“If you have worked in a manner worthy of coming to Olympia, and have done nothing in an offhand or base way, proceed with good courage; but as for those who have not so exercised, go away wherever you like.” These were the instructions given to athletes and their trainers at the Olympic games in ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks took sports very seriously. Like today, training was important for athletes if they wanted to be successful at the Olympics.
Male athletes (no women competed in the early Olympics) spent ten months training before arriving at the site for the games. Whether they competed in sprints, wrestling, boxing, or another sport, practicing for the Olympic games made it tough for a young man to get a full time job. If he won at the Olympics, however, he would have fame and fortune.
A typical day for an athlete training for the Olympics involved going to the gymnasium. The gymnasium was different from today’s gyms. Back then gyms housed a covered running track, but the other facilities were outdoors and open to the public. After an athlete arrived at the gym, he took all his clothes off and stored his belongings in the changing room. Then a paid “rubber” covered the athlete’s body in olive oil. The athlete performed warm-up exercises which were often accompanied by flutes. A coach supervised the athlete’s workout routine, which varied depending on the sport he competed in. For example, runners built up their strength by putting on heavy pieces of armor as they went around the track. Boxers practiced on punching bags made of animal skin and stuffed with grain or sand.
Coaches remain an important part of an athlete’s training to this day, but in ancient Greece a coach who trained a winning athlete was revered and received equal credit for his student’s accomplishments. The ancient poet Pindar described the crucial role of training to an athlete’s success: “not to be prepared beforehand is stupidity, for the minds of the unpractised [sic] are insubstantial things.” Most coaches were former athletes who not only instructed an athlete on his sport routines, but also focused on diet, hygiene, and physical therapy.
Like the athletes themselves, coaches were most concerned with winning and they used some interesting techniques to motivate their students. For example, one coach told his love-struck student that the girl would marry him if he won. Spurred on by this promise, the student beat out the competition. Another coach stabbed an athlete who gave up during a boxing match.
The ancient Olympics had no team games, and no second or third place finishers. Victory brought an athlete and his coach honor. Most of the Greek city states could also be counted on to reward their winning athletes with money and other special privileges, such as free food and tax-exemption.