The Olympics in Ancient Greece

Paul Christesen – Dartmouth College

The modern Olympic Games owe much to the Olympic Games held in ancient Greece. When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was established under the leadership of Pierre de Coubertin in 1894, the members of the IOC were inspired by the example of the ancient Olympics, as is evident from the name that they gave their organization and the athletic contests that they organized.

But the ancient and modern Olympic Games are very different in a number of important ways. For example, the modern Olympic Games have­–in their relatively short history–been interrupted by two World Wars and a pandemic, whereas the ancient Greeks held their Olympic Games without fail, every four years, for nearly 1,200 years. The remarkable longevity of the Olympics speaks to how important these Games were to the ancient Greeks. The differences extend to the structure of the Olympics and the choice of competitions. The ancient Olympics were, for instance, embedded in a religious festival held in honor of Zeus, and team sports were entirely absent from the athletic contests.

In this lecture, Professor Christesen will explore what the ancient Olympics were like, how they were organized and run, and the site (Olympia) where they were held. Along the way, we will learn about why the Olympics mattered so much to the ancient Greeks and what the Olympics can tell us about the values and priorities that shaped their lives.


Discussion Questions:

  1. What, in your view, are the major differences between the ancient and modern Olympics?

  1. Are there any features of the ancient Olympics that you think could and should be incorporated into the modern Olympics?

  1. The ancient Greeks regularly combined sports and religion. What do you think some of the consequences of that mixing might have been?

  1. The ancient Greeks cared deeply about timē (public recognition of one’s skills and achievements in the form of respect shown by one’s peers). Is there anything similar in the United States in the present day?

  1. The Olympics helped bring Greeks together as a group. Are there events in the United States in the present day that bring Americans together as a group?