the things we'll hear argued about the modern Olympic Games is the question
of amateurism (and professionalism) of athletes.
This was not a concern of the Greeks since ancient athletes regularly received
prizes worth substantial amounts of money. In fact, the word athlete
is an ancient Greek word that means "one who competes for a prize"
and was related to two other Greek words, athlos
meaning "contest" and athlon
Our first glimpse of organized Greek athletics is in the 23rd book of Homer's
Iliad, where Achilles organizes funeral games for his friend Patroklos who
was killed during the Trojan War. In each of the eight events contested
on the plain of Troy, material prizes are offered to each competitor,
including tripods, cauldrons, valuable metal, oxen, and women.
race of the funeral games of Patroklos: our first glimpse of organized
Greek athletics where prizes are awarded. Note the cauldron and
the tripod. (Detail from the Francois Vase, ca. 570 BC, Museo
Material awards were routinely given as prizes (more
info) at most of the athletic festival sites all over the Greek world.
During the 8th, 7th, and 6th centuries BC, dozens of athletic events were
established as parts of religious festivals honoring heroes, gods, or even
Athletes who won at any of these Pan-Hellenic games could be assured of
great wealth when they returned home.
According to the Roman author Plutarch, an Olympic victor who was a citizen
of Athens could expect to receive in the year 600 BC a cash award of 500
drachmai, a literal
fortune. An Isthmian victor would receive 100 drachmai.
From an Athenian inscription of the 5th century BC, we learn that Athenian
Olympic victors received a free meal in the City Hall every day for
the rest of their lives, a kind of early pension plan.
Later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, pensions for athletes
became more formalized and could actually be bought and sold.
("heads") of silver tetradrachm,
minted by Philip II of Macedonia ca. 350 BC to commemorate his victory
in the horse race at Olympia. Museum
Object Number: 29-126-58.
This evidence suggests that there were no amateur athletes in ancient
Greece, but there were no professional athletes either, for there was no
distinction between the two categories, all were simply athletes.
The concept of "amateur athletics," developed in the 19th century
AD, would have been very foreign to the ancient Greeks since the winning
of a valuable or prestigious prize was an important part of being an athlete.
are the champions... For a list of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time, click here.
To learn more about who the champions were, how many
we know about, and where our knowledge of them comes from, click here.
Did you know...
Athletic prizes included bronze tripods, shields, woolen cloaks, and
However, at the most prestigious athletic festivals (the Pan-Hellenic
Festivals), the only prizes given were wreaths of leaves: olive
at Olympia, laurel at Delphi, pine at Isthmia, and parsley
According to Phlegon, a Roman author of the 2nd century AD, the wreath
of olive leaves was instituted as the prize for victors at Olympia
in 752 BC, on the advice of the Oracle at Delphi.
Attic Black Figure Lekythos, ca. 550 BC, depicting two racing runners.
They are likely to be competing in either the stadion
or the diaulos.
The runners are flanked by either judges or spectators. Museum Object Number: MS739.