Top 6 Differences Between the Ancient and Modern Olympics

tags: Olympics

Ms. Duddleson was a student at George Mason University and an intern at HNN when she wrote this article.


The ancient Olympic games only allowed people of Greek descent to participate. The Salt Lake City Olympics featured 2600 athletes from 77 countries. Only a few hundred athletes participated in the ancient games.



Only men were allowed to compete in the ancient Greek games. Athletic training in ancient Greece was part of every free male citizen's education. The first women to compete in the Olympics were Marie Ohnier and Mme. Brohy. They participated in croquet games in the 1900 Olympics.



The ancient Olympic games were held as a religious event to honor the Greek God, Zeus. A hundred oxen were typically given as a sacrifice. Frenchman Pierre baron De Coubertin, who helped revive the Olympic games in the nineteenth century, insisted that they feature the international competition of athletes.


The ancient Olympics yielded only one winner. A crown of olive leaves was placed on his head and a statue in his image was erected in Olympia. The current Salt Lake City Olympics feature 15 types of events, each with a Gold, Bronze, and Silver medalist (except when a game is rigged by the French, in which case two gold medals are given).



Winter Olympics are a modern invention. The ancient Greeks never thought of featuring skiing or other cold-weather events (for obvious reasons). The first winter Olympics was held in 1924 in Chamonix, France. Two hundred and fifty-eight athletes participated from seventeen countries.



The ancient games were always held in Olympia. Only the first modern Olympics has been held in Greece, though the next games will be as well.


By John Sayle Watterson. Mr. Watterson is the author of College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

I was pleased to see that George Mason University student Kelley Duddleson had called our attention to differences between the modern and ancient Olympics. Certainly the Ancient Olympics and early Modern Olympics need far more attention than they receive. However, five of Ms. Duddleson's six points need to be corrected or placed in broader context.

Initially the Ancient Olympics which date at least from 776 BC were pretty much as Ms. Duddleson describes them. They were dedicated to the Greek God Zeus, and the games were held in Olympia. They were closed to women though it's said that a mother who wanted to see her son disguised herself as a male trainer (after this, all trainers and athletes had to enter the stadia in the buff). On the other hand, no one would disagree with Ms. Duddleson's characterization of the winter games. The Winter Olympics are, as she puts it,"a modern invention." The other points in her brief article are less clear or clearly off target.

1) The Olympic games only open to people of Greek descent. Initially this was the case. By the Roman era, other nationalities had sullied the ethnic purity of the Greek games. The Roman emperor Tiberius not only participated as a youth in the Olympic games but won the four-horse chariot race. The Emperor Nero arranged a special Olympiad and not surprisingly triumphed in a musical event that he himself had designed.

2. Only men were allowed to compete in the ancient Greek games. In truth, there were separate games for women in Olympia dedicated to the goddess Herea which consisted of wrestling, foot, and chariot races. Women later participated in"ancient Greek games" such as the Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean. As for the female croquet players in 1900, they played second fiddle to a woman golfer-as one of Ms. Duddleston's backup articles indicates. According to David Wallechinsky in The Complete Book of the Olympics, the first woman to win a gold in the modern Olympics was Margaret Abbott, a Chicago socialite who was studying art in Paris in 1900. When she learned of the Olympic golf competition, she grabbed her clubs and entered the nine-hole competition. The five-foot-eleven-inch Abbott shot a 47 to win the gold and beat out a Swiss competitor and a fellow American, Hager Pratt.

3. The ancient Olympic games were held as a religious event to honor the Greek God Zeus. True, at least in their beginnings. Within several centuries, the Olympics became a far more commercial spectacle, in which the emphasis among the highly professional athletes was on winning and athletic prowess. In some ways, the competition of Greek city states resembles a microcosm of the modern Olympic emphasis on international competition.

4. The ancient Olympics yielded only one event. If Ms. Duddleson means that there was only one competition, she needs to take another look. The ancient games featured foot races, the pentathlon, chariot and horse races, foot races, boxing, and wrestling, to name some of the better-known events.

5. True, the winter games are a modern invention. No one skied or bobsledded down the slopes of Mount Olympus.

6. Only the first modern Olympics has been held in Greece, though the next games will be as well. Yes, but what about the lesser-known 1906 games, the interim or"intercalary" games held in Athens? According to sports historian Allen Guttmann,"these games were a sop to the Greeks, to allay the bitter frustration they felt when the IOC refused to accept their plans to make Greece the permanent site of the Olympic games." Whether these games were Olympic or quasi-Olympic has long been in dispute. Yet they clearly belong to the history of the Olympic movement-and they were held on Greek soil.

Indeed, the Ancient Olympics were far different than our contemporary international sports festivals. Both the Ancient and the Early Modern Olympics deserve a closer look than the recent article in"History News Network" was able to give them. Nevertheless, Ms. Duddleson's brief piece is both timely and provocative. Hopefully it will lead HNN to publish further essays on sports history.

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Bob Moffatt - 7/21/2003

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tric88 - 4/23/2003

If your going to post historic information on the Internet I suggest that you make certain your sources are trustworthy. The entire essay, save a quote or two, was nonsense and should be revised with the proper information.

wsrgvsr - 9/2/2002

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Jenny Thompson - 2/21/2002

Eh--mistakes happen. It was still a fine, interesting piece. I'm glad you weren't offended by the ctiticism.


Comment - 2/20/2002

Note from the editor: You are right. We made a mistake. The error has been corrected.

Anthony Brundage - 2/20/2002

I tthought the games were held at Olympia in the Peloponnesus. Or did they begin there and move to Athens later?

Jenny Thompson - 2/19/2002

I enjoyed your "then and now" comparison of the Olympic Games of today and those of bygone times.

Item number 6, though, took me aback: "The ancient games were always held in Athens."

Oh, really?

And here I always thought that the Games were called the Olympics precisely because they were held in Olympia. Olympia is located in the northwestern Peloponnese, by the way, and is noted even today for the ruins of the ancient Games site.

Athens is located on the other side of the Corinthian isthmus, in Attica.

Jenny Thompson