Fact vs Myth

The following are common myths surrounding the ancient Olympic Games.

Myth: The marathon race was an ancient Greek athletic event.

Fact: It was not an ancient event. It was introduced for the first time as an event of the Modern Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens. It commemorated the run of Pheidippides, a day-runner who, according to Herodotus, ran from Athens to Sparta to announce the invasion of Greece by the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC. According to Herodotus (6, 106) Pheidippides covered the distance between the two cities leaving one day and arriving the next. On behalf of the Athenians, he asked for the Spartans’ help to fight the Persians. Pheidippides did not die as a result of his run.

Myth: The torch relay was an event of the ancient Olympic games.

Fact: It was not an event of the ancient Olympic games. There were torch relays known as a part of other athletic festivals in Greece, for instance the Panathenaic Games at Athens and the games in honor of Poseidon at the Isthmus of Corinth.

Myth: The ancient Olympic games were open to all Greeks.

Fact: The ancient Olympic games were only open to male Greek citizens of Greek city-states. This eliminated all foreigners, as well as all females, slaves, foreign workers (metics) and children. Eventually Roman citizens could take part in the Olympic Games.

Myth: Females were prohibited from participating in and attending the ancient Olympic games.

Fact: There was a separate festival at Olympia in honor of Hera, the wife of Zeus, organized and run by women. There were foot races for virgin girls run in three age categories. There were also dances. The Roman traveler Pausanias (5,6,7) tells us that married women were prohibited from watching the mens’ and boys’ contests of the Olympic Games. However, it was possible for a wealthy and aristocratic woman to own a chariot team and enter it in the Olympic Games. On several occasions the chariot team owned by a woman but driven presumably by a male charioteer won an Olympic contest.

Myth: The Greeks were the first to introduce athletic training and competition in the history of the ancient world.

Fact: The Greeks were not the first to introduce athletic training and competition in the history of the ancient world. The Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians were known to have training and competition in a number of events including wrestling and boxing and possibly running as early as the third millennium BC or approximately 2000 years before the beginning of the ancient Olympic games. It is very likely that Greek athletics were influenced by the accomplishments of these earlier civilizations.

Myth: Ancient Olympic athletes were amateur.

Fact: Ancient Olympic athletes were neither amateur nor professional. The word athlete is a Greek word that means “one who competes for a prize” and is related to two Greek words, athlos meaning contest and athlon meaning prize. Greek athletes routinely competed for prizes at athletic festivals. Some of the prizes were symbolic, for instance the wreath of olive leaves at Olympia, and others were material prizes worth money, for instance bronze tripods, or amphoras filled with olive oil.

Myth: Ancient Olympic victors received only a wreath of olive leaves as a prize.

Fact: Although Olympic victors did receive an olive wreath as a prize at Olympia, it is known that victors commonly received other more lucrative rewards when returning to their home city. For instance according to Plutarch, Life of Solon 23.3, 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.