Prizes for the victors

P176Prizes for the victors were an important part of Greek athletics. The word 'athletics' is even derived from the Greek word 'athlon', 'prize'. At the earliest games, often funeral games, such as those of Patroklos, winners received valuable objects, like horses or bronze tripods. At Olympia several bronze tripods from the period 1000-700 BC have been excavated, but it is not known whether these were prizes for athletes or votive offerings.

After this earliest phase, the victors of the top contests of the later periodos received a crown made of leaves as symbolic prize. This does not mean that they did not profit from their victory. They received financial and other rewards in their home town when they returned triumphantly.

There were, however, numerous games - both international and local - where the victors did receive material prizes. These could be valuable objects, like Panathenaic amphoras, or bags of money. There was certainly not a strict distinction between crown-games and prize-games; a crown could easily be combined with a prize. Cities in fact competed to offer the highest prizes.

Besides symbolic and material prizes some extraordinary athletes received extra rewards from the organizing city, e.g. a statue or an honorific inscription. The organizing city could also grant an honorary citizenship to athletes or even an honorary membership of the local city-council. Some famous athletes collected multiple nationalities in this way.

Today no money prizes are given at the modern Olympics. Athletes can only win a medal, the equivalent of the ancient crowns. Until 1980 no participant of the Olympics could make any money with his sport. He had to be an amateur. Nominally, this modern rule was based on the Greek model, but this is not correct. In fact it reflected the nineteenth century elitist vision on sport. The situation in Antiquity can definitely be compared to today: athletes consider the Olympic medal the greatest honour, but happily participate in other important contests with high prize money.

© KU Leuven, 2012