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The ancient Olympic Games

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By John Davisteacher and freelance writer

Explore the differences between the ancient and modern Olympic Games.

The first written record of the Olympic Games dates from 776 BC but the event probably started long before then. The Games ran continuously for almost a thousand years and became so important that wars were halted by a sacred truce while they were taking place. The Pythian, Nemean, Isthmian and Olympic Games were the main contests. The gathering at Olympia started small but gradually grew larger to become the leading event.

Olympic sprinters

What do sources tell us about the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece?

Explain to the children that we know so much about what happened at the Ancient Olympic Games because of the items that have been left behind. Evidence has come not only through archaeologists who have dug up stadiums, sculptures and other artefacts but also from wall paintings and everyday objects especially vases.

There were also many important writers working in Ancient Greece and some of the things they have written about remain for us to read. One wrote about chariot racing at Olympia:
’At the sound of the brass trumpet off they started, all shouting to their horses and urging them on with their reins. The clatter of the rattling chariots filled the arena and the dust flew up as they sped along…’

Use the internet to research the main events of the Ancient Olympics including:
  • chariot racing
  • sprinting
  • javelin
  • discus
  • wrestling
  • hoplite running

Hoplite was the name given to an infantryman or foot soldier in Greek armies. Soldiers were expected to run carrying a shield and wearing some form of armour like a helmet and greaves (leg guards).

Challenge children to draw a large picture of one of the events on the outline of the pottery vase provided on Activity sheet, ‘Greek vase’.

Greek vase

As an extension, children could make their own pots from clay and either engrave or paint an Olympic event on the side. Greek pots sometimes show reddish/orange figures on a black background while sometimes the reverse effect is achieved. This effect was achieved by having three stages in the firing process. Groups of children could create a tableau of the athletic scenes shown on the side of the Greek pots. Other groups have to guess what the children are representing.

In what ways are the modern Olympic Games like the ancient ones?

Olympics images

Draw up lists and/or displays of the events included in the ancient Olympic Games and the games due to take place in 2012. Use the images in the Gallery, ‘Olympics images’ to prompt discussion about the modern events. Talk about the different disciplines. What do the competitors do in each event? Do the children think they could do that sport? Which events have stayed more or less unchanged since the ancient Olympics? Which have disappeared? Which are entirely new and which entirely different?

Discuss with children which of the ancient/modern events they would like to take part in. Ask for reasons. Also compare the ways in which winning athletes have been rewarded in the Olympic Games. Today there are gold, silver and bronze medals for those who finish in the first three places and the national anthems are played during a ceremony in the arena. In Ancient Greece successful athletes only received garlands, wreaths or headbands of laurel, olive or pine leaves. Sometimes a victory ode or poem was especially written in their honour and they were often treated as national heroes when they arrived back home. Some athletes became professional and were paid wages by their home city-state.


  1. Lisa Jenkins
    on 8 June 2012


    Why is there nothing about conditions? my daughter has come home with homework to look up what the conditons were like in the ancient greece olympics.