a statue of a man throwing a disk

Ancient Greece’s Olympic champions were superstar athletes

The first Olympic winners became celebrities with social and political heft—and even the power to heal.

The Discobolus or “discus thrower” is one of the most iconic athletic artworks from ancient Greece. Originally sculpted around the 5th century B.C., the bronze statue was made famous by later Roman copies, like this one from the National Roman Musuem in Rome.


“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part.” Like many celebrated quotes, the words themselves have become considerably more famous than the person who uttered them—in this case, a French aristocrat, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. By profession an educational theorist, Coubertin is better known today as the father of the modern Olympics.

Coubertin’s passionate belief in the moral example of the ancient tournament eventually led to the first modern Summer Olympics, held in Athens, Greece, in 1896. A far cry from today’s slick and heavily marketed events, the games were steeped in Coubertin’s deep knowledge of, and passion for, classical culture, and his conviction that “the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

<p>These ruins of the sacred precinct at Olympia were ancient Greece’s most important sanctuary dedicated to Zeus, the father of the gods. From 776 B.C. the Olympic Games took place there every four years. According to tradition, the mythical hero Pelops created the games in the god’s honor..</p>

These ruins of the sacred precinct at Olympia were ancient Greece’s most important sanctuary dedicated to Zeus, the father of the gods. From 776 B.C. the Olympic Games took place there every four years. According to tradition, the mythical hero Pelops created the games in the god’s honor..


In the run up to the 1896 Athens games, heated debates in the International Olympic Committee centered on “professionalism” versus “amateurism” in sport. The committee finally decided that only “non-professional” athletes could compete in the Olympic Games, and that there would be no cash prizes. Led by Coubertin, it outlined its vision of an event that promoted peace, understanding, and friendship between peoples.

On the surface such notions seem praiseworthy. All too often the “amateur spirit,” however, was a screen for class prejudice. Athletes of humble origins who had benefited financially from sport, found themselves penalized or even barred from the Olympics. The most famous example is American athlete Jim Thorpe, who was stripped of his medals following the 1912 games for having previously played semiprofessional baseball.

This bias stayed on the rule books for almost a century. Following the 1988 games the Olympic organizers bowed to mounting pressure, and agreed to allow professional athletes to compete in most categories. To some this was a regrettable departure from the “purity” of the games so lauded by Coubertin. But were the Olympic athletes of antiquity really the noble, disinterested amateurs that so many believed them to be?

Gentlemen athletes

The notion of the gentleman amateur gained in strength in the early part of the 20th century, in part inspired by the work of the British historian E. Norman Gardiner (1864-1930). Gardiner reconstructed the history of Greek sport as a process of rise and fall, beginning with the “spontaneous, aristocratic sport” of Homeric heroes and culminating in the “golden age” of Greek sport in 500-440 B.C.

Greek sport then fell into a long period of decadence, which Gardiner attributed to the introduction of professionalism. This had brought about an unhealthy increase in the honors and financial rewards athletes could win. The outcome was that professional athletes from the lower classes and less “civilized” parts of the Greek world gradually gained a physical advantage. Aristocrats had to stop taking part in sporting competitions or rather had to stick solely to equestrian events, entry into which required considerable financial investment. But it was not the rider or charioteer who was declared the victor but rather the owner of the chariot and horses. (Ancient Olympics had "spectacular" opening ceremonies.)

Gardiner maintained that there were two emphatically different stages in the history of Greek sport: a pure initial period in which noblemen clashed solely to prove their worth on the one hand, and a decadent, corrupt period in which members of the lower classes competed for money and privileges, on the other. Recent research, based largely on studies by the Dutch historian Henri W. Pleket, has challenged this view. Ancient Greek sport, researchers have found, did involve large sums of money and was, in fact, unashamedly bound up with social and political influences from a surprisingly early stage.

Prizes and glory

There were two types of competition. First, the type known as the “garland games.” The most important of these were the four tournaments that made up the Panhellenic Games, open to all the city-states in the Greek world: the Olympic Games held at Olympia; the Pythian Games at Delphi; the Isthmian Games at Corinth; and the Nemean Games at Nemea. At all of these tournaments, the winners received no more than a garland symbolizing their triumph.

So far, so “amateur.” But not so much the second category of games. These were the competitions at which the winners received material prizes, often of considerable value. Notable examples include the prize awarded at the most important of these tournaments, the Panathenaic Games in Athens. In the middle of the fourth century B.C. the winner of the ancient running race, the stadion, was given a prize of 100 amphorae of olive oil. That was worth at least what a skilled worker could earn in four years—and the stadion event didn't even have the biggest purse at those games.

In the second century B.C., in a city in Asia Minor, an Olympic winner was given 30,000 drachmas simply for taking part in local games. This was at a time when a Roman soldier was paid no more than 300 drachmas per year.

So far, these examples appear to coincide with Gardiner’s notion that, from the fourth century B.C. onward, the classical games became tainted by greed. The reality, however, was almost certainly much more complex. Even among professionals of the era, the will to win rather than to earn money was almost certainly the athletes’ main motive—a similar situation recognizable at the modern Olympic Games.

Another aspect of the classical games that can be clearly detected in the modern Olympics is the tendency for countries to express appreciation for athletes who have brought honor to their flag. This is, and was, usually expressed financially. Today a sports personality’s earning power increases considerably after an outstanding performance in a major competition on the domestic and international stages. (Turbulent global crisis have stopped

Likewise, in ancient Greece, a triumph at any of the great games brought the victor many benefits. A long list of honors and rewards awaited the victorious athlete at home, reflecting the importance the community gave to citizens who represented them on the sporting field. More significantly still, many such cases fall squarely into the earlier period of Greek history portrayed by Gardiner as the so-called Golden Age.

There is a notorious case, for example, of Croton, a city in the south of Italy, whose runners dominated sprinting for more than a century. Between 588 and 480 B.C., the Crotons won 13 out of 28 stadion races. What was behind this dynasty of sporting prowess, which came suddenly to an end around 478 B.C.? Some experts argue that Croton’s success could be explained as the result of the training methods developed at its outstanding athletics school. Others suggest, however, that Croton attempted to boost its reputation among the Greeks by signing athletes from other cities and then passing them off as Crotons. Once the money to sustain this propaganda initiative ran out, so too did Croton’s victories.

National champions

In antiquity, as today, victorious competitors were given rapturous celebrations upon returning to their home city or country. The welcome Exenetus of Akragas received after winning the sprint at the Olympic Games in 412 B.C. was later recorded by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. His account is more than reminiscent of the parades through a city’s crowd-lined streets undertaken by modern sports teams:

After he achieved his triumph, they led Exenetus of Akragas [from the port] to the city atop a chariot, escorted by, among other things, 300 chariots pulled by white horses, all of which belonged to the citizens themselves.

The financial rewards given by cities to the winners of the great games could be colossal. In Athens in the first half of the sixth century B.C., Solon's laws awarded 500 drachmas to Athenian athletes who were victorious at Olympia, and gave 100 drachmas to those who triumphed at the Isthmian Games. These were considerable sums. Two centuries later, during the time of the philosopher Plato, a skilled workman’s daily wage was one and a half drachmas.

The public coffers might pay for a statue of the athlete to be built. The winner enjoyed other benefits, such as public jobs and, in particular, certain privileges reserved for an extremely small number of people who were considered VIPs of the community: a lifelong stipend paid by the city, the right to a seat of honor at public events, and even exemption from taxes.

The distinction between professional and amateur athletes becomes rather blurred in the classical Greek world. In fact, the first professional athletes in the history of European, and perhaps world, sport came not from the lower social orders but from the aristocracy. Such cases can be cited from as early as the sixth century B.C., if a professional athlete is defined as someone who works “full time” on training and competing, and receives rewards in the form of cash or honors, even if he does not depend on them to make a living.

Pleket stressed that competing for money or honors—and even taking advantage of victories for political ends—was not frowned on in ancient Greece. There was no social stigma attached to it, as there was for the 19th-century proponents of “amateur sport.” Much the same attitude can also be seen in The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem of the eighth century B.C., in which aristocratic warriors compete for costly prizes awarded by the hero, Achilles.

Access to all?

One of the most fiercely debated issues among historians in recent decades is when, and to what extent, did the middle and lower classes begin to systematically take part in sport and compete in the games. The traditional idea, set out in Gardiner’s work, is that the growing professionalization of sport began later in the fifth century B.C. and conclusively from the fourth century. As sportsmen from the lower classes became increasingly involved in athletic games, the nobles started to withdraw. (Modern Olympics have also been plagued by racism, sexism, and classism.)

Pleket’s studies reveal that lower-class athletes did indeed start to practice the once exclusively aristocratic activity of sport— but this process happened much earlier than Gardiner’s original theory suggests. At the beginning of the sixth century B.C., only the aristocracy had the necessary free time and access to facilities for practice. Later in that same century, however, in line with the social and political changes transforming Greek city-states, public gymnasiums were built, increasing access to training. These encouraged the gradual inclusion of other social classes in sport. Apart from the physical, intellectual, and moral benefits these facilities provided, they were also considered to be useful in preparing the populace for military service.

From this time onward citizens from the lower social classes were able to take part in sporting events. At first this was limited to local games. The great Panhellenic Games remained the almost exclusive domain of the ancient nobility and the wealthy merchant class due to the high costs associated with travel and housing accommodations at the places where the games were held. At Olympia, for example, athletes were required to arrive a full month before the games began.

Pleket also cites inscriptions and literary documents that confirm beyond doubt that members of the aristocracy and the merchant class, far from retreating from the stadia, continued to compete in local and Panhellenic Games from the fourth century B.C. In other words, aristocratic athletes, and those from the wealthy merchant class, were themselves taking part in the growing trend toward professionalization. Aristocratic sportsmen competed not only in the more expensive equestrian events but also in the pentathlon, wrestling, boxing, and pankration, though evidently in smaller numbers than in previous eras.

Cooks and shepherds

The American Olympic historian David C. Young goes even further than Pleket. In his books, Young argues that very early in the history of the games, numerous non-noble athletes were competing at Olympia, and taking full advantage of the financial and social benefits that came with victory. Young’s research found a string of sources from the eighth to sixth centuries B.C. that speak of athletes who were not from the aristocracy. (This is who could and could not get an education in ancient Greece.)

It was even said that the first known Olympic winner, at the first games in 776 B.C., was a cook named Coroebus of Elis. Amesinas of Barce in Libya, who was the Olympic wrestling champion in 460 B.C., was a shepherd. At the end of the sixth century B.C., Simonides, a poet, celebrated the sporting successes of an anonymous athlete, and has him say that, before he became a sportsman, he “carried fish from Argos to Tegea.”

The jury is out, however, on the origins of Glaucus of Carystus, the Olympic winner of boxing in 520 B.C., and also twice a winner at Delphi, eight times at the Isthmian Games, and other victories at Nemea. Some sources portray him as a crude peasant, whereas others describe him as a noble landowner who was no less brawny. Either type, it seems, could feasibly be a sporting champion.

So supposing members of lower social classes did play an active part in sporting competitions—how could they have afforded the vast expense of traveling to them? Young persuasively argues that they could have financed their sporting “careers” with the prizes they won at lesser, local games.

A young athlete from a humble family who won a regional competition could use his prize money to enter more important and more financially rewarding games. If he was victorious there too, he would be able to pay for a trainer and so embark upon a sporting career that might even allow him to take part in the great games.

That it was difficult for poorer, non-noble athletes to take part in the great games is evidently true. But it was not impossible. It was within the grasp of young men from poor families of outstanding sporting ability. It has even been suggested that talented but poor athletes may have had patrons—the classical world’s answer to sponsors—in the form of cities or individuals, although there is no evidence of this prior to the fourth century B.C.

Young argues that cases such as these were frequent before 450 B.C. Other historians disagree, pointing out that cases of non-noble athletes were rather exceptional: Aristotle expressly states that the Olympic victory by the fishmonger, lauded by Simonides, was an unusual event. As for Coroebus the cook’s triumph, he was a young man from a neighboring city who did not have to pay travel and accommodation expenses.

Even so, a degree of “democratization” of sport in ancient Greece did take place. The availability of sport to the less wealthy, and, in particular, their participation in the Panhellenic Games from the eighth to the fifth centuries B.C., is greater than has been previously thought. This participation was more extensive than what was argued by the 19th-century defenders of aristocratic “amateurism.” The modern Olympic movement can take heart that, far from betraying the ancient Olympics, modern professionalism is a continuation of its legacy.

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