• Imagining History

What were the Ancient Olympics and the Panhellenic Games? - A Guide for Kids

Updated: Aug 27

The Ancient Olympics were an epic sports festival held every four years – or Olympiad – in the small town of Olympia. The Olympics was an incredibly important occasion, one that allowed all free men from every Greek City State to compete for glory in a variety of exciting – and occasionally deadly - sporting events.


The thing is, the Olympics weren’t the only sporting festival held in Ancient Greece. There were actually a further three; The Pythian Games, The Nemean Games and the Isthmian games. All four individual games were known collectively as ‘The Panhellenic Games’. But what were the differences between each festival? How can you tell your Pythian Games from your Isthmian? Let’s find out, shall we?



The Olympics

When was the first Olympic festival?

A long time ago in a galaxy the same as this one. By which I confusingly mean 776 BC.


How often are the games held?

Every four years, called an Olympiad. Handily the Olympics were used by the ancient Greeks to measure time.




Where were they held?

In the small town of Olympia in the City State of Ellis. Thousands of people would descend on a field for the duration of the festival. Sanitation was not great as there were no Porta-Potties – just imagine all the poo!


What were the main events?

Foot races, chariot racing, wrestling, boxing and the pentathlon (Pentathlons were made up of lots of different events, such as running, javelin throwing and discus tossing).


Who could compete?

Only free born Greek men. So no women or slaves were allowed to compete. The one exception is for chariot racing, in which the owner of the chariot was declared the winner rather than the charioteer or the horses. This allowed many women to become Olympic champions over the years.


But don’t forget the Herean Games!

That’s right, during the Olympics the Herean Games were also held. In this festival young women could compete in a running race


Back to the Olympics, so, would you have to compete naked?

Yes! There’s several theories as to why but our guess is it was very, very hot during an Ancient Greek summer and competing nude was the best way to keep cool.


What was the prize?

An olive wreath to wear as a jaunty hat. Oh and eternal glory and the respect of your peers. But only if you were the winner, everyone else received a whole lot of nothing. No Silver or Bronze in the Ancient Olympics!


Which god was honoured?

A big part of each Panhellenic Game was to please the gods with sporting awesomeness. The Olympic Games were intended to put a big smile on Zeus’ face. Which, considering how grumpy Zeus could be, was no mean feat.



The Pythian Games

Courtesy Zde

When was the first Pythian festival?

No-one knows for certain but around the 6th Century BC.


How often are the games held?

Every four years. However, the Pythian Games were held two years after each Olympics.





Where were they held?

In Delphi, famous for its prophesy spouting Oracle.


Who could compete?

Free men and women.


What were the main events?

The same athletic events as the Olympics minus the chariot racing. However, the Pythian Games also had competitions for painting, poetry, drama and singing. We bet the painting competition was particularly thrilling, hopefully it will make a return to the Modern Olympics! Interestingly, the Pythian Games started off only hosting the artistic competition, all the running and wrestling was added later on.


What was the prize?

A laurel wreath. So a bit like the olive wreath but less tasty in a salad.


Which god was honoured?

That would be Apollo, the Greek god of archery, music and prophecy. Oh, and truth, healing, diseases, dance, light and poetry. He did it all, that Apollo.



The Nemean Games

Courtesy Robin Iversen Rönnlund

When was the first Nemean festival?

Not too sure but likely around the 6th Century BC. The myth is that the games were founded by the hero Heracles after he defeated the vicious Nemean Lion.


How often are the games held?

Every two years and every third year after the Olympics. Which rather confusingly means they were held both the year before and the year after the Ancient Olympics.


Where were they held?

Nemea in the region of Argolis.


What were the main events?

The usual suspects: foot races, wrestling, boxing, chariot racing etc, but with no artistic events. However, the Nemean Games had a fun event all of their own: the Hoplitodromos. This was a race in which the competitors had to peg it to the finish line wearing armour and carrying a spear and shield!


Who could compete?

Initially only warriors were allowed to enter but the festival was later opened up to all Greeks.


What was the prize?

A wreath of green celery. Now, that really would taste great in a salad.


Which god was honoured?

Zeus again. Boy oh boy that big bearded fella enjoyed his sports on a Friday night.



The Isthmian Games

Courtesy John Leech

When was the first Isthmian festival?

Take a guess. That’s right, around the 6th Century BC.


How often are the games held?

Just like the Nemean Games, the Isthmian Games were held every two years and ran the year before and after the Olympic Games. Which means that three year run was a bumper packed blessing for sports fan all over Greece.



Where were they held?

Isthmos in the City State of Corinth.


What were the main events?

Pretty similar to the other games, with chariot racing, wrestling and boxing being the favourites. However, there were also music and poem based contests. Including competitions in debate and discussion – the Ancient Greeks really could turn just about anything into a competition!


Who could compete?

Both men and women. Men could compete in the chariot racing, wrestling and boxing, whilst women competed in the musical and poetical smack downs.


What was the prize?

Initially a crown of celery, though the prize was later changed to a pine wreath. Just make sure you don’t mix them up and eat the pines with your salad, as that would not taste good. Also, Athenians who competed and won received some sweet money from Athens for their efforts, 100 drachmas to be precise – kerching!


Which god was honoured?

The festival was held to honour the sea god Poseidon. That’s probably why the chariot racing was the most popular event, the horse was a sacred creature to Posey (that was probably the nick name that Poseidon’s mates dubbed the venerable sea god).

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