Cheating During the Ancient Olympics

Instances of Bribery and Cheating at the Ancient Olympics

Cheating seems to have been rare at the ancient Olympics, which traditionally started in 776 B.C. and were held every 4 years thereafter. It is assumed there were cheaters in addition to the known ones listed below, but the judges, Hellanodikai, were considered honest, and on the whole, so were the athletes—partly deterred by stiff fines and the possibility of flogging.

This list is based on zane-statue witness Pausanias but comes directly from the following article: "Crime and Punishment in Greek Athletics," by Clarence A. Forbes. The Classical Journal, Vol. 47, No. 5, (Feb., 1952), pp. 169-203.

Gelo of Syracuse

Winner of a Roman Chariot Race
Winner of a Roman Chariot Race. PD Courtesy of Wikipedia

Gelo of Gela won an Olympic victory, in 488, for the chariot. Astylus of Croton won in the stade and diaulos races. When Gelo became tyrant of Syracuse -- as happened more than once to the much adored and honored Olympic victors -- in 485, he persuaded Astylus to run for his city. Bribery is assumed. The angry people of Croton tore down Astylus' Olympic statue and seized his house.

Lichas of Sparta

In 420, the Spartans were excluded from participation, but a Spartan named Lichas entered his chariot horses as Thebans. When the team won, Lichas ran onto the field. The Hellanodikai sent attendants to flog him as punishment.

" Arcesilaus won two Olympic victories. His son Lichas, because at that time the Lacedaemonians were excluded from the games, entered his chariot in the name of the Theban people; and when his chariot won, Lichas with his own hands tied a ribbon on the charioteer: for this he was whipped by the umpires."
Pausanias Book VI.2

Eupolus of Thessaly

Bases of Zanes
Bases of Zanes. Names of those who paid for the statues were inscribed on these bases. Public Domain. Courtesy of NeilEvans at Wikipedia.

During the 98th Olympics, in 388 B.C. a boxer named Eupolus bribed his 3 opponents to let him win. The Hellanodikai fined all four men. The fines paid for a row of bronze statues of Zeus with inscriptions explaining what had happened. These 6 bronze statues were the first of the zanes.

The Romans used the system of damnatio memoriae to purge the memory of despised men. Egyptians did something similar [see Hatshepsut], but the Greeks did virtually the opposite, memorializing the names of miscreants so their example couldn't be forgotten.

" 2 2. On the way from the Metroum to the stadium there is on the left, at the foot of Mount Cronius, a terrace of stone close to the mountain, and steps lead up through the terrace. At the terrace stand bronze images of Zeus. These images were made from the fines imposed on athletes who wantonly violated the rules of the games: they are called Zanes (Zeuses) by the natives. At first six were set up in the ninety-eighth Olympiad; for Eupolus, a Thessalian, bribed the boxers who presented themselves, to wit, Agetor, an Arcadian, Prytanis of Cyzicus, and Phormio of Halicarnassus, the last of whom had been victorious in the preceding Olympiad They say that this was the first offence committed by athletes against the rules of the games, and Eupolus and the men he bribed were the first who were fined by the Eleans. Two of the images are by Cleon of Sicyon: I do not know who made the next four. These images, with the exception of the third and fourth, bear inscriptions in elegiac verse. The purport of the verses on the first is that an Olympic victory is to be gained, not by money, but by fleetness of foot and strength of body. The verses on the second declare that the image has been set up in honour of the deity and by the piety of the Eleans, and to be a terror to athletes who transgress. The sense of the inscription on the fifth image is a general praise of the Eleans, with a particular reference to the punishment of the boxers; and on the sixth and last it is stated that the images are a warning to all the Greeks not to give money for the purpose of gaining an Olympic victory."
Pausanias V

Dionysius of Syracuse

Boxers, one with blood, by the Nikosthenes painter. Attic Black-Figure Amphora, ca. 520-510 B.C.
Boxers, one with blood, by the Nikosthenes painter. Attic Black-Figure Amphora, ca. 520-510 B.C. British Museum. [] Pankration Research Institute @

When Dionysius became tyrant of Syracuse, he tried to persuade the father of Antipater, the boys' class winning boxer, to claim his city as Syracuse. Antipater's Milesian father refused. Dionysius had more success claiming a later Olympic victory in 384 (99th Olympics). Dicon of Caulonia legitimately claimed Syracuse as his city when he won the stade race. It was legitimate because Dionysius had conquered Caulonia.

Ephesus and Sotades of Crete

In the 100th Olympics, Ephesus bribed a Cretan athlete, Sotades, to claim Ephesus as his city when he won the long race. Sotades was exiled by Crete.

" 4. Sotades won the long race in the ninety-ninth Olympiad, and was proclaimed as a Cretan, as in fact he was; but in the next Olympiad he was bribed by the Ephesian community to accept the citizenship of Ephesus. For this he was punished with exile by the Cretans."
Pausanias Book VI.18

The Hellanodikai

The Hellanodikai were considered honest, but there were exceptions. They were required to be citizens of Elis and in 396, when they judged a stade race, two of the three voted for Eupolemus of Elis, while the other voted for Leon of Ambracia. When Leon appealed the decision to the Olympic Council, the two partisan Hellanodikai were fined, but Eupolemus maintained the victory.

There were other officials who may have been corrupt. Plutarch suggests umpires (brabeutai) sometimes awarded crowns incorrectly.

" The statue of Eupolemus, an Elean, is by Daedalus, of Sicyon the inscription on it sets forth that Eupolemus was victor at Olympia in the men's foot-race, and that he also won two Pythian crowns in the pentathlum, and one at Nemea. It is said about Eupolemus that three umpires were appointed to judge the race, and that two of them gave the victory to Eupolemus, but one of them to Leon, an Ambraciot, and that Leon got the Olympic Council to fine both the judges who had decided in favour of Eupolemus."
Pausanias Book VI.2

Callippus of Athens

In 332 B.C., during the 112th Olympics, Callipus of Athens, a pentathlete, bribed his competitors. Again, the Hellanodikai found out and fined all offenders. Athens sent an orator to try to persuade Elis to remit the fine. Unsuccessful, the Athenians refused to pay and withdrew from the Olympics. It took the Delphic Oracle to persuade Athens to pay. A second group of 6 bronze zane statues of Zeus was erected from the fines.

Eudelus and Philostratus of Rhodes

2 Youths Wrestling and Trainers. Drinking cup (kylix), by Onesimos, c. 490-480 B.C. Red-Figure.
2 Youths Wrestling and Trainers. Drinking cup (kylix), by Onesimos, c. 490-480 B.C. Red-Figure. [] Pankration Research Institute @

In 68 B.C., during the 178th Olympics, Eudelus paid a Rhodian to let him win a preliminary wrestling competition. Found out, both men and the city of Rhodes paid a fine, and so there were two more zane statues.

Fathers of Polyctor of Elis and Sosander of Smyrna

In 12 B.C. two more zanes were built at the expense of fathers of wrestlers from Elis and Smyrna.

Didas and Sarapammon From the Arsinoite Nome

Boxers from Egypt paid for zanes built in A.D. 125.

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Gill, N.S. "Cheating During the Ancient Olympics." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). Cheating During the Ancient Olympics. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Cheating During the Ancient Olympics." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).