Ancient Greek Olympians did not always compete in the nude.
Ancient Greek Olympians did not always compete in the nude.

For ancient Greek athletes, competing without clothes was a sign of having a truly civilized society. However, this was not always the case. The tradition of men competing in the nude during the Olympic Games is reported to have begun in 720 B.C., although there was some dispute over who the first nude athlete was.

History of the Olympic Games

The first Olympic games held in 720 B.C., had only one event, a simple 200c men's sprinting event. The second gathering for games happened more than 200 years later in 490 B.C. and had a much more important event attached to it. The messenger Pheidippedes reportedly ran 42 kilometers to bring the news of the Greeks victory at the battle of Marathon from Sparta to Athens. The subsequent years of fighting against the Spartans saw a decrease in attendance for both athletes and audience members at the next Olympic event in 424 B.C. In 394 B.C. the games were claimed to be a pagan event by Roman Emperor Theodosius I and he banished them from the Roman Empire. They returned with gusto to Cotswold, U.K. in 1612 and began again in Greece in 1766. France held games in 1796 and they returned to the U.K. in 1850. The International Olympic Committee was formed in 1894 and the games have been held continuously since.

The First Nude Olympian

An ancient inscription records that the first athlete to compete nude in the Olympics was a runner named Orsippos, who won the short sprint in the 15th Olympics held in 720 B.C. Orsippos began the race wearing the traditional athletic garment -- a perizoma, a type of loincloth held up by a band of fabric that went around the athlete's waist. The story goes that it fell off Orsippos while he was running, and after his victory it was decreed that athletes should henceforth compete naked. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides argues athletic nudity occurred around 5 B.C. and was a show of civility in response to the cruelty of Greeceā€™s Persian adversaries. Artists such as Michelangelo found that the nude athletes in such fine form served as a great opportunity to sculpt and paint the well-tuned human bodies.

The Spartan Claim

Thucydides claimed that the athletes from Sparta were the first to exercise naked. The practice eventually became the norm in Greek athletics, distinguishing Greeks from the uncivilized "barbaroi," or barbarians, of surrounding regions, who thought nudity was shameful. Not surprisingly, the Spartans claimed that the athlete who started the tradition of competing nude at the Olympics was one of their own, Akanthos, who raced nude and won the long race at the 720 B.C. Olympics.

The Victor's Crown

Although Olympic athletes stopped wearing clothes during the competition, the winners did have some adornment during the games. Victors continued to be given an olive wreath crown, the traditional prize since the fifth Olympics back in 752 B.C.