The original Olympic games were held between the city-states of ancient Greece. Cultural and religious celebrations and a lot of political posturing accompanied the games, held every four years from 776 B.C. until late 4th century A.D. The event allowed cities to assert their influence and importance. The only official prize for the winner was the crown of olive leaves. But the associated fame and honor the athlete brought to his city meant that the victors received many material rewards too.

Crown and Glory

The Olympic winners -- no second or third winners -- received a crown of olive leaves from the sacred tree at Olympia. The name of the winner was recorded, famous poets would write victory odes, and the fame and glory spread throughout Greece. A one-time winner was allowed to set up a generic statue commemorating his victory, a three-time winner was allowed to commission an individual, portrait statue from a sculptor.

Prizes at Home

The commemorative statues had to be financed, as the cost of such a commission was immense. The athlete's home city-state would often pay for the statue and offer the victor substantial material rewards. An Athenian winner could expect a very substantial 500 drachmas in addition to free meals at the city hall for life. At various times and locations, the Olympic winner could receive a lifetime pension, tax breaks and honorary benefits such as front seats at the theater. Commemorative statues, poems and coins were often offered and successful athletes sometimes made it into politics.