How much were the original Olympics

like the modern Games?


Today’s Olympic Games may seem a thoroughly modern affair. But how did the original event compare with today’s spectacle, asks Greek historian Prof Paul Cartledge.

Survival of the fittest

Which ancient Olympic Games have stood the test of time?

«Of the ancient running events only the ‘stade’ (200m sprint), double stade (400m), and ‘long’ race (c. 5000m) have survived,» says Prof Cartledge.

«Besides those, there were the combat events. Of these, wrestling and boxing survive (but in different forms). Wrestling was also one of the five events of the ancient pentathlon.

«The other four were the stade (200m), javelin-throwing, discus-throwing and standing long jump.

The ancient equestrian, chariot and mule-racing events have no modern Olympic parallels.»

The Olympics were strictly for men, as far as the athletics and combat sports were concerned.

Women weren’t even allowed to watch. However, women might compete in the equestrian events, but only by proxy as owners of the horses and chariots. The first woman victor on record was a Spartan princess.

One reason for their exclusion, perhaps, was that the athletes, boxers and wrestlers all competed in the nude.

The ancient Greek word for «to exercise» meant literally «to be stark naked». Our gymnastics words are derived from this cultural peculiarity of theirs, for which the explanation was probably ultimately religious.

The Games were a religious festival in honour of Zeus and demanded out of the ordinary devotions.

Jockeys and charioteers did wear some clothes but they were hired hands, not the owners of the chariots or horses, who alone were credited with the victory and claimed the honorific prize.

What sports they competed in


Matthew Stadlen and Prof Paul Cartledge visit an ancient Olympic running track


The single original event was the «stadion» or «stade», which was a roughly 200m sprint. The 4th Century BC track that is still visible and visitable at ancient Olympia measures just over 192m.

To the stade sprint were added successively: a 400m sprint, a roughly 5,000m «long» race (24 laps), long jump, discus-throwing, javelin-throwing, wrestling, boxing, extreme wrestling-cum-judo, and a race in armour (the one exception to the rule that athletes competed naked – though their only body-coverings were a helmet and shin-guards), and equestrian events – four-horse chariot race, horse races, and mule-cart race.

The purpose of the Games

The Olympics were explicitly a religious festival dedicated to the worship of the most powerful of all the many Greek divinities, Zeus of Mount Olympus (the highest mountain in Greece, almost 10,000ft).



Viewpoint from the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens

Other divinities were worshipped in the area of the sanctuary at Olympia, for instance Zeus’s sister-wife Hera (with a fine temple), and the hero Pelops who was credited as one of the Games’s founders (with an ash-altar); but Zeus received the lion’s share of the pious adulation, including a massive temple containing a gold-and-ivory cult-statue by the leading artist of the day, Pheidias of Athens, that was later ranked as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Where did the Games take place?

The Games were always held at the same site, in a rather remote location in the north-west Peloponnese that was quite hard to get to (usually on foot) even from the main political centres of Athens and Sparta.


How athletes and other victors were rewarded

Winning was its own reward, in theory. A symbolic olive-wreath crown culled from trees growing in Olympia’s sacred grove, the Altis, was the sole prize on offer. This was for the winner only – there were no silver or bronze medals.




Victors may have been immortalised in sculptures


An international event

London 2012 – One extraordinary year

At first and for many centuries the Games were all-Greek and only-Greek, which is what «panhellenic» means. Put negatively, barbarians (non-Greeks) need not apply.

But when Rome conquered Greece, in the second Century BC, Romans objected to being called barbarians and demanded honorary Greek status to enable them to compete. Which they did, for the most part, with great success.

The Games indeed continued under the Roman dispensation every four years without a single break until 393AD, when they were terminated by a devoutly Christian Roman emperor, Theodosius I, on the grounds that they were polytheistic and pagan.

Getting it all wrong

Another Roman emperor who notoriously did not quite appreciate the ancient Olympic spirit was the supposedly philhellenic Nero, who died in 68AD. He demanded, with bribery and menaces, that the panhellenic Greek committee postpone the due date of the Olympics for two years so that he could fit in his appearance at the Games with a Greek imperial tour in 67AD.


He was thrown from his 16-horse chariot but nevertheless was awarded the victor’s olive wreath crown. Such was imperial power in those days – not all that different from Hitler’s Berlin 1936 Games, perhaps.

Let us hope that the quintessentially Greek spirit of competitiveness (it’s from their word agonia that our word agony comes) takes a pleasantly different form in London 2012.

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The Olympic Games

«As in the daytime there is no star in the sky warmer and brighter than the sun, likewise there is no competition greater than the Olympic Games.»Pindar, Greek lyric poet, 5th century BC


The ancient Greeks first had the idea of getting men together every four years to hold and witness sporting events (in those days women did not participate, though they had their own, independent, events). The idea was to have the best athletes from all over Greece gather in one field and compete every four years. All wars and fighting had to stop while the athletes and their supporters came together in the town of Olympia for a few days to compete in a few events, mostly related to warfare (throwing the javelin, running, wrestling, boxing and chariot racing).

The first written reference to the Games is 776 BC. They lasted until 389 AD. The idea of having the modern Games was suggested in the mid 19th century but they weren’t a world event until 1896. Besides being postponed because of wars, they have been held since then every four years in different cities around the world.


The Olympic Games have many important symbols that most people recognize. The five rings that appear on the Olympic flag (coloured yellow, green, blue, black and red) were introduced in 1914. They represent the five continents of Africa, the Americas, Australia, Asia and Europe. The flag is raised in the host city and then flown to the next one where it is kept until the next Games. The Olympic torch, a major part of the ancient Games, was brought back in 1928 and is carried with great fanfare and publicity to the host city where it lights the burning flame of the Games. It is kept burning until the close of the Games. The torch symbolizes purity, the drive for perfection and the struggle for victory.


The rousing Olympic anthem is the simply named «Olympic Music» by John Williams, who wrote it for the 1984 Olympics, held in Los Angeles. What you hear first are the forty or so notes played on horns which form the «Bugler’s Dream» (also called «Olympic Fanfare») by Leo Arnaud, first played in the 1968 Games.

The torch, fanfare and flag are clearly evident in the Opening Ceremony, when everyone formally welcomes the participants and the Games can begin. Here we find the dramatic and colourful March of Nations, in which all the athletes from each country go into the venue to the sound of their country’s anthem and march behind their flags, thus becoming representatives of their countries.

Athlete’s Oath

One part of the Opening Ceremony that tries to keep the spirit of the Games and sportsmanship alive is when one athlete, representing all those participating, takes the Athlete’s Oath:

«In the name of all the competitors, I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport, and the honour of our teams.»


In the ancient Games, only the winner was celebrated. Each winner was given a simple crown of olive leaves to wear on his head. This was the only reward for his victory. Those who came in second or third got nothing. Interestingly, when the Games started again in 1896, silver medals were given to the first place winners. Later in 1904 in the St. Louis Games, gold was the top prize. Now, of course we have gold for first place, silver for second and bronze for third.


The Olympics’ official motto is «Citius, Altius, Fortius». This is Latin for «Swifter, Higher, Stronger». This is said to represent the Olympic spirit, supposed to be present throughout the Games and generally held to be a celebration of brotherhood, competition, sportsmanship, goodwill and peace. The Games help us see how similar we are, and help us celebrate our humanity.


As in ancient times, those who participate in the Games are famous for the rest of their lives. Today, it’s estimated that some 100,000 people have competed in the Games. These athletes, all supposed to be amateurs (people who play and get no money for their play), have to qualify or win regional and national events. They often play on their countries’ national teams. If they are ill or can’t make it for an event, they have substitutes. When they start playing, they become competitors or opponents on the playing field.

Officials, referees, scorekeepers and umpires monitor their play, and judges score their performances. Spectators watch the events, and fans cheer the athletes on.

Helping the athletes in their chosen sports are their trainers and coaches. Helping the athletes in their business affairs are their agents and managers. Sometimes athletes have sponsors and after the Games are over the athletes become spokesmen for companies.

The Olympic Games also require people to take on the jobs of announcers, commentators and broadcasters. These people comment on, report and describe the events that are happening and tell us about the standings of the countries and the athletes who play the Games.

Unfortunate events in world history (the 1972 Munich Olympics and 9/11) mean that security is a major concern for the Games. Thus the Olympics also employs those who are responsible for the safe-being of the athletes and spectators, including police (city, provincial and federal) and even national troops or soldiers. They are pitted against ‘common’ criminals (thieves, pickpockets, vandals…) and terrorists.

In addition, the support staff get the fields, grounds and arenas ready and help to maintain the equipment and facilities.

The nationalities you hear of in the Olympics fall mostly into certain suffix groups, for example:

(mostly European)

(mostly Asian)

(mostly Middle Eastern)






































The ancient Games had only a few events. Foot racing was in every game and each race had a variety of lengths – the longest being the marathon named after the Greek city and famous battle. The pentathlon, supposedly developed by Jason of Golden Fleece fame, had five events (running, jumping, wrestling, discus throwing and javelin throwing) which were all scored together. Three pentathlon events were important and popular enough to have their own events. Wrestling, discus throwing and the javelin were all recorded in the Homeric poems and were seen as vital for all men to be skilled in. The javelin throw was separated into two categories: length and accuracy (aimed at a specific target). Boxing was one of the oldest events and was written about by Homer. Finally there was the pancration, a combination of boxing and wrestling and various events with horse racing.

Today, of course, there are many more events. The chart below lists the most popular modern events in the Summer and Winter Olympics.





down hill skiing





speed skating






track & field

figure skating





ski jumping




cross country skiing

NB. The following summer sports have been recently recognized and are now legitimate events: air sports; automobile; bandy; billiards; boules; bowling; bridge; chess; dancesport; golf; karate; korfball; life saving; motorcycle racing; mountaineering and climbing; netball; orienteering; pelote basque; polo; racquetball; roller sports; rugby; squash; surfing; tug of war; underwater sports; water skiing; wushu.


Athletes compete or play against each other in hopes of winning. That might mean crossing the finish line first or putting on a perfect performance. Throughout the Games, the contestants are supposed to play with a spirit of sportsmanship, which can be defined as the character and conduct worthy of a sportsman. This means that they are to play with honour, seeking only to do their very best in their sport, and not specifically to defeat the other players.

When the playing begins, the events have preliminaries, or official trials or contests, in which athletes have to meet specified minimum requirements. This is for the setting of standards and for athletes to gain the right to compete in the final contest.

Sometimes it seems that the spirit and the joy of the Games have been lost to commercialism and the overpowering desire to focus only on victory. When controversy and partisanship take over, it’s good to remember what a churchman once said during the 1908 London Games, which is still true today:

«The important thing is not so much winning as taking part.»

Unfortunately, some athletes and coaches have taken to cheating or doping, in an attempt to gain an unfair advantage. Steroids, drugs that encourage muscle strength and stamina, are one of the banned substances that give athletes an extra, and illegal, advantage.

In spite of the problems of cheating and doping, and nationalism which can be divisive, the Games carry on and remain popular. This is possibly because the Games show us what we as humans are capable of and that humanity is capable of engaging in friendly competition. We should keep in mind what the father of the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Courbertin, once said:

«Olympism is not a system, it is a state of mind.»



The Olympic Games – Reading Comprehension Quiz


When did the Olympic Games originate?     


Which of the following was not an original sport in the Olympic Games?     


What do the coloured rings on the Olympic flag represent?     


Which of the following things does the Olympic torch NOT represent?     


Which one of the following is part of the Opening Ceremonies?     


In the Athletes Oath, what do the competitors promise to do?     


What did the winner receive in the ancient Games?     


The Games are meant to teach humanity how     

we all are.


According to the spirit of the Games, a sportsman ought to play with     



Steroids are banned substances because they