The Ancient Olympics - by Peter Xiao

The ancient Olympic Games were a series of athletic contests among Greek city-states in honour of Zeus. The Games originated in the Archaic period of Greek history and most scholars date the origin as 776 BCE. They were held every four years at Olympia and this tradition continued until the reign of the Roman Emperor Theodosius in 393 CE, which saw the complete transformation of Roman society from paganism to Christianity.

There are many legends behind the origin of the Olympic Games in ancient Greece. Pausanias, the famous Greek historian in the second century CE, described the mythological origin in his Description of Greece, claiming that Heracles and four of his brothers – Paeonaeus, Epimedes, Iasius and Idas – collectively known as the Dactyls, were having a chariot racing competition to entertain the newborn Zeus. As a result, Zeus crowned the winner with an olive wreath which later became a symbol of the Olympics (and also, peace). The fact that Heracles had four brothers in the chariot racing competition also explains the four-year interval of the Olympics (counting inclusively). Ancient Greeks described this interval as an Olympiad, which later became a unit of time in Greek historical chronologies.


Another story behind the origin of the Olympic Games was also well known, related to Pelops – a native Olympian hero. Oenomaus, who was the King of Pisa, had a daughter named Hippodamia. A prophecy said that the future husband of Hippodamia would eventually murder Oenomaus. Scared, the king decided to chariot race any young man who intended to marry his daughter – if victorious, they would secure her hand, but they would be killed if they lost. The king always won because his horses were divine in origin – they were presents from Poseidon and therefore supernaturally fast. However, the smart Pelops bribed Myrtilus, the charioteer of the King, and commanded him to replace the bronze axle pins of the king’s chariot with wax ones; the wax melted during the race and Oenomaus was killed instantly. After the death of Oenomaus, Pelops organised chariot racing and funeral games for him, which many scholars believed was the origin of the Olympic Games. Pelops later went on to become a famous ancient hero and gave his name to the Peloponnese.


The Olympic Games were initially a one-day event, but this tradition changed in 684 BCE and the Games were extended to three days. During the Classical Period in the 5th century BCE, the Games grew to five days. There were fewer sports compared to today; some of the popular ones included running, long jump, shot put, javelin, boxing, pankration and equestrian events. Many of these continued for thousands of years and are still an important part of the modern Olympics. Scholars estimate that at least 40,000 spectators would have packed the stadium each day at the height of the Games’ popularity in Greece. Many could only enjoy the atmosphere of the game outside the stadium and business opportunities were huge. The Olympics Games were truly the Panhellenic celebration in which all Greeks participated. Professor Paul Christesen at Dartmouth College famously suggested, “It is hard for us to exaggerate how important the Olympics were for the Greeks.”


Some interesting facts about the ancient Olympics include that all athletes competed naked. This was considered a tribute to the Olympian gods and related to the Greek idea of natural beauty. The word gymnasium comes from the Greek word gymnos, meaning ‘naked’. Wrestlers and pankration competitors fought covered in oil, which was also a tradition from ancient Greek culture that emphasised the beauty and masculinity of a man’s body – olive oil helped to demonstrate the shape of an athlete’s body. Finally, unlike the boxing sports we know today, boxers in the ancient Olympic Games were not separated based on points, time limits, or, most importantly, weight classification.


2020 has been one of the most difficult and challenging years in human history. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics Games were postponed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and are currently taking place a year later. This is a grand celebration for talented athletes from all around the world and also a great occasion for us to recognise the real spirit behind the Olympic Games: unity and mutual appreciation.

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