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Sports in Ancient Greece: Key Facts about Marathon, Panhellenic and Olympic Games

    Sports played a major role in ancient Greece. This is not surprising considering the success that sports have in Greek culture today. Sports in ancient Greece were not all that different from the sports of today. Most of them we find in the Olympic Games.

    But how did it all begin? Did the sports have anything to do with the culture of the ancient Greeks? These and other questions you have asked us are answered in this blog post.

    Sports in ancient Greece were connected to the culture, everyday life, and beliefs of the Greeks. 

    It is well known that not all sports in the ancient world were invented in Greece, but many of them were developed there. There are other aspects of sports we will examine, such as where people were training and what equipment they used. 

    Without further ado, let’s discover the importance of sports in Greek culture.

    When Did Sports Start in Ancient Greece?

    It is difficult to say for sure the exact date, but the first evidence of the existence of sports in ancient Greece probably comes from Minoan artifacts. Archeologists discovered pottery depicting sports, dating to 3500 years BC. 

    These artifacts show a well-known sport from that time, Ταυροκαθάψια (tavrokathapsia). Bull leaping was a famous sport for the ancient Cretans, where a man would perform hard jumps on a moving bull.

    Bull leaping fresco taurokathapsia Knossos family guided tour kids love greece Crete

    Homer gave us more information. He let us know that sports as we know them today began in ancient Greece to honor the dead Patroclus, a good friend of the mythical hero Achilles, and other dead warriors in the great Trojan War. The sports event took place probably in the 12th century BC. 

    Later, in the 7th century (Archaic period), people in ancient Greece believed that a man should excel in all aspects of life. With this belief and the need to honor their gods, the Greeks founded the Olympic Games in 776 BC. The Olympic Games were so successful that a century later (6th century) the Panhellenic Games were created. 

    During the 5th and 4th centuries, the ideology of sport was reflected in a single phrase: Νοῦς ὑγιής ἐν σώματι ὑγιεῖ (or Mens sana in corpore sano in Latin). This saying is credited to the Greek philosopher Thales and means if you want to have a healthy mind, you should also have a healthy body. 

    A healthy mond in a healthy body Greek philosopher Thales about sports

    In the 3rd century, the Romans were in the spotlight. The Olympic Games and the rest of the Panhellenic Games would continue for a few more centuries, and now that the Romans ruled the known world, they allowed men from other countries to participate. This was the point at which other known civilizations of that time began to incorporate sports into their culture.

    But how do we know all this information? Well, in this case, it is the scripts of ancient writers such as Herodotus, Homer, and others that let us know of the existence of sports. We also learn a lot from different types of art, such as paintings on pottery

    Another source was the discovery of objects used in sports, like discus, which was the most important item in the discus sport. 

    Were the Ancient Greeks Sportive? 

    The ancient Greeks literally invented some sports, and for those sports that were not invented by them, Ancient Greeks developed and modified them further. 

    Sports were part of their daily life and philosophy in Ancient Greece. However, we must keep in mind that not all people in Ancient Greece had the right to participate in them. Slaves, for example, were not allowed to participate. Poor men couldn’t because they had no money. Also, in most cases, women didn’t have the same rights as men. Sparta was an exception because women had almost the same education as men.

    The importance of sports becomes crystal clear when you consider that the Olympic Games were created to honor the Olympian gods. The ancient Greeks truly believed that a healthy body along with a healthy and educated mind completed a man

    Still, it is important to say that many of the sports were used on the battlefield like wrestling and javelin, as depicted in pieces of art, manuscripts. An excellent example of this is the statue of Eniochos, which is the surviving part of a bronze complex that was dedicated to the sanctuary of Delphi. Eniochos was a young man who participated in a chariot race.

    Mythology, Sports and Ancient Greeks 

    Mythology was the basis of the thinking of the ancient Greeks and everything around them had a story to tell. Greeks in ancient times explained all physical phenomena and strange things with a great story, all linked to gods and heroes. 

    For example, the thunderbolt was the symbol of the mighty Zeus, who used it when it rained. But they also wondered how Zeus came to have this power and why. We can safely say that they tried to explain almost everything around them through mythology. 

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    Of course, this was the beginning of many great philosophical discussions by Aristotle, Plato, and other philosophers. 

    They also tried to answer questions about the creation of the universe or even more recent events like the creation of the Olympic Games. Sometimes more than one mythological story was believed because all these stories were passed down from one generation to the next. 

    The Origin of Olympic Games: Pelops, Hippodameia, and King Oinomaos

    The Olympic Games are a great example because there are two main mythological stories about their origin. 

    The prevailing story is that Pelops wanted to marry the princess Hippodameia, but her father, King Oinomaos, received an oracle from the famous prophetess Pythia (Oracle of Delphi) that said whoever marries his daughter will kill him! So Oinomaos decided to have a chariot race with his best charioteer. 


    The winner would marry Hippodameia. But his intentions were not innocent… He had only one rule. If the groom-to-be came in second place, it would cost him his life. Pelops won with the help of Hippodameia and the charioteer and became king of Pissa (a city near Olympia). To thank Zeus, he then founded the Olympic Games.

    So for the ancient Greeks, it was all a good story to explain nature and human actions. It is important to understand that the gods acted like humans; they were jealous, happy, sad, they even had weaknesses.

    Let the “Games” Begin…

    Athletic contests were a popular and fun activity in ancient Greece and therefore extremely popular. We have already mentioned that the ancient Greeks held competitions such as the Olympic Games to honor the gods. The same applied to the major sporting event, the Panhellenic Games.

    Panhellenic Games 

    The Panhellenic Games took place in four locations and in these places, there was a sanctuary of the patron god. The people created these sanctuaries to honor the gods and each of them was dedicated to the main god. Yet we know that other gods were also worshipped in these sanctuaries.


    • The ultimate prize of the races at each location was a wreath, at each place, made of a different material.
    • During the games a truce was proclaimed throughout Greece.
    • There were no team sports, all sports were competitions between individuals.

    Olympic Games (Olympia)

    The Olympic Games were founded in 776 BC to honor Zeus, king of the gods. The Games were held every four years. They began with a single sport, competitive running, but gradually other sports such as pentathlon and boxing were added.

    ancient Olympia ceremony light of the olympic flame

    Want to learn more about the Olympic Games in ancient Greece? Check our online class: “All About The Olympics”.

    If you traveled back in time to Olympia, you would be able to see the main sanctuary of Zeus with its majestic 11-foot tall ivory sculpture of Zeus. We consider it one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, but it was destroyed. Other temples and sports facilities were also present. 


    • The prize was a wreath of olive oil.
    • The Olympics lasted 5 days.
    • The Greek men actually ran naked! 
    • The Olympic Games lasted until 394 AC, when a Roman emperor decided they were pagan festivals.

    Heraia: Sports Games only for women

    As you might imagine, women weren’t allowed to participate in athletic competitions, probably no competitions at all… But at Olympia, the Heraia were also held every four years. Heraia were athletic contests held in honor of the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus. Only young and unmarried girls were allowed to participate and the sport consisted of running races.

    Make sure to check our latest online class about the history and mythology of the Olympic Games.


    • The prize was a wreath of olive oil and part of the sacred cow sacrificed in honor of Hera.
    • Three categories of young women: Children, teenagers, young unmarried women. 
    • The women were competing with a dress and their hair loose!
    • The Heraia Games were held the same year as the Olympic Games.

    Pythian Games (in Delphi)

    The Pythian Games were held at Delphi, which included a sanctuary dedicated to Apollo, the god of light and music. Delphi was considered the center of the earth (omphalos) and was a sacred, political, and cultural center.

    According to the myth, Apollo saw the site of Delphi and loved it. He wanted to build his sanctuary there, but a snake named Python didn’t. They fought and Apollo won. His priestess Pythia, as well as the Games, got their name from this serpent. Pythia was the most famous fortune-teller in the ancient world. 

    In addition, similar to the Olympic Games, the Pythian Games were held every four years. The Games probably began around 582 B.C. In the beginning, and for many years, they were a musical competition. 


    • The prize was a wreath of laurels.
    • The Pythian lasted 7 days
    • Thousands of people came to celebrate the god Apollo.
    • Preparations for the Pythias Games began 6 months before the games.

    Isthmian Games (Corinth)

    In Corinth, the people celebrated the god of the sea, Poseidon, every 2 years. There are many myths about the origin of the Isthmian Games. The most important one says that Poseidon himself created them but another says that Theseus, an Athenian hero, was the founder of the Games, which aimed to honor Poseidon.

    The games began in 582 BC, as the Pythian Games. The athletic competitions consisted of sports with horses. The horse was a sacred animal for Poseidon, who, according to myth, created the horse, one of the most beautiful animals, in an effort to impress the goddess of agriculture, Demeter.

    Later, other competitions were added to the Isthmian Games such as music and painting competitions. 


    • The prize was a wreath of pine leaves
    • The Isthmian Games lasted for 3 days.
    • The Isthmian Games were always held in the spring.
    • The Isthmian Games were held in the third year of the Olympic cycle.

    Nemean Games (Nemea)

    The Nemean Games were the last of the four Panhellenic Games and were held in Nemea. According to myth, they were instituted by seven kings of Argos in memory of the deceased baby Opheltes. Another myth says that Hercules himself founded them when he defeated the Nemean lion in one of his labors.

    The games were held every two years and probably started in 573 BC. The athletic competitions included sports such as chariot racing, wrestling, and boxing. If you visit Nemea, you will love the huge temple of Zeus.


    • The prize was a wreath of wild celery.
    • After 200 BC, the Nemean Games are apparently no longer celebrated.
    • Judges wear black to honor the memory of baby Opheltes
    • Nowadays, the modern Nemean Games revive the ancient games every 4 years.


    Did you know that the classic Marathon race was inspired by the story of a soldier? Pheidippides was a soldier in a great battle, the Battle of Marathon. It was the year 490 BC when the Athenians were fighting the Persians

    The battle was cruel, but the Athenians managed to win! So they sent Phidippides back to Athens to tell the Athenians about their victory. He ran to deliver the victorious message, around 42 km without rest

    Marathon runners Greece SH (1)

    When he arrived in Athens, he said, Νενικήκαμεν, which means, We have won! The word Νίκη (niki) comes from the goddess Nike, who personified victory. Afterward, he died because he was exhausted.

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    This story was passed down from one generation to the next until French Michel Breal proposed to “repeat the famous course of the soldier Pheidippides” in the first Olympic Games of modern times. 

    Breal had no idea it was so many miles! By the time he learned of the distance, it was too late to back out, as the race had already been included in the official schedule of the Games and sent to several countries!


    • The Marathon race was introduced at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.
    • The distance of the race was 40km/24.8 miles until 1908 (London). King Edward VII & Queen Alexandra wanted to watch the start of the race from Windsor Castle, so the distance was changed to 42 km/ 26.2 miles.
    • The first winner of the classic Marathon at the 1896 Olympics was Spyros Louis. He was a water carrier.
    • Each year, more than 800 marathons are held around the world. For 2021: nearly 250 marathons in the U.S. and more than 300 in Europe.

    Are you interested in learning more about the Marathon race? Make sure to check our latest online family class about the origins of Marathon and their modern history.

    These are, of course, only a few of the many organized cultural sporting events in ancient Greece. Many sporting contests were held throughout Greece each year. All were associated with gods and heroes because in ancient Greek society anyone who could win a sporting contest enjoyed eternal fame and respect.

    The Asclepia Games

    Epidaurus in the Peloponnese was the site of the sanctuary of Asclepius, the god of healing. It was originally a place of worship, but by the 4th century BC it housed patients seeking to be cured of their illnesses.

    In 480 BC the Asclepia festivities began. This event was dedicated to the healing god, Asclepius. The festivities included pentathlon  (running, long jump, discus throw, javelin throw, and wrestling), chariot races, and musical contests. Similar to the Olympic Games, the event was held every 4 years.

    Today you can visit Epidaurus and explore its magnificent ancient theater, famous for its great acoustics, and the ruins of the sanctuary.

    Where did Ancient Greeks Trained?

    The ancient Greeks were trained in sports facilities and those keen on participating in the various sporting events had a coach, usually a former athlete. 

    Daily life in general was harder than we think, with strenuous training and lots of hands-on workout activities. The Olympics are a great example of this, as competition athletes had to be in Olympia six months before the Olympics to be prepared in the sports facilities there. 

    It was not until the 4th-3rd century BC that various philosophers and historians argued that physical fitness and mental clarity were two sides of the same coin, and athletes and soldiers needed to take care of both.

    The athletic facilities were safe and provided space for all sports. The gymnasium was a long and large building used for athletic activities such as wrestling, running, boxing, jumping, discus throwing, and gymnastics. 

    The palaestra was an open space where wrestling was taught and practiced. It was surrounded by tall columns. In front of these colonnades there were dressing rooms, bathrooms, and rooms for storing the sports equipment. 

    A Stadium was typically long and narrow and had the shape of a U and included a wide space for spectators. The athletes competed naked in running events.

    Tell me more about the Sports and Equipment…

    In most sports, there was equipment that wasn’t much different from what athletes use nowadays. In boxing, for example, they used leather straps and himantes in their hands. 

    In javelin, they had a wooden spear and in the long jump, athletes held halters in their hands as they jumped. 

    Halteres were weights that athletes held, one in each hand, to help them jump a greater distance. 

    Ancient Greeks Were Devoted to Sports and Their Gods 

    It is now quite clear that the ancient Greeks were athletic and trained hard not only for competitions like the Panhellenic Games but also for war. 

    In addition, the ancient Greeks had in their culture and traditions ways to honor their gods, because they were very religious, and sports was one of them. Their culture was always part of their mythology and therefore they wanted to show their gratitude to the gods. Over the centuries they managed to modify and improve the sporting events that were dedicated to the gods and heroes. 

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