How do you take part in the Olympics

Knowledge pool
Olympic games

The five competition days of the "golden age"

In the "golden age" of the ancient Olympic Games (472 - 400 BC) the Olympic festival lasted for 5 days. The first day and the third day are determined by ordinations - a clear sign of the originally cultic significance of the Olympic competition. The prelude was a procession - priests, referees, athletes and spectators march through a procession gate into the holy district of Olympia.

  • Arrived in front of the Zeus altar, the procession participants waited for the first climax of the celebration. A bull was sacrificed for Zeus, the highest of all Greek gods. Rights: SWR
  • After the sacrifice of a bull, the solemn oath followed. The athletes, but also the referees, swear that they will respect the rules of the fight. Rights: SWR
  • The last day, the day of the victory celebration. Victory in Olympia is the highest honor in an athlete's career. Rights: SWR

1 day


Sacrifice of Zeus

Olympic oath of athletes and referees

Boys' competitions in running, wrestling and fistfighting

2 day

The "Hippic Agons": races and chariot races in the hippodrome

Men's pentathlon with discus throw, long jump and javelin throw, followed by a run and wrestling match

3rd day

Bull sacrifice for the god Zeus

Cross-country skiing

Stadium run and double run

4th day

The "fight day" - wrestling, fistfight, pankration and gun barrel

5th day

Award ceremonies and ritual acts

All candidates for the competitions of the Olympic Games had to prove at least ten months of home training with special coaches. As a rule, however, this was not a problem, since at least in the heyday of the games it was "good form" for the noble youth of Greece to receive a sporty, general physical and mental training in a gymnasium. This training included much more than just physical exercises and was subordinate to the educational goal of the time, the ARETE. ARETE was primarily about the pursuit of military virtue and bravery, not the pursuit of power, fame, or money. This objective was also pursued at the Olympic Games, which other nations met with incomprehension. While around 480 BC When the Spartans under Leonidas defended the Thermopylae pass against the Persians and died, the rest of the Greeks celebrated the 75th Olympic Games. This strict adherence to the implementation of the games despite the highest national danger and the competition only for the honor and for a wreath of the olive tree is said to have brought the Persians almost to despair.

Review of participants

With the replacement of the aristocratic society by the democracy of the city-states, the ARETE retained its validity, but it now referred more to spiritual values. So educated, the participants came together in Elis for a common training camp. The leaders of the training were the Hellanodiken, the "Greek judges".

  • Only free Greeks were allowed to take part, no slaves, no foreigners and, above all, no women. Women are prohibited from participating and even watching under the penalty of death. Rights: SWR

After signing up, they screened participants for their home training, free birth, marital parentage, flawless past, and Greek tribal affiliation, also important being that the athletes were listed under their own tribe.

However, when it comes to tribal affiliation, there were more frequent attempts at fraud, in which, for example, an attempt was made to pretend to be a member of a friendly tribe if one's own tribe was excluded from the games. Similarities with the Olympic exclusion of South Africa (for the first time in 1964) and the start of its athletes under English or other flags are therefore not coincidental, but internal to the system.

Training in the Elis gymnasium

In addition to the home training, a hard thirty-day training session in the Gymnasium of Elis was prescribed, at the end of which the successful graduates had to march from Elis to Olympia over 57 kilometers. Within thirty days, the actual coaches tried to motivate their athletes by all legal and illegal means. For example, a coach whose protégé was lovesick let his athletes know that his lover only wanted to be his if he was to achieve Olympic glory. His method is said to have been successful. Not all athletes survived the rigors of this training; many were eliminated before the games. With the increasing emphasis on the fight, the ideal image of the athlete changed at the games. Especially at the competitions of the "Martial Arts Day", the winners were no longer the young, beautiful, slim and fat pillow-free model athletes, but rather large, coarse, sometimes extremely heavy warrior types.

  • Athlete with a scraper. Rights: SWR

  • Scenes from an ancient gymnasion. The youngsters of Greece trained their musical and intellectual abilities here as naturally as their physical abilities. Rights: SWR

As a spectator at the ancient Olympic Games

We have to imagine the Olympic Games in their "golden age" as great, all-Greek folk festivals. The more than 40,000 spectators who watched the games were squeezed into the small valley with no baths, no sanitary facilities, no accommodation and no adequate water supply; A spacious bathing area was only available for the athletes. The spectators had to pitch their tents in the blazing sun in the valley - no headgear was allowed in the stadium itself. As a result of these catastrophic conditions, the philosopher Thales of Miletus, for example, died of heat and thirst at the 58th Olympic Games.

  • That would not have existed in antiquity: women in the stands .... Rights: SWR

Street vendors offered votive statues for sale, refreshments and souvenirs were sold, jugglers, magicians and fortune tellers demonstrated their skills. Poets tried to draw attention to themselves through readings, philosophers from the various rival schools argued loudly against each other in order to emphasize their speaking skills. In addition to this enormous crowd on only about 1000 square meters, there was a brutal stench from the excrement and the sacrifice of countless animals on the altars, whose meat, as it was mostly not allowed to be eaten, rotted in the sun. Anyone who survived this mixture of feces, burnt or rotting animal flesh, human vapors, animal deaths, monotonous music and endless rhetoric was likely to fall into the famous Olympic ecstasy. An ancient joke said that it was a more severe punishment for a slave to be taken to the Olympic Games as a spectator than to do hard labor in the mill.

The ancient "Grand Slam" - sports games in ancient Greece

The Olympics were probably the oldest, but by no means the only sports games in Greece where prizes were contested in the form of agons in public festivals. So there was in the 5th century BC Four "sacred games". In addition to the Olympic Games, these were the Pythian Games in honor of Apollo in Delphi, the Isthmic Games in honor of Poseidon near Corinth and the Nemean Games in honor of Zeus near Nemea. Like the Olympic Games, all of these games can be traced back to cults of the dead, but they all had an individual character. At the Isthmian Games, water sports such as swimming and rowing were also represented, and within the Pythian and Panathenaic Games, musical competitions dominated, especially dance, which was highly valued by the Greeks. In the "four big" games there were only victory ribbons and a victory wreath.

The attempt by the Athenians to include the Panathenaic Games near Athens in the dance of the "sacred games" never succeeded. Just as the Olympic Games had an older origin than the other Greek sports games, they should also be the last to survive. With the end of Greek independence, only the Olympic Games were held in Roman times.

Map of Greece with the venues of ancient sports games: Delphi, Athens, Corinth, Nemea and Olympia

© Gerhard Reckendorf / SWR