The ancient Greeks wore crowns (stephanoi) on all kinds of festive occasions, e.g. for a procession, a sacrifice or a festive dinner. Therefore, the organisers too were often crowned during the feast. These crowns were usually made of leaves or flowers. Honours on behalf of the community were often materialized in a golden crown.
At the great international games, the victors only received a crown of leaves : an olive crown at Olympia, laurel at Delphi (the evergreen laurel tree was sacred to Apollo), a crown of pine branches and later dried sellery at the Isthmian games and a green celery crown at the Nemean games. The Roman Capitolia had a crown of oak leaves. The term crown-games refers to this practice. Some athletes show their various crowns side by side on their honorary inscriptions.
The use of crowns was not limited to the crown-games, however, it was a custom at all games, and often combined with other prizes. The crown functioned as a symbol of victory and the ceremony, in which the victor was officially proclaimed and the crown was put on his head, was the great moment of triumph for the athlete.
Crowns could be made of a precious metal, such as gold or silver. In the Roman period some of these crowns became monumental constructions, as can be seen on coins and mosaics. In Artemidorus’ dream book an athlete even dreams that he “washes his feet in his crown” (in fact not a good omen, according to Artemidorus).
The symbol of the crown was taken over by the christians, who awarded to their martyrs the “unfading crown” after their death in the arena. In the modern games the crown has been superseded by the medal, but at several Olympics, as those of Berlin in 1936 and those of Athens in 2004, they gave the victors a crown of leaves as well as a reference to antiquity.