According to the official Olympics website, the first ancient Olympic Games occurred in 776 BC. The games were dedicated to Olympian gods and took place in Olympia.

The Ancient Olympics

According to the official Olympics website, the first ancient Olympic Games occurred in 776 BC. The games were dedicated to Olympian gods and took place in Olympia. They continued until they were banned by the Emperor Theodosius in 393 AD. the games were tied to religious festivals honoring Zeus. Award ceremonies took place on the last day of the festival. Winners were announced by name, along with the name of their father and their homeland. Winners received a wreath made of olive branches. The sporting events that were included in the ancient Olympics varied from those present today. Early games lasted just one day, then were expanded to three days in 684 BC. In the 5th century BC they were expanded to five days. Ancient games included running, long jump, shot put, javelin, boxing, pankration (a martial art), and equestrian events.

All free (not enslaved), male Greek citizens were allowed to participate, regardless of their status in society. Married women were forbidden from participating and watching the Olympics. Unmarried women were allowed to attend. The Olympics were accompanied by an Olympic Truce on all current conflicts. Violating this led to a punishment in the form of a fine paid to Zeus. The historian Thucydides (5th century) gave an example of this punishment involving the people of Sparta.

“In 420 BC the Spartans engaged in a military maneuver in the territory of Elis during the Truce, using 1,000 hoplites. As a result, and according to law, the Spartans were fined 200 drachmai per hoplite, a total of 200,000 drachmai. The Spartans refused to pay the penalty, claiming that their maneuver had been completed before the Olympic Truce was officially announced. As a result, the Spartans’ participation in the Olympic Games that year was prohibited.”

Spartans Will

According to the official Olympics website, the first woman recorded as a winner in the ancient Olympics was Kyniska of Sparta. She was the daughter of Sparta’s king, Archidamos. A chariot belonging to her won the four-horse chariot race in both the 96th and 97th Olympiads (396 BC and 392 BC), according to official records. Kyniska broke with tradition forbidding women to attend because for equestrian events the victory wreath went to the owner instead of the rider. She was used as a symbolic figure of the social rise in women’s status. She was by no means the only Spartan victor at the Olympics.

Michigan State Olympians

If you ever find yourself near Jenison Field House on campus, walk in the main entrance and turn around. The walls are lined with photos of former MSU Spartans that made it to the Olympics. There are also large Olympic banners hanging on the entrance wall.

Olympic banners inside Jenison Field House

Olympic Spartans: The left-hand wall (looking out) inside Jenison Field House

Olympic Spartans: The right-hand wall (looking out) inside Jenison Field House

Photo Credits: All photos taken by University Scholarships & Fellowships.

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