The Programme

The Programme of the Ancient Olympic Games, by Christian Wacker (p. 155, Olympics – Past & Present)

© 2013 Qatar Olympic & Sports Museum, Qatar Museums Authority and Prestel Verlag, Munich-London-New York.




It was not only in ancient Olympia that competitions played a central role as part of the four-yearly festival; they were a component of many cultic rituals in the sanctuaries and scattered throughout the Greek world. However, right from antiquity the Olympic Games were held to be the most important Greek agones and were copied and interpreted as isolympic games, especially in the Hellenistic kingdoms, from 4 BCE in legitimisation of the Classical heritage.(5)

The Games in Olympia were organised for a period of far beyond 1000 years, while both the beginning and the end of the competitions are disputed. Without examining the sources critically it would be difficult to arrive at this impression, as the year 776 BCE appears to be passed down via the victory lists as the start of the Olympic Games. The most complete transcript of these lists originates from Eusebius of Caesarea (260/265 to 339/340 CE) and names approximately 22 percent of the actual Olympic winners.(6) As a chronographer Eusebius copies older sources, presumably, though, without direct access to his predecessors from the Hellenistic era. The oldest list is supposed to have been compiled by Hippias of Elis.(7) The historicity of the founding year 776 BCE is not assured, and there is no unanimity in Classical Antiquity research over whether the start of the Olympic Games can be dated prior to the 7th century BCE. (8)

If more recent findings are to be trusted, doubts must also be cast on the festival calendar showing a successive introduction of the individual disciplines (776 BCE stadium run, 724 BCE diaulos, 720 BCE dolichos, 708 BCE pentathlon and wrestling, 688 BCE boxing, 680 BCE quadriga racing etc.). By the 5th century BCE, however, all significant competitions of the equestrian, heavy athletic, and running disciplines were distinct. They remained popular and were practised into the late imperial period.(9)

The end of cult practice and thereby the cessation of the Games as well is commonly associated with an edict of Theodosius I from 393 CE, which prohibited the exercising of antique cult practices. The latest excavations in Olympia, however, have shown clearly that Olympia was not abandoned and the location was not transformed into a Christian settlement before the middle of the 5th century CE. The exercising of antique cult practices including the organising of contests appears therefore to have been abandoned only gradually during the course of the 5th century CE.(10)


The athletic competitions were part of a festival that was organised every four years in late summer in honour of Zeus, Pelops, a range of gods and heroes and not least in commemoration of warriors, commanders, statesmen and intellectuals in Olympia. The course of this festival and its programme will have changed over the centuries from what was at first a one to two-day celebration into a five-day spectacle featuring processions, liturgies, sacrifices and ultimately contests as well, from the 5th century BCE onwards at the latest.(11)

For the athletes the preparations would begin at least ten months before the Games, during which time they were obliged to undergo training, as would be declared by an oath at the altar of Zeus Horkios in Olympia(12). The final thirty days before the festival were spent by athletes, coaches, families and probably also countless curious onlookers in the city of Elis, from the 6th century BCE the administrative centre of the Sanctuary in Olympia. Extensive facilities for training and spectator contests were located there (see contribution by Andreou).

Before the festival spondophoroi were sent out into the entire Greek world, to announce the big event, invite athletes and Greek tribes – non-Greeks were excluded from the festivities – and proclaim an ekecheiria.(13) In contrast to eirene this ekecheiria must not be understood as a peace treaty, but as the desire to make arrival and departure, as well as the festival, as peaceable as possible. In line with the wording ekecheiria it was the expectation that no ‘hand be laid on,’ a rule that has been idealised in the modern Olympic Movement to the extent of an international concept of peace.(14) The commission of the spondophoroi enjoyed high esteem, for these messengers would take part in Olympia at least during the Hellenistic period, and during the imperial period again, in order to put their skill to the test.(15)

Following completion of the thirty-day training in Elis the festive community would process a few days before full moon along a holy road to Olympia, about 60 kilometres away. The procession route, like the Holy Road from Milet to Didyma, will have been flanked by numerous cult sites and monuments.(16) Once they had arrived at the sanctuary at the confluence of Alpheios and Kladeos the visitors would pitch their tents and huts along the rivers, while the selected athletes underwent the final training in the gymnasium of Olympia,(17) to which the athletes’ lodgings were directly adjacent.(18)


(5) Cerfaux – Tondriau 1957, 203-204; Wacker 1996, 71; Kyle 2007, 243.

(6) Bengston 1971, 25.

(7) Wacker 1998, 39–50; Bilik 2000, 47–62.

(8) Kyrieleis 2006, 79–82.

(9) Lee 2001; Kyle 2007, 119–127.

(10) Weiler 1985/86, 235–242; Sinn 2004, 32-33; Weiler 2004a, 53–60.

(11) Lee 2001, 30–75.

(12) Pausanias 5, 24, 9–10; Flavius Philostratos, Vita Apollonii 5, 43; Wacker 1997, 103–117; Sinn 2004, 128–130.

(13) Decker 1995, 116–118.

(14) Lämmer 1982/83, 47–83; Weeber 1991, 138–161; Höfer 1994, 14–29; Siebler 2004, 168-169.

(15) Lee 2001, 32–34.

(16) Tuchelt et al. 1996.

(17) Wacker 1996, 11; Sinn 2004, 128–133.

(18)  Pausanias 6, 21, 2.

(continues to page 159)