The Individual Sporting Events or Games of the Ancient Olympics

How Did They Develop Over Time?

Discus Thrower at the British Museum - Photo by Alun Salt at Flickr
Discus Thrower at the British Museum - Photo by Alun Salt at Flickr. Alun Salt

Events (Games) in the Ancient Olympics

The races and other events (games) in the ancient Olympics were not fixed at the time of the first Olympics, but gradually evolved. Here you'll find a description of the big events at the ancient Olympics and the approximate date when they were added.

  • Boxing
  • Discus (part of Pentathlon)
  • Equestrian Events
  • Javelin (part of Pentathlon)
  • Jumping
  • Pankration
  • Pentathlon
  • Running
  • Wrestling

Note: gymnastics were not part of the ancient Olympics. Gymnos means naked and at the ancient Olympics, Gymnastes were athletic exercise trainers. [See CTC's The Ancient Olympics on the Olympic trainers.]

Foot Race

According to "The Athletic Events of the Ancient Olympic Games,"(1) the stade, a 200-yard foot race, was the first and only Olympic event for 13 Games. The diaulos, a 400-yard foot race, was instituted for the next (the 14th) set of Olympic Games and the dolichos, a variable-length foot-race, averaging 20 stades, was instituted in the 15th Olympiad.

The stadion was a sprint a stadion long (about 192 m) or the length of the stadium. The women's racecourse was shorter than the men's by about a sixth.

At the first recorded Olympic games there was one event, a race, -- the stade (also a measure of the distance of the length of the track). By 724 B.C. a 2-length race was added; by 700, there were long distance races (the marathon came later).

By 720, men participated naked, except for the foot race-in-armor (50-60 pounds of helmet, greaves, and shield) that helped young men prepare for war by building speed and stamina. Achilles' epithet, swift-footed, and the belief that Ares, god or war, was fastest of the gods indicate, according to Roger Dunkle (2), that the ability to win a race was a much admired martial skill.

Pentathlon

In the 18th Olympiad, the pentathlon and wrestling were added. Pentathlon was the name for the five events in Greek gymnastics: running, jumping, wrestling, discus throwing, and javelin throwing.

Long Jump

The long jump was rarely an event on its own, but one of the most difficult parts of the Pentathlon, according to Dartmouth's "The Olympic Games in the Ancient Hellenic World" (3), yet the skill it demonstrated was an important one for soldiers who would need to cover long distance quickly during battle.

Javelin and Discus

Coordination was a requisite for the javelin throw which was often accomplished on horseback. The throw itself was like that used by today's javelin throwers. Likewise, the discus was thrown in the same way as today.

Kyle (p.121) says the size and weight of the usually bronze discuses were 17-35 cm and 1.5-6.5 kg.

Wrestling

In the 18th Olympiad, the pentathlon and wrestling were added. Wrestlers were anointed with oil, dusted with powder, and forbidden to bite or gouge. Wrestling was looked upon as a weapon-free military exercise. Weight and strength were especially important since there were no weight categories. Kyle (p.120) says that in 708 wrestling (pale) was introduced to the Olympics.

This was also the year the Pentathlon was introduced. In 648 the pankration ("all-in wrestling") was introduced.

Boxing

The Iliad's author, known as Homer, describes a boxing event held to honor Patroklos (Patroclus), the slain companion of Achilles. Boxing was added to the ancient Olympic games in 688 B.C. According to myth, Apollo invented it to kill Phorbas, a man who had been forcing travelers to Delphi through Phocis to fight him to the death.

Originally, boxers wrapped self-protecting thongs around their hands and arms. Later they wore less time-consuming, pre-wrapped, ox-hide thongs known as himantes wrapped to the forearm with leather straps. By the 4th century, there were gloves. The preferred target was the opponent's face.

Equestrian

In 648 B.C., chariot racing (based on the use of chariots in battle) was added to the events.

Pankration

"Pankratiasts...must employ backward falls which are not safe for the wrestler...They must have skill in various methods of strangling; they also wrestle with an opponent's ankle and twist his arm, besides hitting and jumping on him, for all these practices belong to the pankration, only biting and gouging being excepted."
Philostratus, On Gymnastics From Olympic Games Study Guide (4)

In 200 B.C., the Pankration was added, although it was developed much earlier, supposedly, by Theseus, in his combat with the Minotaur. The pankration was a combination of boxing and wrestling, where, again, gouging and biting were forbidden. It was a very dangerous sport, however. When a contestant was wrestled to the ground, his opponent (not wearing gloves) could rain blows on him. The downed opponent could kick back.

The Olympic games were not proving grounds for real combat. Just because skills in the Olympics matched valued martial skills does not mean the Greeks assumed the best wrestler made the best fighter. The games were more symbolic, religious, and entertaining. Unlike hoplite, team-style warfare, the ancient Olympics were individual sports which allowed an individual Greek to win glory. Today's Olympics, in a world described as narcissistic, where warfare is distant, involving only small clusters of people, being part of a gold-winning team confers honor just as well. Ritualized sport, whether team or individual, continues to be an outlet for or way to sublimate humanity's aggression.

The Ancient Olympics - Starting Point for Information on the Olympics | 5-Question Quiz on the Ancient Olympics

(1) [URL = <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cl135/Students/Kristina_Angus/content.html> (02/17/98)]
(2) [URL = <http://depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/classics/warathl.htm> (07/04/00)]
(3) [URL = <http://devlab.cs.dartmouth.edu/olympic/Games/Jumping.html#rules> (07/04/00)]
(4) [URL = <http://www.siu.edu/departments/cola/dfll/public_html/classics/Olympic_Games.html> (07/04/00)]