For the victor at Olympia the conferring of
various honors actually began as the sound of cheering in the stadium died away;
the moment of glory when the winner stood erect before the judges to be crowned
was only the first of many occasions honoring the Olympic victor. His triumph,
the culmination of training and education, was symbolic of a way of life, of a
philosophy explicit in the beautiful and the good. The triumphal procession
around the stadium, with the victor high on strong shoulders, the frenzied
cheers, and the flowers cast by the spectators were for both the victor and for
Greek standards he represented.
Paeans of praise sung for him applied to all that was revered in Greece. He
received "honors befitting a citizen of high esteem": that line from a Victory
Ode by Simonides is a key to the Greeks' respect for the citizen. The
individual, the citizen, was the epitome of all that was good and worthy, and
each man bore his title "citizen" with dignity and honor.
The citizen who was an Olympic victor was the most honored of mortals. News of
an Olympic victory was carried by fast runners or by charioteers to the victor's
home city, where preparations for his return were begun at once. The celebration
began with the triumphal entry of the victor into the city, with a procession
greater in importance than that of a Roman Emperor because the Olympic victor
was an individual honored for human values. The winner had achieved a symbolic
victory, and adulation was given to him by his peers, free men of Greece,
When a victor and his official Embassy neared the city, a runner carried the
news of the approaching procession, and townspeople rushed out into the
countryside to meet the victor, to shower him with flowers, and to sing his
praises. A section of the town wall, which encompassed
most Greek communities, was broken away for free access; it was thought that "no
gate was good enough for the fair-limbed youth." Through the wide opening, the
victor strode with measured step, his himation billowing about him. He proceeded
at once to the city's chief temple to give thanks to his god or goddess for
victory, and to pledge that so long as he lived, the victor would try to be
worthy of the honor bestowed on him. All victors were aware that their honor
carried with it weighty responsibility.
The olive crown was a constant reminder that much was expected of its recipient.
He was a symbol of the highest moral values of the time in which he lived, and
it was incumbent on him to speak and act in the finest traditions of aidos.
Youngsters sought his counsel on personal problems. Epheboi, trying to perfect
their bodies at the gymnasium, asked his advice during practice sessions.
Parents and teachers cited him as example to their children and pupils, and
urged them on to the attainment of "supreme beauty of body, mind, and soul"
achieved by the victor. Every action of his lifetime was expected to embody the
highest moral standards. Achievement was not quickly forgotten as is sometimes
the unfortunate case with today's heroes. Subsequent victors did not overshadow
the Olympic winner; they took their places of honor with him.
The first joyous reception of the victor in procession and his visit to the
temple were followed by feasts and banquets. As honored citizen, he sat with
dignitaries on the front row of the city's amphitheater where performances of
drama, dance, and music were presented.
Slowly the city returned to a pace of normal living, and then, about two months
after the victory, other celebrations were scheduled. One date was determined by
the completion of a statue of the victor. The greatest sculptor available began
working immediately after the victory at Olympia, producing either a statue
carved in marble or one cast in bronze. With pomp and ceremony, the statue of
the victor was erected in a prominent location; offerings were made to Zeus and
to the local patron god or goddess. If the victor's family or his home city
could afford a second statue, it was sent to Olympia for erection in the Altis.
Every victor was given the privilege of having his victory perpetuated by such
visual evidence at the scene of his triumph. Pausanias, the traveler and
historian to whom we are so indebted for facts about the Olympic Games, reported
that at one time in Olympia there were three thousand statues, each with an
inscription commemorating a winner of the wild olive-wreath crown.
Erecting a statue in the victor's home city was a sacred duty, not something
dependent on available funds. There is a story about one city that not only gave
a halfhearted reception to its victor but also failed to erect a statue in his
image. For eleven Olympics thereafter no athlete from the city was able to win a
crown though many competitors were sent to Olympia. Finally officials of another
generation vowed to the gods that, should an athlete from the city win,
atonement would be made for the disgraceful action of the past. And, at the very
next Olympic Games, the city did have a victor, to whom it erected a statue of
gold and ivory.
A second honor, delayed like the ceremony of placing the statue, depended on the
completion of a victory ode, an Epinikia, written by a well-known poet,
commissioned by the victor's family. In Greece there were many authors of
Epinikia; these included Simonides, Bacchylides, and, the most famous of all,
Pindar. Many of Pindar's victory odes have been preserved and a reading of those
lyrics brings a thrill of understanding of the high place held by an Olympic
winner during the age of the poet.
The Olympic victor was not only honored at home; wherever he traveled in Greece,
he enjoyed the privilege of eating and lodging in a city's Prytaneion, as guest
of the priests in charge of that sacred building.
Olympic victory resulted in many benefits but the
great honor was a difficult one to keep untarnished.