The Palaistra in Olympia, Greece, was a covered space where athletes trained for some of the earliest Olympics.
Every four years, athletes from around the world gather to compete in events such as sprinting, long jump, discus, snowboarding, and figure skating as part of the Olympics. Their prize? Bragging rights for their home country—plus, you know, a shiny gold medal.
Kelly Holmes of Great Britain shows off her gold medal for winning the women's 800-meter race during the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics in Greece.
An illustration of Olympia, the site of the ancient Greek Olympics
Winners didn’t always get a medal, though. Victors in the earliest Olympics won a crown of olive leaves. The first known Olympics were held in the summer of 776 B.C. at Olympia, a site in southern Greece where people went to worship their gods. In fact, the Olympics were created in honor of ancient Greece’s most famous god: Zeus, king of the gods. Athletes prayed to Zeus for victory and left gifts to thank him for their successes.
Worshipping Zeus was one of the few things the ancient Greeks agreed on. Divided into different city-states, or settlements, the Greeks were often at war with each other. But even in times of unrest, dueling city-states declared a truce so their athletes could take part in the Olympics. But unlike today’s games, only men were allowed to compete—and they did so naked!
A marble statue of Zeus, king of the ancient Greek gods
Ancient Greek competitors participate in the Hoplite event, where runners race in full armor.
Many events, including sprinting and wrestling, are still part of the modern games. Other sports such as chariot racing are history. Here’s another one that’s long forgotten: Called the pankration, the event was known as the ultimate fighting sport. There were no weight classes, no time limits, and only two rules: no biting and no eye gouging. Ouch! Competitors fought until one gave up or died. Hm … wonder why this sport disappeared?
The Romans eventually banned the Olympics in A.D. 393, after Rome conquered Greece in the second century B.C. But the games were revived in 1896 in Athens, Greece, and have been celebrated every four years since. And in 1924, the Winter Olympics were added to showcase chillier sports such as cross-country skiing, speed skating, and ice hockey.
Today thousands of athletes from hundreds of countries all over the world compete for the gold (or silver or bronze) in the summer and winter events. The modern Olympics aim to bring people from different parts of the world together and encourage friendly competition and peace among neighboring nations. Game on!
Athletes from different countries compete in the men's 3,000-meter race during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics in China.
A fire was kept burning throughout the celebration of the ancient Olympics. In today's modern games, a torch is lit in Greece before being transported to the city where the next Olympics are being held.
Photo credits (top to bottom): James P. Blair, National Geographic Creative; Michael Steele, Getty Images; North Wind Picture Archives, Alamy Stock Photo; abxyz, Shutterstock; Tom Lovell, National Geographic Creative; © Pniesen, Dreamstime.com; © Ververidis, Dreamstime.com
Text by Kay Boatner, National Geographic Staff