The Ancient Olympics: Bridging past and present
The Ancient Olympics: Bridging past and present

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4 Preparing for the games: Training body and mind

The preparations of an ancient Olympic athlete started many months, even years, before the opening of the festival, in the gymnasion. The Ancient Greek gymnasion was a public location used for training, education, exercise and socialising – something roughly similar to our modern community centre. In Ancient Greek society, achieving a harmonious balance between body and mind was an important aspect of an individual’s personal development. The gymnasion therefore hosted wrestling matches as well as music rehearsals and provided weight lifting training as easily as philosophy lectures.

Animation 1 Ancient Greek athletes training for the Olympics

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Ancient Greek athletes training for the Olympics
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This broad conception of the education process was known as kalokagathia, from kalos k’agathos, meaning ‘beautiful and good’, or as the Roman poet Juvenal later put it in one of his tongue-in-cheek satires, ‘a sound mind in a sound body’ (X.356) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Olympic athletes were expected to adhere to this guiding principle by demonstrating not just physical prowess but also virtue, loyalty, valour, attitudes of self-improvement and moral responsibility. The combination of skill, strength and ethical behaviour was referred to as arete (which could be loosely translated as ‘excellence’), and it was the role of the gymnastes (the coach) to instil this sense of responsibility in the athletes as part of the training process.

How does that sound to you?: the apoxyomenos

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Figure 4 An aryballos and stlengis
Figure 4 Before starting their training or competition, Ancient Greek athletes rubbed oil from a small jar (an aryballos, like the one above) onto their skin. After exercise, they washed the oil, dust and sweat off their bodies using a sponge, water and a curved metallic tool called a stlengis. ‘Apoxyomenos’ was the word used to refer to the person who cleaned himself in this manner.

The word gymnasion comes from gymnos, which means ‘naked’. Some athletes wore a perizoma (loincloth) or, very occasionally, tied up their genitals with a strap called kynodesma, but by and large they trained and competed completely naked. There has been a lot of speculation as to why and how this tradition, which probably started in the 6th century BCE, developed. Ease of movement when competing and an aesthetic appreciation of the naked male body probably played a role. However, there is also a deeper philosophical and moral dimension – nakedness emphasised equality. By stripping athletes of their material signs of status (be it the most expensive gowns or the poorest rags), equal treatment was encouraged. Competitors were left with little more than their mind and body, so their performance was seen as a result of the skills that emanated directly from their person rather than their circumstances. For this same reason, Ancient Olympic athletes were, in principle, expected to be amateurs rather than professional sportsmen (professionalism was seen as an unfair advantage over those who could not afford the luxury of full-time training). This principle of equality was called isonomia, and it had far reaching implications across diverse areas of Ancient Greek culture (most notably in the development of Athenian democracy).

So what’s the difference?

The modern gym and the Ancient gymnasion

Figure 5 Left image: people training in a modern gym. Right image: scene from an Ancient Greek gymnasion (Berlin Staatliche Museen, Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Antikensammlung inv. no. F2180).
Figure 5 Left image: people training in a modern gym. Right image: scene from an Ancient Greek gymnasion (Berlin Staatliche Museen, Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Antikensammlung inv. no. F2180).

What do you think are the main differences between the modern gym and the Ancient Greek gymnasion in terms of the activities, training regimes and motivations of their users? Once you have come up with a few ideas, click on ‘reveal comment’ to read some of our suggestions.


The Ancient Greek gymnasion was, in many ways, an inspiring and nurturing environment. However, in certain respects, it could also be considered harsh, restrictive and alienating when compared to our modern gyms. The extracts used here to illustrate the similarities and differences between modern gyms and Ancient Greek gymnasia are from the ‘Gymnasium law of Beroia’ – a set of rules inscribed on the wall of a gymnasion in the Macedonian city of Beroia in the 2nd century BCE.

According to the Gymnasium law of Beroia, ‘none of the following may enter the gymnasion and strip for exercise: a slave, a freedman or one of their sons, a man who is incapable of physical training, a man who has prostituted himself, a man who works in commerce, a man who is drunk, a madman. If the gymnasiarch (i.e. the head of the gymnasion) knowingly allows one of these men to oil himself, or continues to allow it after someone has reported this and pointed it out to him, he shall pay a fine of 1000 drachmas...’.

These limitations might strike us as unnecessarily alienating from a modern point of view. This is perhaps because we are used to most modern high street gyms being run by private companies as commercial enterprises. Their main aim is to make a profit and, therefore, they are generally open to any member of the public who can afford the fees, regardless of gender, chastity or devoutness. The Ancient Greek gymnasion, on the other hand, was funded – and in some cases administered – by wealthy benefactors (gymnasiarchs) who received honour from their cities in return for that service.

The Ancient Greek gymnasion was principally a place of physical and mental development, where ethical values and intellectual qualities were inculcated to the young. This was called ephebeia (a system by which men aged between 17 and 19 received physical education in all Greek cities). In addition, according to the Gymnasium law of Beroia, ‘the ephebes [i.e. adolescent males] and those less than 22 years of age are to train in spear-throwing and archery every day…’, which served as a form of military training. Therefore, setting a right example and creating a propitious learning environment was crucial. The gymnasion also played an important role in the preparations for athletic festivals and, as a result of this, had a religious dimension that modern gyms clearly do not have.

Today, gyms are not generally thought of as a venue for formal education – their main emphasis is on sporting and health. However, there still are some links between pedagogy and modern gyms. For instance, many schools contain gyms, where Physical Education classes are imparted as part of a child’s development. In addition, many commercial high street gyms offer training that goes well beyond weightlifting and pedalling (e.g. yoga, martial arts or Tai Chi).

Finally, it could be said that Ancient Greece put the ‘physical’ into Physical Education in more ways than one. Ancient Greek athletes exercised naked, covered in olive oil. Homosexual encounters between older men and younger boys were not uncommon in the gymnasion. By comparison, the clothed, chaste exercising of modern high street gyms sets a very different tone!

The Panhellenic Games are also referred to sometimes as the Stephanitic Games (from stephanos, meaning ‘crown’ or ‘garland’). This is because none of the athletic victors in these festivals received direct financial rewards – they trained and competed, in principle, for glory (kleos) and to honour the gods. Ancient Olympic victors were awarded a wreath of wild olive, a wreath of wild celery at the Nemean Games, a wreath of pine at the Isthmian Games and a wreath of laurel at the Pythian Games. These awards had no material value in themselves. However, they symbolised the glory achieved by the victor – a priceless, intangible reward. The concept of kleos was engrained in an athlete’s training process from the word go. It was considered his principal motivation and reflected a profoundly Greek cultural understanding of ethics.

Box 1 Highlight: glory in ancient thought – and modern

Sport, rock and roll, Hollywood stardom, politics, even war, can all be ways of aiming at glory. The idea of glory (kleos), and in particular sporting glory, is pervasive in the ancient world. A whole book (23) of Homer’s Iliad is devoted to Patroclus’s funeral games (and the rest of the Iliad is about the glory - and the horror - of war). Most of Pindar’s poetic work is about celebrating athletic triumphs. Plato tells us, at Symposium 174a, of how the crowds flocked to fete the poet Agathon when he won an Athenian dramatic prize. Chariot-racing was still causing riots in Byzantium up to its fall to the Turks. Thucydides has Pericles saying in his ‘funeral oration’ that the Athenian warriors ‘thought it more beautiful to stand firm and die, rather than to fly and save their lives; they ran away from the word of dishonour, but on the battlefield their feet stood fast, and in an instant, at the height of their fortune, they passed away from the scene, not of their fear, but of their glory’ (Thucydides, Histories 2.42).

Greek ethicists thought that glory was part of what makes a good life, and so something that was ethically important: one of the virtues listed by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics (IV.2) is the virtue of magnificence, putting on a spectacular show. But modern ethicists usually have little to say about glory. Partly because of the influence of philosophers like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), they usually say only what Arthur Adkins said in a famous study of Greek ethical concepts, namely that glory cannot be an important idea for us: “For any man brought up in a western democratic society… duty and responsibility are the central concepts of ethics… in this respect we are all Kantians now” (Adkins 1960, 2).

One contemporary philosopher who suspects there is a gap here between what we really think about ethics, and what we only think we think about ethics, is The Open University’s own Timothy Chappell. He argues that in practice our ethical beliefs about glory are much closer to the ancient Greeks’ than the most typical products of modern moral philosophy suggest. That might be a reason for reforming either our beliefs about glory, or the way we do moral philosophy. Chappell suggests it is the latter. You can read more about his views in his article, Glory as an ethical idea.

Although in principle, glory, equality and self-improvement were the driving force behind the Ancient Olympic spirit, of course, reality was not always rosy in Olympia. The noble goals of excellence and virtue were not always the athletes’ main priority and the idealistic principles of equality and fairness were not always adhered to by judges and organisers. Just like the modern Games, the Ancient Olympic Games had their fair share of scandals, bribes, accusations of corruption and other irregularities. Many Ancient Greek athletes were de facto professionals rather than keen amateurs. Much like the 1896 Games (which, in practice, priced out anyone who was not a gentleman of leisure), in the Ancient Olympics only wealthy people could afford to foot the bills of a long training regime and cover the costs of travelling to Olympia in order to compete as athletes. What is more, despite the fact that cheating was considered disgraceful and insulting to the gods, several ancient authors suggest that it was not entirely uncommon.

Video: Roger Bannister

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Roger Bannister
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Sir Roger Bannister, the first athlete to run a recorded mile in less than four minutes in 1954, discusses the links between modern ethics in sports and Ancient Olympic values.

The figure of the Hellanodikes was central in trying to prevent these cases of foul play. The Hellanodikai (literally ‘judges of Greece') were a cross between our modern referees and the Olympic Organising Committee. They were in charge of upholding the rules, organising the Games, maintaining standards, dividing contestants into age categories and participating in some of the ceremonial acts (e.g. the procession that opened the Games and the awards ceremony). The Hellanodikai (ten in total from the 4th century BCE onwards) were elected every Olympiad from the citizens of Elis (a nearby town). Their role started months before the Games opened, supervising the training of the athletes and making sure that nobody who wasn't allowed to tried to participate in a competition. If athletes were discovered breaking any of the rules, the Hellanodikai would be entitled to use their rhabdos (a long stick) on them. For more serious cases of bribery, blackmail or match fixing, fines were imposed. The money raised by these fines was normally used to commission Zanes statues (bronze sculptures of Zeus displayed in the Altis area of Olympia). People who saw these statues would know that they represented the embarrassment and disappointment that came with being discovered cheating. The name and city of the cheating athlete were engraved on the statue's base, so the embarrassment of his corruption would live long past the athlete's lifetime and act as warning to future generations.

Figure 6 A Hellanodikes holding a rhabdos, and bases of Zanes statues
Figure 6 Left: a Hellanodikes (right) holding a rhabdos whilst refereeing a wrestling match (6th century BCE Panathenaic amphora), Metropolitan Museum, inv. no. 16.71. Right: bases of Zanes statues in the Altis area of Olympia. The statues that once stood on these bases were paid for by fines imposed on cheating athletes.

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