Chavon Bradley




Sports in Ancient Greece

            From chariot racing, to javelin, men would fight to a bloody death to claim most powerful.  The ancient Greek game’s rules and the games themselves developed and changed greatly over time since the Middle Ages. Roman athletes played with great amounts of passion, which has not changed much as today’s athletes still do. Not only did the games change, so did the outlook on the participation of women in the games. Today’s Olympics traces back to the ancient Greek games, where one could find many similarities as well as differences within the various games performed.    

In the time of the Middle ages, People dealt with a lot of controversy, mainly stemming from religion. There were many debates and disagreements about religion which led to crusades and significant wars. These wars didn’t have much effect on sports directly because in the time of Olympics there was a grace period. During the Olympic events and festivities there was complete peace.

            Rome was a very advanced society by the time of the Middle Ages.  The Roman Empire was said to have been the most successful Empire there was. Eventually the fall of the Roman Empire led to what were the Middle Ages. Romans used their resources to help them advance which ultimately placed them in a better standing than the surrounding cities. Rome had advanced in ways dealing with agricultural production, record keeping (cuneiform, which was a way of writing things through pictures), a superior military, and other progresses. Their advancements carried over into the progress of sports starting from natural impulses of competition.  Accumulatively, the Romans appropriated a lot of things from the Greeks especially architectural developments such as the arch, which can be found on building like the Coliseum to better support the structure. 

            The start of sports and Olympics began as way to honor the Greek gods. “From primitive religious fear and superstition arouse rituals designed to placate the unknown powers that people called gods”.[1] Men were afraid of natural disasters, death, and invisible forces they could not control; the universe seemed divided between opposite elements to them: health and sickness, life and death.[2] This is how the religious aspect of sport played a role in the development of games.

            Not everyone has the athletic ability and talent to participate in sports. What keeps the participants training and wanting to go through the struggles of being an athlete? The answer is competition. Competition first began as a form of survival hunters and warriors displayed to avoid extinction.[3] There was a disadvantage against feisty prey, but also an inconvenience of hunger.  “Some hunters distinguished themselves as superior to others, thus winning prominence within the tribe”.[4] Warrior skills and competitive games blended freely in the primitive societies.[5]

            The Olympics Games are contests between athletes in various sports, which are held every four years. The first Olympic event was held in Greece over three thousand years ago,[6] and the Olympic Games are still held today. The primary aim of the organizers of sports or Olympic competition was profit and not for sport sake.[7] The objective of the sports for athletes was to represent their country or area and win.  There were many sports included in the games which consisted of Jumping, Wrestling, Foot-Race, Discos Throwing, Boxing, and others. The audience attending the Olympics came from poets, writers, and artists who praised the athlete in forms of art.[8] The Olympic festival was the most important of all Greek festivals.[9] Roman Emperor Theodosius I, who was Christian, abolished the games in CE 393 because of the link it had to Zeus.[10] Eventually, the games were revived, continued on, and remained an important piece of culture.

            Difficulty of the events seemed limitless considering the duty of the competitors alone. When facing a tough opponent, things become even more interesting in participation of the Pentathlon. The Combined competitions of five events: running, jumping, throwing the discos, throwing the javelin, and wrestling defined the Pentathlon;[11] “These five events were representative of the whole physical training of the Greeks, and the pentathlete was the typical product of the training”.[12] There was an elimination process which determined the winners. This is the way overall value and ability of an athlete is determined but it is uncertain exactly how the ranking and scorekeeping process worked.

            Training for sports started at early ages intertwining education and athletics. Young schoolboys attended palaestras, an institution for wrestling which had an open courtyard for undressing and washing, similar to a locker room that an institution would have now.[13] The gymnasium was the place students exercised. “The essential part of it is the running-track, and it is not a building but an athletic ground, but like the palaestra it requires undressing-rooms and bathrooms, and therefore it usually contained a palaestra.[14]

 The Olympics were taken very serious even in ancient times. To an ancient Greek man competing in the Olympics was the highest honor one could possibly aspire.[15] As far as rewards go, “victors were crowned with a wreath of olive branches and were assured fame and wealth for the rest of their lives and often immortality thereafter for, in the ancient Olympics, there were no second prizes, only winners”.[16]

            Rules of these games have been altered and modified significantly resulting in what is now a much less aggressive realm of sports. Initially there were less restraining rules for the participants to abide by. For example, in the sport of wrestling the Greeks distinguished two different styles of wrestling: ‘upright’ or ‘proper’ wrestling;[17] Despite the style of wrestling, tripping was allowed.[18] However there were some minor rules. In the Pentathlon, if one competitor were to come in first place in at least three of the events the competitor was crowned the winner.[19] Similarly, a competitor who won two events must be left in the competition.[20]  Nevertheless, rules set a boundary for athletes, and along with how they set up a method for running the games displays how advanced the way of thinking had become in relation to their society.

            Any man that was a Greek native was allowed to participate in the games. Olympic athletes came from all over Greece because of the few restrictions, based on the qualifications of participants. In Gardiner’s Athletics of the Ancient World” he uses pictures to depict athletes to have no uniform. There was also no protection for the athlete. Athletes that were the best at the events rose to the top and were thought to be heroic. Names like Hercules and Antaeus stood out because of their heroic abilities.

Sport psychology is about charting the relationship between personality and sport.[21] Therefore, a person’s ability to be successful in sports depends on their like for the sport and determination to work at it. Whether the potential athlete is male or female their talents and skills are individually based, but society suggests otherwise. Even in the Middle Ages, some Roman women were expected to stay in the house and never to be involved with sports, not even allowed to attend the sporting Events. This thought process effected women’s situation negatively, handicapping them in the future when it was finally acceptable for women to participate in sports, because of the years they were forced to neglect sports. In the Early Middle Ages women weren’t even looked at as independent. Women were considered minors despite their age, under the guardianship of their fathers and husbands.[22] Brides who attempted to leave their husbands could be legally drowned in a swamp. The exception to these laws was the Visigoth’s custom, which allowed an unmarried woman over the age of twenty one to be responsible for herself, and technically a free adult.[23] These Germanic laws are a valid example of how women were mistreated and underestimated as though a slave.

Of course the Olympics were held for Greek males; Women created the Heraean games. The Heraean games was similar to the Olympics, but was intended for females to participate in.  This is the beginning of evolution for equality of women.

For entertainment purposes, religious reasons, and or passion, whatever the reason, sports have been a part of the national culture and remain prominent. Athletes have developed, as well as the games, in result of increased competition. There are new developments and standards of sports in today’s age that have even broken down social barriers.

Race and class barriers have been broken down due to sports. Some sports require more attention and training that costs money in order to compete with others, of course, but now humble origins and meager resources bar participation.[24] Various races of people along with women are much more respected in sports now. Although still separated, they are equally funded and receive equal treatment in today’s age.

Rules have changed and are now much stricter than in the ancient times. In the sport of boxing, competitors would go hit for hit until falling down and being beaten to near death. Instead of having a boxing ring to fight in with boundaries, fighters went toe to toe outdoors surrounded by an audience. If there was no winner in a certain amount of time, the fighters went hit for hit, unable to defend themselves until the opponent fell. Now sports officials have a system of rounds and point system to determine the winner of a fight. Boxers are required to wear boxing gloves and a mouth guard for protection, much different from the first boxers.

            With sports still evolving, although some skeptical of mythology, we can surely thank the ancient Greeks for sports. Sports today deal little with religion, but are evident that along with many other arts, trace back to religion. The current Olympics are surprisingly very similar to the ancient Olympics. With the similarities and differences the various sports will only continue to develop.















Backman, Clifford R.. The cultures of the West: a history : volumes 1: to 1750. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Baker, William J.. Sports in the Western world. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982.

Cohen, Greta L.. Women in sport: issues and controversies. Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1993.

Gardiner, E. Norman. Athletics of the ancient world. American ed. Chicago: Ares Pub., 1980.

Kremer, John , and Deirdre Scully. Psychology in Sport. Bristol: Taylor & Francis, 1994.

Price, Victoria . Olympics. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.

Toohey, Kristine, and Anthony James Veal. The Olympic games: a social science perspective.      Walingford, UK: CABI Pub., 2000.

[1] William Baker, Sports in the western world (Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982), 6.

[2] Baker, Sports in the western world, 6.

[3] Baker, Sports in the western world, 1.

[4] Baker, Sports in the western world, 4.

[5] Baker, Sports in the western world, 5.

[6] Kristin Toohey, The Olympic Games: a social science perspective ( Walingford: CABI, 2000),1.

[7] Toohey, The Olympic Games: a social science perspective, 1.

[8] Victoria Price, Olympics (Detroit: St. James Press, 2000), 558.

[9] Price, Olympics, 558.

[10]Toohey, The Olympic Games: a social science perspective, 9.

[11] Norman Gardiner, Athletics of the ancient world (Chicago: Ares, 1980), 177.

[12] Gardiner, Athletics of the ancient world, 177.

[13] Gardiner, Athletics of the ancient world, 72.

[14] Gardiner, Athletics of the ancient world, 72.

[15] Price, Olympics, 558.

[16] Price, Olympics, 558.

[17] Gardiner, Athletics of the ancient world, 181.

[18] Gardiner, Athletics of the ancient world, 184.

[19] Gardiner, Athletics of the ancient world, 180.

[20] Gardiner, Athletics of the ancient world, 180.

[21] John Kremer and Deirdre Scully, Psychology in Sport ( Bristol: Taylor & Francis, 1994), 1.

[22] Clifford Backman, The Cultures of the West ( New York: Oxford Press, 2013) , 274.

[23]  Backman, The Cultures of the West ( New York: Oxford Press, 2013), 274.

[24] Baker, Sports in the western world, 282