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Ancient Olympic Games Fun Facts

It’s an exciting time with the Olympic Games officially underway in Athens, Greece, the site of the original Olympics over 2,700 years ago. As you watch your favorite countries and athletes compete in this year’s Games, you’ll be interested to know how the Games began and what traditions the early Greeks had. Impress your friends with this short list of fascinating fun facts from the Ancient Olympic Games!

  • In the first Olympics in 776 BCE, there was only one event—a short 200 meter sprint called a stade.

  • During the first 15 Games, running was the only sport, and the first 13 contained only the stadion foot race. Longer distance running was introduced during the 14th Olympics.

  • Because there were wars usually occurring during the ancient Olympics, the Greeks set aside a month’s truce so athletes and spectators from different countries could travel to the Games.

  • Thousands of people from all over the Greek world came to watch the Games. The main stadium held about 45,000 people and thousands of tents were set up around the stadium.

  • Although there were trained women athletes in Greece, only men could participate in the Olympics (except for chariot racing). Women had their own separate games.

  • Married women were prohibited from watching the Games under penalty of death!

  • Coming from diverse backgrounds in Greece, all male athletes had one thing in common: they all competed naked!

  • There were no gold, silver, or bronze awards in the ancient Olympics, just an olive wreath for the winner.

  • Winners could earn money, usually 500 drachmas if they won an event in Olympia. Other rewards include amphoras (large jars) filled with olive oil or celery sticks, which were carried to the winners by marathon runners.

  • In addition to running, events at the Ancient Olympics included boxing, equestrian (horseback riding), pentathlon, running, wrestling, hoplitodromos and the pankration.

  • Held on one afternoon in the first day of competition, the pentathlon contained five separate events: running, discus, long jump, javelin, and wrestling. They were designed to test an athlete’s all-around athleticism. The athlete who won three events was the victor.

  • The 26.2 mile marathon was not an original Ancient Game, but was started when the Olympics were re-introduced in the 1896 Athens Games.

  • Races in armor, or hoplitodromos, featured competitors engaged in a two stadium-length race, carrying a shield and wearing a helmet and lower leg armor.

  • The pankration was the old-school version of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. A combination of wrestling and boxing, pankration also included arm-twisting, biting, kicking, strangleholds, and finger-breaking. Only eye-gouging was discouraged.

  • Chariot-racing drew rich competitors. A victory in the event was relative to natural ability, hard work, and a lot of money behind it. The event was unique because women could participate in the event as horse owners.

  • Ancient Olympic officials stored 5.5-pound discuses at Olympia to prevent cheating at the Games.

  • Statues of Zeus lined the athletes’ path to the stadium at Olympia, which were all paid for by hefty fines levied against cheating athletes.

  • Not only were cheaters fined, but the Greeks were so serious about the Games that one athlete who backed out of the competition was fined for cowardice.

  • The Ancient Olympics lasted until 393 AD when the Roman Emporer Theodosius I—a convert to Christianity—couldn't tolerate the paganism of the Games.


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