FAQs: MODERN MYTHS OF THE ANCIENT OLYMPIC GAMES
The following are common myths surrounding the ancient Olympic Games. If
you have a fact-or-fiction question, send an e-mail
to David Gilman Romano, the Museum's Olympic expert.
The marathon race was an ancient Greek athletic event.
It was not an ancient event. It was introduced for the first time as an
event of the Modern Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens. It commemorated the
run of Pheidippides, a day-runner who, according to Herodotus, ran from
Athens to Sparta to announce the invasion of Greece by the Persians at Marathon
in 490 B.C. According to Herodotus (6, 106) Pheidippides covered the distance
between the two cities leaving one day and arriving the next. On behalf
of the Athenians, he asked for the Spartans help to fight the Persians.
Pheidippides did not die as a result of his run.
The torch relay was an event of the ancient Olympic games.
It was not an event of the ancient Olympic games. There were torch relays
known as a part of other athletic festivals in Greece, for instance the
Panathenaic Games at Athens and the games in honor of Poseidon at the Isthmus
The ancient Olympic games were open to all Greeks.
The ancient Olympic games were only open to male Greek citizens of Greek
city-states. This eliminated all foreigners, as well as all females, slaves,
foreign workers (metics) and children. Eventually Roman citizens could take
part in the Olympic Games.
Females were prohibited from participating in and attending the ancient
The Roman traveler Pausanias ( 5,6,7) tells us that married women were prohibited
from watching the mens and boys contests of the Olympic Games.
However, it was possible for a wealthy and aristocratic woman to own a chariot
team and enter it in the Olympic Games. On several occasions the chariot
team owned by a woman but driven presumably by a male charioteer won an
Also there was a separate festival at Olympia in honor of Hera, the wife
of Zeus, organized and run by women. There were foot races for virgin girls
run in three age categories. There were also dances.
The Greeks were the first to introduce athletic training and competition
in the history of the ancient world.
The Greeks were not the first to introduce athletic training and competition
in the history of the modern world. The Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians
were known to have training and competition in a number of events including
wrestling and boxing and possibly running as early as the third millennium
B.C. or approximately 2000 years before the beginning of the ancient Olympic
games. It is very likely that Greek athletics were influenced by the accomplishments
of these earlier civilizations.
Ancient Olympic athletes were amateur.
Ancient Olympic athletes were neither amateur nor professional. The word
athlete is a Greek word that means one who competes for a prize
and is related to two Greek words, athlos meaning contest and athlon meaning
prize. Greek athletes routinely competed for prizes at athletic festivals.
Some of the prizes were symbolic, for instance the wreath of olive leaves
at Olympia, and others were material prizes worth money, for instance
bronze tripods, or amphoras filled with olive oil.
Ancient Olympic victors received only a wreath of olive leaves as a prize.
Although Olympic victors did receive an olive wreath as a prize at Olympia,
it is known that victors commonly received other more lucrative
rewards when returning to their home city. For instance according to Plutarch,
Life of Solon 23, an Olympic victor who was a citizen of Athens could
expect to receive in the year 600 B.C. a cash award of 500 drachmai, a