What Did Ancient Greek Olympians Put on Their Heads?

Ancient Greek Olympian athletes coveted the sacred olive wreaths as their prizes.
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The ancient Greek Olympic games honored champions not with money but with esteem. One token of ceremonial honor bestowed upon victorious sports competitors was a head wreath of olive leaves and sprigs called a kotinos. The history of the kotinos is rooted in tradition and mythology.

1 Athletics and Athens

The Olympic games can be traced to at least as far back as 776 B.C. They were just one of many types of athletic competitions that were common throughout ancient Greece. Greek males would train for athletic competition in sports from wrestling to running from the time they were young boys. Intra-state and intra-city games were held around Greece, including the namesake Olympia and also in the influential city of Athens. The olive wreath had even greater significance in Athens, since it is associated with the city's patron goddess, Athena, who according to myth had given the first olive trees to Athens as a gift upon its founding.

2 The Mythology

The Olympic games were associated with other stories from the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses. One story was about the son of Zeus, the powerful Heracles. Heracles had planted the sacred olive tree that was located behind the temple of Zeus in Olympia. This tree provided the olive leaves for the crowns of the champions at the games.

3 Warriors and Sons

Only men competed in the Olympic games, and the kotinos had a practical application since Olympic athletes competed in the nude. The Greeks believes that the naked body of the warrior-athlete was supposed to inspire fear in his adversaries. When new champions were crowned, a judge would announce the victor's name, his father's name and his homeland and place the olive wreath on his head. Winners who took the wreaths home were greeted with a celebration.

4 Modern Applications

At the 2004 Olympic Games held in Athens the official emblem was the traditional kotinos. It was designed to symbolize the unity of the people of the world as well as to link the present and the past. The winning athletes at these games also received olive wreaths to wear on their heads during the awards ceremonies.

Gina Poirier has a professional background in nonprofit administration and management, primarily with youth development organizations. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from the University of Washington and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Alaska Anchorage.