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Ancient Prizes

It is impossible to overstate the glory of being an Olympic victor in antiquity. An Olympic victory was the highest honor for a mortal to attain and Olympic victors shared in the divine splendor and immortal fame of the first mythical heroes. The monetary prizes offered at non-amateur athletic festivals were insignificant compared to the fame and glory earned by the Olympic victor.

Sacred Amateurism
The honors and prizes that Olympic victors received reflected the philosophy of amateurism central to the Games. In ancient Greece there were two kinds of games: the "stephanos" (sacred) in which the prize was a wreath, and the "thematikoi," in which winners also received a monetary award. The Olympic games were the most important of the four panhellenic games, which were all "stephanitai." For each sacred festival, the prize was a wreath made from the branches of the sacred plant of the patron god. In the Pythian games it was a laurel wreath, in the Nemean it was from the celery plant, in the Isthmian games it was a pine wreath, and in the Olympic games it was made from an olive branch. This crown was a symbolic and sacred honor and was believed to transfer mystical powers to the athlete.

The Rewards of Victory
Immediately after an athlete won his event, the herald would announce his name, father's name, and city of origin to the crowd. He was given a palm branch and adorned with red woolen ribbons around his head, arm, and leg as marks of victory as the crowd cheered wildly.

As soon as possible a custom-made victory song was commissioned. That night the victor would feast with his friends. The party would often extend all night as they adorned themselves with garlands and paraded around the Altis, singing the new victory hymn and other songs. The next morning, the winning athlete presented offerings and prayers at the altars of the appropriate deities.

The awards ceremony at the end of the Games was an awe-inspiring event. The wreaths made from the sacred olive tree were displayed on a gold and ivory table. The senior Hellanodikos (judge) crowned each victor while the onlookers tossed petals. Then the winners would be celebrated and feted at a grand feast.

The greatest of the prizes awarded an Olympic victor was the honor of placing his statue at Olympia, in the holy sanctuary dedicated to the gods.

The Triumphal Return
An Olympic winner brought glory not only to himself, but also to his hometown. In those days, personal achievement was inexorably linked to with contribution and acknowledgment of the athlete's city. In fact, some states would pay for an athlete's training. Such was the stigma of disappointing your sponsoring city that a defeated athlete would slink home via back alleys, "smitten by his misfortune." Those who did win were comparable to heroes and deities; thus, they received excessive honors.

While honorary distinctions and privileges varied from place to place, usually a city would go all out to welcome their new hero. There would be a grand reception and perhaps a parade with the assembled crowd throwing flowers and leaves. A great feast would be held worthy of the mighty achievements. In gratitude for divine assistance, the victor would visit his local temple and offer the olive wreath to his patron deity.

The victor may or may not receive actual money, but there were usually plenty of "perks" such as free meals for life and a seat in the Prytaneion, free board and lodging, theater seats, and (after the fifth century BC), exclusion from taxation. Quite often a victor's city would erect a local statue in his honor and possibly other public monuments.

Winning Is Everything
Part of the reason for such glory was the relatively small number of winners. For the first thirteen Olympiads, there was only one event and therefore only one winner. Even after the number of events grew, only the first place finisher for each event was considered a victor. Coming in second or third place counted for nothing and were not even recorded. In the event of a draw, the crown was dedicated to the god. Such was the pressure to win that some athletes prayed for either victory or death.

King of the Calendar
A system of dating was devised according to the four-year Olympiad. For the first thirteen Games, the Olympic winner (there was only one event: the 200-meter sprint) lent his name to the next four years. It is easy to imagine that an Olympic victor would become a household name if he became part of the calendar, against which other dates were calculated!

Forever Famous
The most prestigious of all honors afforded an Olympic victor was the privilege of erecting a statue at Olympia to commemorate his achievement for all generations. It would bear the name of the athlete, family names, and his city. If he could not afford it, friends, relatives, or his city might sponsor it.

Peons of Praise
It was a common practice to commission one of the popular poets of the day (such as Pindar, Bacchylides, and Simonides) to compose a victory ode written especially for the triumphant athlete. These poems, called "epinicians," were extremely popular. In those days, the songs and folklore passed by word of mouth were the ancient version of "mass media." It was through verse and song that a victor's fame spread nationally and internationally. The poems, and the athletes, live on in people's memories long after the day of victory. The epinician odes have lasted longer than many of the statues and inscriptions that were made for the same purpose.

The Legacy Lives On
It is interesting to see these traditions shadowed in the story of Spiros Louis, the Greek runner who won the marathon at the first revived Games in Athens in 1896. The adulation of the crowd and the honors lavished on him are strongly reminiscent of the way victors were feted in ancient times. Even the little "perks," such as free meals, free shaves, free theater tickets, etc. for life are the heritage of the many national and civic honors bestowed on the Olympian Victors "Olympionikai" of ancient times.

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