Culture, Mediterranean lifestyle

By Jackie Humphries Smith
Instagram: @travelnwrite



the tale of the Olympics is a blend of fact and mythology.  While the stories surrounding the Games are many and varied – each with a slightly different twist – they provide a fascinating look at how an ancient pagan festival has transcended the ages to become one of the modern world’s most popular athletic events.

It is generally agreed that the Ancient Olympics began in 776 BC and continued until 393 AD taking place every four years; a timespan that was to become known as an Olympiad. In their beginning they took place in the Sanctuary of Olympia in Greece’s western Peloponnese.  The Ancient Olympics – after more than 1,000 years of existence — ended when Roman Emperor Theodosis I abolished all pagan cults and centers.

The ‘why’ of their beginning is not quite as clear as the ‘when’, as mythology lends itself to many versions of the Game’s origin. From that perspective, they may have been an invention of Heracles of Ida or Zeus himself in memory of his battle with Kronos. Some say they began as funeral games held in honor of deceased local heroes, which is a plausible explanation as sporting events then were often associated with the rituals of funerals.

The first dozen Ancient Olympics took place on a single day in August, quite a contrast to this year’s Summer Olympics scheduled to be held in Tokyo, from July 23rd to August 8th.  There was a single competition back when the Ancient Olympics began: athletes ran a foot race of about 190 meters, basically the length of the stadium, and thus, called a stade.

Ultimately 18 events were added, including chariot racing, and the games expanded to five days. This summer’s Tokyo Games will include 339 events, in 33 competitions, including skateboarding and BMX and mountain bike cycling, across 42 competition venues.

All free male Greeks, regardless of social status, could compete in the Ancient Olympics. Koroibos, a cook from the nearby city of Elis, is heralded as the winner of the first Olympiad’s stadium race. Slaves, foreigners, and women were not allowed to compete. Women had their own competition, the Heraean Games, dedicated to the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus.

One exception was the chariot races in which the owners of the horses were declared the winners, not the riders. Anyone could own a horse.  And that fact is what made Kyniska, daughter of King Archidamos of Sparta, the first female victor in Antiquity. Her four horses won in the 396 BC and 392 BC Olympiads.

However, history isn’t clear as to whether she was present to claim the victory wreath. Historians disagreed on the role of women as spectators. Some say only the Priestess of Demeter could attend, others say the Priestess and virgin girls could attend, but all sources generally agree that married women were not allowed to be among Olympic spectators.

Unlike the gold, silver and bronze medalists in today’s competitions, there was only one winner in the Ancient Games competitions. The winner was presented with a crown made of an olive branch from the sacred olive trees at Olympia. If they could afford it, the winners were permitted to build statues to themselves. Odes to winners were written by famous poets. A feast was held. And they were considered heroes back in their home cities.

After an absence of 1,503 years, a Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founded the Modern Olympics. Thanks to his efforts, the first Modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896. Greek King Georgios I and 60,000 spectators watched athletes from 14 nations compete. First-place winners received silver medals, olive branches and diplomas. Second place winners received copper medals, laurel branch and diploma.

The first modern Winter Games were held in 1924 in Chamonix, France.  Beginning in 1994, the Games have been played every other year, alternating Summer, and Winter Games, with the exception of 2020 when the Summer Games were postponed to this year as result of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The inclusion of women athletes began in the 1900 Olympic Games held in Paris. Of the 997 athletes, 22 were women who competed in five sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrianism, and golf.  Since 1991 any new Olympic sport must have women’s competitions.  By the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro 45 percent of the participants were women.


* The Ancient Olympic stadium was rebuilt several times and could accommodate more than 40,000 people at the height of the Games popularity in the second century AD. When it was not being used for the Olympics, or being prepared for them, it was planted with wheat.

*  The Marathon was not a part of the Ancient Games. It was first introduced in 1896 in Athens with a race from the town of Marathon, 40 kilometers northeast of Athens to the Olympic Stadium in the heart of Athens. It was said to have commemorated the ancient ‘day runner, Pheidippides. The distance was later standardized to 26.2 miles.

*  The Olympic flag with its five interlaced rings, was an invention of the Modern Olympics and designed to represent the union of the five continents from which the athletes came. Its colors – blue, yellow, black, green and red – represented the colors of the flags of the nations whose athletes were competing in the Games. There is no ancient basis for the symbol. 

* The Olympic Flame is a symbol of the continuity between the Ancient and Modern Olympic games.  Since 1936 for the Summer Games and 1952 for the Winter Games the Olympic torch relay has led to the lighting of Olympic flame during the opening ceremony which burns until being extinguished during the closing ceremonies. Since 1962 the torch has been lit in Olympia, Greece before making its way to the competition venue.

Gymnasium comes from the Greek ‘gymnos’ meaning naked.
Stadium is from the Greek ‘stadion’ a unit of measurement.
Athlete comes from the ancient Greek meaning ‘one who competes for a prize’ combining the Greek words ‘athlos’ – contest and ‘athlon’ – prize.

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