An Interview with Professor Matthew Wiencke

Matthew Wiencke is a professor Emeritus of Classics at Dartmouth College from 1959-1990. He is well published and researched in the area of the ancient Olympic games.

These questions and answers were taken from an interview recorded with Professor Matthew Wiencke on November 13, 1995 at Dartmouth College. The answers are paraphrased from his responses.

Table of Contents

The Site of Olympia


"The site of Olympia was not a town or a city. It was totally a sanctuary; something like the Vatican, for example; devoted entirely to Zeus, Hera, the temples, the stadium, to athletics and the gods".

Q: How did the ancient Olympic Games start?

A: The origins of the Olympic games pre-date written records and it is difficult to separate legend and mythology from historical fact in the oral traditions.

Pindar says that Herakles, the great hero of the Dorians, originally founded the games and laid out the original stadium. We do know that the first organized Olympic festival occurred in 776 BC. From there on, it became a four year celebration. The Olympiads served as a chronology for much of Greece. Events would be dated according to which Olympiad it was and whether it was the first, second, third, or fourth year within the Olympiad.

Q: What led to the origin of the ancient Olympic games?

A: We know that before 776 there were contests held at Olympia. Excavators have found remains that bronze figures of horse trainers, boxers and charioteers from around the year 800 BC. This may be associated with the funeral games much like those described by Homer. The stade race (the sprint), which was the only event in the first fourteen Olympiads, is closely associated to the funeral rites. Thus there may be an association between religion and the Olympic games.

Q: What was the importance of the Olympics to the ancient Greeks?

A: The Olympic games were so important to the Greeks that they would lay down their arms and call for truce during the month of the games. The games also had a religious importance to the participants for religion and athletics were not separate. Participation in the games was a form of homage to the Greek gods. Each participant swore to Zeus that he would abide by the rules of the games and the decisions of the judges.

Was the truce ever broken?


"There are only a few records of the truce being broken. Once, Olympia itself was invaded by an armed force. When that happened, the games were interrupted and that Olympiad was declared null and void; it was simply wiped off the record".

Q: How was cheating dealt with at the games?

A: Very severely. Those that cheated or violated the rules were disqualified from the contest. The contestant, and sometimes the trainer and the sponsoring city-state, were fined. The money from these fines were used to construct bronze statues of Zeus. These statues were placed along the tunnel that lead to the stadium. The athletes walked past these statues as a reminder of the importance of obeying the rules.

Q: How did the athletes train?

A: We have graphic record of the training from vases. The athletes started training as children and competed between the ages of 16 and 24. The athlete trained under the guidance of an older trainer. The trainer was considered very important. The trainer accompanied the athlete to the games and oversaw all preparations for the games. There are also indications that the trainers were also present at the awarding of the prizes.

Q: What did it mean to be a victor?

A: Victors were given a ceremonial olive wreath, never money. The wreath was made from branches cut from a sacred tree with a ceremonial sickle. Their names were also inscribed in the official records of the games. The victor becomes a hero and wins honor for himself, his city and his family. Some received free meals for life. Athletes who won the pentathlon three times had statues erected in their honor.

The Sprint


"The pride of place went to that simple staid race. When you look upon the scenes of this race on the Pananthenaic vases, the amphlery, you can see that it is indeed a solo event. It call upon the highest degree of coordination, perseverance and speed of which the human being is capable."

Q: How did the games come to an end?

A: The games came to an abrupt end in AD 393 when the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II, who now controlled Greece, closed the Greek temples and ended the games.