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Ancient Olympic Games facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
The palaestra of Olympia, a place devoted to the training of wrestlers and other athletes
An artist's impression of ancient Olympia
Chariot race Met L.1999.10.12
Chariot race on ancient Greek pottery
Ancient discus dedicated to zeus
Museum replica of a bronze discus inscribed as an offering to Zeus

The ancient Olympic Games were originally a festival, or celebration, of and for Zeus; events such as a footrace, a javelin contest, and wrestling matches were added later. The Olympic Games were a series of athletic competitions among representatives of city-states and one of the Panhellenic Games of ancient Greece.

They were held in honor of Zeus, and the Greeks gave them a mythological origin. The first Olympics is traditionally dated to 776 BC. They continued to be celebrated when Greece came under Roman rule, until the emperor Theodosius I stopped them in AD 393 as part of the campaign to make Christianity as the State religion of Rome.

The games were held every four years, or Olympiad, which became a unit of time in historical chronologies.

During the celebration of the games, an Olympic Truce was made so that athletes could travel from their cities to the games in safety. The prizes for the victors were olive leaf wreaths or crowns.

The games became a political tool used by city-states to assert dominance over their rivals. Politicians would announce political alliances at the games, and in times of war, priests would offer sacrifices to the gods for victory.

The games were also used to help spread Hellenistic culture throughout the Mediterranean. The Olympics also featured religious celebrations. The statue of Zeus at Olympia was counted as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Sculptors and poets would come together each Olympiad to display their works of art to would-be customers.

The ancient Olympics had fewer events than the modern games, by the time of the Classical Greek culture, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the games were restricted to male participants and only freeborn Greek men were allowed to participate, although there were victorious women chariot owners. As long as they met the entrance criteria, athletes from any Greek city-state and kingdom were allowed to participate.

The games were always held at Olympia rather than moving between different locations as is the practice with the modern Olympic Games. Victors at the Olympics were honored, and their feats recorded for future generations.


A Torch Race
A torch race

The Olympic games were held to be one of the two central rituals in ancient Greece, the other being the much older religious festival, the Eleusinian Mysteries. They were established to serve as a venue for representatives of the city-states to peacefully compete against each other.

The games first started in Olympia, Greece, in a sanctuary site for the Greek deities near the towns of Elis and Pisa.

The only competition held then was the stadion race, a race over about 190 metres (620 feet), measured after the feet of Hercules. The word stadium is derived from this foot race.

Stadion of Nemea
The stadion of ancient Nemea, Greece

The Olympic Games were part of the Panhellenic Games, four separate games held at two- or four-year intervals, but arranged so that there was at least one set of games every year. The Olympic Games were more important and more prestigious than the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games.

The games were in decline for many years but continued past AD 385, by which time flooding and earthquakes had damaged the buildings and invasions by barbarians had reached Olympia. In 394 Theodosius I banned all pagan festivals, but archaeological evidence indicates that some games were still held.


Discobolus in National Roman Museum Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
The "Discobolus" is a copy of a Greek statue c. 5th century BC. It represents an ancient Olympic discus thrower

The ancient Olympics were as much a religious festival as an athletic event. The games were held in honor of the Greek god Zeus, and on the middle day of the games, 100 oxen would be sacrificed to him.

Over time Olympia, the site of the games, became a central spot for the worship of the head of the Greek pantheon and a temple was erected on the mountaintop. The temple was one of the largest Doric temples in Greece.

The Sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia housed a 13-metre-high (43 ft) statue in ivory and gold of Zeus which was placed on a throne in the temple, that had been sculpted by Phidias circa 445 BC. This statue was one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World.

Artistic expression was a major part of the games. Sculptors, poets, painters and other artisans would come to the games to display their works in what became an artistic competition. Sculptors created works like Myron's Diskobolos or Discus Thrower.

Their aim was to highlight natural human movement and the shape of muscles and the body. Poets would be commissioned to write poems in praise of the Olympic victors. Such victory songs were passed on from generation to generation.


Head Zeus NAMA3377
The games were held in honor of the God Zeus
Hera Campana Louvre Ma2283
Hera was also honored at the Games
Events at the Olympics
Olympiad Year Event first introduced
1st 776 BC Stade
14th 724 BC Diaulos
15th 720 BC Long distance race (Dolichos)
18th 708 BC Pentathlon, Wrestling
23rd 688 BC Boxing (pygmachia)
25th 680 BC Four horse chariot race (tethrippon)
33rd 648 BC Horse race (keles), Pankration
37th 632 BC Boys stade and wrestling
38th 628 BC Boys pentathlon
41st 616 BC Boys boxing
65th 520 BC Hoplite race (hoplitodromos)
70th 500 BC Mule-cart race (apene)
93rd 408 BC Two horse chariot race (synoris)
96th 396 BC Competition for heralds and trumpeters
99th 384 BC Tethrippon for horse over one year
128th 266 BC Chariot for horse over one year
131st 256 BC Race for horses older than one year
145th 200 BC Pankration for boys

Apparently starting with just a single foot race, the program gradually increased to twenty-three contests, although no more than twenty featured at any one Olympiad. Participation in most events was limited to male athletes except for women who were allowed to take part by entering horses in the equestrian events.

Youth events are recorded as starting in 632 BC. Our knowledge of how the events were performed mainly comes from the paintings of athletes found on many vases, particularly those of the Archaic and Classical periods.

Differences between the ancient and modern Olympic Games


Athens Temple of Olympian Zeus 25
Athens Temple of Olympian - Zeus
  • The ancient Olympics were held over 5 days only. They are held over no more than 16 in the modern Olympics.
  • The ancient Olympic games only allowed free Greek citizens to participate. No enslaved people were allowed to compete.
  • Only men were allowed to compete.
  • The ancient Olympic games were more a religious event to honor the Greek God, Zeus.
  • There wasn't any second or third place in the ancient Olympics, only 1st place was honored.
  • In the ancient Greek Olympics the athletes ran naked, today they wear clothes.
  • The ancient games were always held in Olympia. The modern Olympics are held in countries across the world.
  • There weren't any team sports in Ancient games.
  • There marathon race didn't exist in the ancient Olympics.


BASA-3K-7-422-22-1896 Summer Olympics
Robert Garrett throwing a discus at the 1896 Summer Olympics. The ancient Olympics also had the discus throwing event
  • Both held every four years.
  • Both the ancient and modern Olympics are very popular.
  • They both begin with the athletes saying an oath at the beginning of the games where they promise to use good conduct and abide by the rules.
  • The athletes become very popular and are like celebrities.
  • Both have opening and closing ceremonies.
  • Since the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics the Olympic flame is kept alight during the Olympics. This was taken from the ancient games where a sacred fire was kept burning throughout the ancient Olympics on the altar of the sanctuary of Hestia.
  • Both in the ancient and modern games nobody liked athletes that cheated.

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