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From boxing contests with no weight classifications or point scoring to chariot racing where danger lurked on every corner, it is easy to see why the Ancient Games enthralled the Greeks for so long. Here, we give you the essential lowdown, highlight our favourite facts and preview the upcoming features.

Full of blood, passion and extraordinary feats of athletic endeavour, the Olympic Games were the sporting, social and cultural highlight of the Ancient Greek calendar for almost 12 centuries.

“It is hard for us to exaggerate how important the Olympics were for the Greeks,” Paul Christesen, Professor of Ancient Greek History at Dartmouth College, USA, said.

“The classic example is that when the Persians invaded Greece in the summer of 480 (BC) a lot of the Greek city states agreed that they would put together an allied army but they had a very hard time getting one together because so many people wanted to go to the Olympics. So, they actually had to delay putting the army together to defend the country against the Persians.”

The threat of invasion or not, the Games took place every four years from 776BC to at least 393AD. All free Greek males were allowed to take part, from farmhands to royal heirs, although the majority of Olympians were soldiers. Women could not compete or even attend. There was, however, a loophole to this misogynistic rule – chariot owners, not riders, were declared Olympic champions and anyone could own a chariot. Kyniska, daughter of a Spartan king, took advantage of this, claiming victory wreaths in 396BC and 392BC.

At their heart, the Games were a religious festival and a good excuse for Greeks from all over the Mediterranean basin to gather for a riotous barbeque. On the middle day of the festival a vast number of cows were slaughtered in honour of Zeus, King of the Greek Gods – once he had been given a small taste, the rest was for the people.

For the first 250-plus years all the action took place in the sanctuary of Olympia, situated in the north-western Peloponnese. Pock-marked by olive trees, from which the victory wreaths were cut, and featuring an altar to Zeus, it was a hugely scared spot.

The Games lasted a full five days by the fifth century BC and saw running, jumping and throwing events plus boxing, wrestling, pankration and chariot racing. At least 40,000 spectators would have packed the stadium each day at the height of the Games’ popularity, in the second century AD, with many more selling their wares outside.

But first, here are our 10 favourite facts to get you started:

  • All athletes competed naked
  • Wrestlers and pankration (a sort of mixed martial art which combined boxing and wrestling) competitors fought covered in oil
  • Corporal punishment awaited those guilty of a false start on the track
  • There were only two rules in the pankration – no biting and no gouging
  • Boxers were urged to avoid attacking the on-display male genitals
  • There were no points, no time limits and no weight classifications in the boxing
  • Athletes in the combat sports had to indicate their surrender by raising their index fingers – at times they died before they could do this
  • Boxers who could not be separated could opt for klimax, a system whereby one fighter was granted a free hit and then vice-versa – a toss of a coin decided who went first
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History

As a sacred place used regularly in religious ceremonies, as well as playing host to the Ancient Games, Olympia was at the centre of Greek civilisation. Renowned expert Paul Christesen gives Olympic.org a unique insight into Olympia and how the site changed as the Games grew.

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All time greats of the olympic games

A magical collection of characters light up the accounts of almost 12 centuries of action at the Ancient Games. Huge, heroic men caught the attention with the stars of the combat sports particularly adored. Their physique, love of a challenge and extraordinary appetites chimed with a public brought up on the immortal heroes of Greek mythology. Here, we pick out the best of the best.

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Spectators

Ancient Olympic Games expert Paul Christesen reveals what life would have been like for the spectators at Olympia. From taking advantage of the Olympic truce to hearing the latest works from the famous historian Herodotus and enjoying a giant, 24-hour BBQ, it is easy to see why the Games were a key date in the diary for Greeks everywhere.

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Boxing

With no weight classifications, no scoring system, no time limit and death a real possibility, boxing at the Ancient Olympic Games appears to have been a brutal and barbaric affair. But in reality, honour, respect and fair play were always at the fulcrum of this noble art.

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Chariot racing

Chariot racing is one of the most thrilling, visceral and danger-filled sports ever invented by man. Present at the Ancient Olympic Games from 680BC, it continues to capture our attention and fuel our imagination more than two-and-a-half thousand years later.

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Long jump, javeli, discus

From flute music to slingshot mechanics, the long jump, javelin and discus at the Ancient Olympic Games stand out for their intricacy and innovation. Gold medal-winning coach Toni Minichiello is impressed by what he hears.

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Pankration

A combination of boxing and wrestling with barely any restrictions, pankration was the wild, no-holds barred centre of the Ancient Olympic Games. Boasting huge men of incredible strength, it became a fountain of wondrous stories and stirring myths.

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Running

From completing three marathons in one day – post Olympic title – to chasing down a live hare, the achievements of the running idols at Olympia were remarkable.

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Wrestling

From lifting live bulls to tearing trees apart with their bare hands, wrestlers were the wildly popular heroes of the Ancient Olympic Games. With an unrivalled prominence, the sport basked in its glory days.

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