A guide to the...

Ancient Greek Olympic Games

What were the Olympic Games for?

The first official Olympic Games happened in 776 BC and then continued to take place once every four years. As well as being the most important sporting event for the Ancient Greeks, the Olympic Games were also a very important religious festival. Olympia was associated with Zeus, the king of the gods, and the Olympic Games were held in his honour.  

 

Every four years, tens of thousands of visitors from all over Greece headed to Olympia to watch or take part in the games. A major attraction was the Temple of Zeus, which housed a 12-metre high statue of Zeus himself. During the festival, sacrifices to Zeus were made, including the burning of 100 oxen on the Altar of Zeus. 

Who was allowed to take part?

Before each Olympic Games Festival began, messengers were sent out to make an announcement to all of the main city-states. The messengers made a call for a peace truce in the Greek world. This meant that any ongoing wars or fighting should be called off in order that people could travel to Olympia.

 

Only men were allowed to compete in the games and only men or unmarried women could watch. Married women were excluded from entry. If they wanted to race, they had their own separate Games festival called the Heraea. It was very common for male Olympic athletes to be completely unclothed when competing!

What sort of events were there?

The five-day programme included a balance of sporting, religious and social events. Sporting events included horse and chariot racing, combat sports (wrestling/boxing), running races and athletics events like discus, javelin and long jump. Religious events included making sacrifices and oaths to Zeus, prayers, singing of hymns, visiting the Temple of Zeus and consulting ‘oracles’ who were believed to be able could see the future. The social events took the form of banquets, speeches, performances and processions. The final event day of the programme saw celebrations, winners' ceremonies and great feasts.

How did it inspire the modern Olympics?

 

The Ancient Greek Olympic games continued to go ahead for over a thousand years. In AD 393, the Romans had taken control of Greece and a Roman Emperor called Theodosius I put a stop to the Olympic Games taking place. His soldiers destroyed the Temple of Zeus and soon after Olympia fell into ruin.

 

Many hundreds of years later, in 1896, the Olympic Games were re-instated in a new, modern form. A French man called Baron Pierre de Coubertin came up with a new 5-ring logo and wrote a creed to explain what the Olympics were all about. With a few changes made over the years, the Olympic Games remains one of the biggest sporting events in the world today.

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You can find a full KS2 lesson plan about the Ancient Greek Olympics in our Ancient Greece Resource Pack.

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