancient Olympic victors are known to us in the modern day (see note 1). Partial victor records exist for the ancient Olympic games, held every four years for almost twelve centuries, from 776 BC to AD 393 and altogether the victor list consists of over 1029 ancient Olympic victories.(2)

The first recorded victor was Koroibos of Elis who won the stadion race in 776 BC. The last victor about whom we have information was Zopyrus, a boxer from Athens in AD 385. (3) Between these two dates there were a total of 291 Olympic festivals. In addition there were probably 2 additional ones after AD 385. for which we have no information. Some of the victors are more famous than others. I list here the 12 victors who won the most victories.

Famous Athletes

Athlete Victories Event(s) Game Year(s)
Leonidas of Rhodes 12 Stadion, Diaulos, Hoplitodromos 4 festivals: 164, 160, 156, 152 BC
*Herodoros of Megara 10 Heralds 10 festivals: 328, 324, 320, 316, 312, 308, 304, 300, 296, 292 BC
Hermongenes of Xanthos 8? Stadion, Diaulos, Hoplitodromos 3 festivals: AD 81, 85, 89
Astylos of Kroton/Syracuse 7 Stadion, Diaulos, Hoplitodromos 3 festivals: 488, 484, 480 BC
Hipposthenes of Sparta 6 Boys Wrestling, Wrestling 6 festivals: 632, 624, 620, 616, 612, 608 BC
Milo of Kroton 6 Boys Wrestling, Wrestling 6 festivals: 536, 532, 528, 524, 520, 516 BC
Chionis of Sparta 6 Stadion, Diaulos 3 festivals: 664, 660, 656 BC
**Nero of Rome 6 Heralds, Tragedy, Lyre, Tethrippon, Foals Tethrippon, 10 horse chariot 1 festival: AD 67
Gorgos of Elis 6 Diaulos, Hoplitodromos, Pentathlon 4 festivals (?)
Aelius Granianus of Sikyon 5 Diaulos, Hoplitodromos, Pentathlon 4 festivals: AD 133, 137, 141, 145
Demetrios of Salamis 5 Stadion, Pentathlon 3 festivals: AD 229, 233, 237
*Diogenes of Ephesos 5 Trumpeter 5 festivals: AD 69, 73, 77, 81, 85

* periodonikes
** Technically the games of AD 67 at which Nero won 6 victories were later declared illegitimate.


It is difficult to single out the finest one-day athletic Olympic achievements for various reasons. We often have incomplete or non-existent information about the competition in each of the events, the effects of lottery selection of opponents and of byes in certain field events, the weather, or other factors may have influenced the outcomes. Below is a list of the 7 Olympic athletes who won three times, as TRIASTES, in a single day. The only athlete who definitely accomplished this feat on more than one occasion was Leonidas of Rhodes who achieved TRIASTES status at four different festivals. Was Leonidas the greatest Olympic athlete of all time? Arguably he could be.

Athlete Victories Event(s) Game Year(s)
Phanas of Pellene 3 Stadion, Diaulos, Hoplitodromos 512 BC
Astylos of Kroton/Syracuse 3 Stadion, Diaulos, Hoplitodromos 480 BC
*Nikokles of Akrion 3 Stadion, Diaulos, Hoplitodromos 100 BC
Leonidas of Rhodes 12 Stadion, Diaulos, Hoplitodromos 164, 160, 156, 152 BC
Hekatomnos of Miletus 3 Stadion, Diaulos, Hoplitodromos 72 BC
*Polites of Keramos 3 Stadion, Diaulos, Dolichos AD 69
*Hermogenes of Xanthos 3 Stadion, Diaulos, Hoplitodromos AD 81, 89

* Nikokles and Polites ran the dolichos. Hermogenes’ victories are not absolutely certain in these events.


  1. Moretti lists a total of 794 individual Olympic victors in his two publications , L. Moretti, Olympionikai, i vincitori negli Antichi agoni Olimpici , MemLinc , Roma, 1957; L. Moretti, “Supplemento al catalogo degli Olympionikai,” Klio 52, 1970, pp. 295- 303.
  2. This number includes Olympic victories of uncertain date and of uncertain authenticity.
  3. This information comes from a bronze inscription from the clubhouse of the athlete’s guild at Olympia. The building was built in the 1st century AD by Nero and was in continuous use until the late 4th century AD, see U. Sinn, Olympia, Cult, Sport and Ancient Festival , (Markus Wiener) Princeton, 2000, pp. 114-118.

Women and Unmarried Girls at the Games

Were the ancient olympics just for men?

Along with the athletic contests held for men and boys at ancient Olympia, there was a separate festival in honor of Hera (the wife of Zeus). This festival included foot races for unmarried girls. Although it is not known how old the festival was, it may have been almost as old as the festival for boys and men.

Little is known about this festival other than what Pausanias, a 2nd century AD Greek traveler, tells us. He mentions it in his description of the Temple of Hera in the Sanctuary of Zeus (model, courtesy of British Museum, shown above and plan shown below), and says that it was organized and supervised by a committee of 16 women from the cities of Elis. The festival took place every four years, when a new peplos was woven and presented to Hera inside her temple.

Olympia, Temple of Hera.jpg

Temple of Hera, Olympia

The Temple of Hera at Olympia, built ca. 590 BC

David Gilman Romano

Pausanias gives us a description of a girl’s attire for the Hera games of the 2nd century AD. The girls wore their hair free down their back and a tunic hanging almost as low as the knees covering only the left shoulder and breast. The costume that Pausanias describes may have been the traditional costume at Olympia and possibly elsewhere for centuries.

Unmarried girls had a number of advantages at Olympia. They not only had their own athletic contests of the Hera festival in which to participate, but they were also allowed to watch the men’s and boys’ contests of the festival of Zeus. Married women, on the other hand, were not allowed to participate in the athletic contests of the Hera festival, and were barred on penalty of death from the Sanctuary of Zeus on the days of the athletic competition for boys and men. We don’t know whether or not the women allowed the men to watch the girls’ contests!

Did You Know?

  • The first women’s marathon was at the 1984 games in Los Angeles.
  • Softball made its Olympic debut at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. It’s an Olympic event for women only.
  • US Women’s Hockey made history in the 1998 Nagano Games winning the first gold medal in the first year of women’s Olympic hockey.
  • Women’s events introduced in 2000 at Sydney:
    • water polo
    • pole vaulting trampoline
    • synchronized diving
    • hammer throwers