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Explain why the city-states of Greece instituted a tradition of athletic competitions and describe the kinds of sports they featured.

external image Olympics.gif

Topics on this page include:
  • Origins of the Olympics
  • Events in Ancient Olympics
  • The Berlin Games, 1936
    • Jesse Owens
  • The Mexico City Games, 1968
  • The Sochi Winter Games, 2014
  • Women's Participation in the Olympics
    • The Heraean Games
      • Women in the Modern Olympics
        • Alaska Native Youth Olympics


Focus Question: Why did the Greeks start the Olympics as an athletic competition?



external image Temple_of_Hera_Ruins.JPG
Multimedia.pngThe Ancient Olympics: a Special Exhibit of the Perseus Digital Library Project from the Classics Department at Tufts University.

Image to the right is a replica (with the exception of the pool of water) of the Temple of Hera at Olympia, site of the ancient Olympic games. Author: A.J. Camerio

timeline2_rus.svg.pngTimelines, Maps, and Images of Athletics in Ancient Greece

The Real Story of the Ancient Olympic Games from the University of Pennsylvania museum.

Olympic Games on Ancient Coins


Origins of the Olympics


external image Hommage_des_dieux_%C3%A0_Zeus.jpg
The ancient Olympic Games were created to honor the God's, specifically Zeus the most powerful. The games consisted of athletic competitions that took place between the major Greek city-states.
  • The games were devised as competitions to honor the most powerful Greek god, It is also apparent that these games were largely contests for pride among rival city-states in a divided Greece.

  • The first Olympic Games took place in Olympia, Greece in the year 776 BCE.There are four ancient Greek athletic game festivals, but the most popular were the games held at Olympia.

  • The Isthmos, in the city-state of Corinth, were staged every two years and the Pythian games, near Delphi (in honor of Apollo), occurred every four years, Nemean at Argos was also important.

  • All the festivals started with an offering to the Gods and an extensive sacrifice of cattle- often oxen. The athletes would also perform offerings to the Gods for their blessing and support.

  • Before the games, the participants were required to train faithfully for 10 months and fulfill an oath, saying that the requirements for training will be fulfilled.
Crowning the Victors at Olympia - Hiero of Syracuse and victors
Crowning the Victors at Olympia - Hiero of Syracuse and victors

Events in Ancient Olympics



For the first thirteen Olympics, there was only one event, the stadium race, where runners sprinted for 1 length of the stadium (192m).

The other races were added within the next two years which included a 2-stade race (384 m.), and a long-distance run which ranged from 7 to 24 stades (1,344 m. to 4,608 m.).T

The fourth type of race involved runners wearing full armor, which was 2-4 stade race. Initially running was the focus of the Olympics because it was the focus and strength of a great soldier. (To put in context, a standard running track today is 400m).

In the following years, events besides running were added, including boxing and wrestling. Boxing consisted of two men hitting each other until one of the fighters admitted defeat, although the rules differed slightly from the rules of today's sport.
  • Boxing also had a more intense format which involved not just the hands but also kicking. This sport was known as "pankration". It was probable that men competed naked during the Olympic events.
    • Wrestling consisted of trying to throw the opponent to the ground three times on either his hip, back, or shoulder for victory.

Chariot racing was done in laps around a track, in some cases with two horses and in others with four. The one given the celebratory olive branch for the winner was not the driver of the chariot but the owner who had financed the rather expensive training.
  • The same was true for the jockeys in the riding event that also took place around a track. In some cases events were combined into a pentathlon, consisting of running, javelin, discus, wrestling, and the jump (similar to what we know as the long jump, but using weights to make the jump further).

The games were often times considered a higher accomplishment than winning battles. The athletic winners would be awarded prestige, honor, valuable gifts and privileges.

Click here for one list of the Greatest Olympic Athletes of All Time.

external image 200px-Hebrew_timeline2_rus.svg.pngClick here for a timeline of the Ancient Olympic Games.

It is also important to view the steady decline and eventual fall of these Olympic games, starting with Emperor Theodosius I, although it is important to point out that it is not only he who brought about the eventual fall of the Ancient Olympic Games.
  • Click here to view a piece on Theodosius's involvement in the decline, and here for a more overall, summarized view of the rise and fall of the games through time.



Jesse Owens, 1936
Jesse Owens, 1936

The Berlin Games 1936
In 1931 Berlin was granted the 1936 Olympic games as way for Germany to reenter the world community following their period of isolation following World War One. However, Hitler and the Nazis would rise to power in the years before hand and implement antisemitic and pro aryan policies that barred any Non-Christian and Non-White athletes from competing on the German National Team. Hitler would try and hide his racist agenda from the world during the games but nevertheless, his hopes for the 1936 games were to prove the Aryan Races physical superiority by dominating the competition. There to debunk Hitler's racist ideals however, was American athlete Jesse Owens.

Jesse Owens Medals

The Nazi Olympics, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Link also to material on the 1936 Olympics from Jewish Virtual Library

9 other African Americans won medals at the 1936 games

Click here to learn more about the persecution of jewish athletes and the history of the 1936 games.


American sprinters Tommie Smith & John Carlos, 1968
American sprinters Tommie Smith & John Carlos, 1968

Mexico City Games 1968

Rotating_globe-small.gifJohn Carlos, 1968 Olympic U. S. Medalist, on the Revolutionary Sports Moment that Changed the World.from Democracy Now, October 2011. Text of interview with writer Dave Zirin.


2014 Sochi Winter Olympics


external image 200px-Gay_flag.svg.pngGays in U.S. Olympic Delegation Will Send a Message to Russia, NPR (December 18, 2013).

See also, Pioneer Billie Jean King Moved the Baseline for Women's Tennis, NPR (January 31, 2014).

Billie Jean King Challenges Olympics Media on Gay Issue

Billie Jean King, U.S. Delegation, 2014 Winter Olympics
Billie Jean King, U.S. Delegation, 2014 Winter Olympics

Openly gay speed skater Ireen Wust wins gold at Sochi

An article on the Gay Rights protests in Sochi, as well as its difficulties finishing up its accommodations, courtesy of BBC News (February 5, 2014).


CBS Sunday Morning transcript- Politics at the Olympics: Out of Bounds? Discuss 2014 Sochi, 1980 Lake Placid's "Miracle on Ice", and the 1968 Summer Olympics in New Mexico.

Female_Rose.pngThe Heraean Games


Were the Ancient Olympics Just for Men? provides information about the role of women in the first Olympic Games from the Penn Museum

Women, (as well as foreigners, slaves and dishonored people) were forbidden to watch or view the Olympic Games. Virgins, or women that have been untouched, may be given the privilege to attend the games because they were considered more pure. But for the most part, women were excluded from most festivals.
  • As a result, women created their own form of athletic games known as Heraea.
    • They were held every four years, but did not contain as many events as the male version. The victorious athletes, like the men, were given valuable goods, privileges and honor.
    • The games were held to honor the Goddess Hera. 16 athletes would weave a robe for the Goddess as a tribute to hear and would then dawn special tunics cut just above the knee, with one shoulder covered and compete in footraces
    • Click here for a link to learn more about the history behind these games



Women in the Modern Olympics


Helene de Pourtales, 1899
Helene de Pourtales, 1899

timeline2_rus.svg.pngKey Dates in the History of Women in the Olympic Movement
  • 1900 in Paris was the first time women participated in the Games
    • Helene de Pourtales was first female Olympic Champion in sailing

Games for Girls offers new research from the Archaeological Institute of America on women's participation in athletics in the Ancient Olympic Games and Greek society.

Link to A Perspective of the History of Women's Sport in Ancient Greece-for information on Athletics in Greece with one article devoted to women's participation.

  • Link to 2012 Chinese Olympic teams, members, and medal winners here

  • Link to 1896 Athens games page and search for medal winners in any of the events, as well as read articles on some of the competitors here




Image from the Peninsula Clarion
Image from the Peninsula Clarion

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 1.58.11 PM.pngAlaska Native Youth Olympics


Link to the Native Youth Olympics website from Cook Inlet Tribal Council

Alaska's Native Youth Olympics Inspire Athletes to Excel at Traditional Skills, Newsela (June 23, 2017)

Multimedia.pngNative Youth Olympics: Telling the Story