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Special Display: The Olympic Games in Ancient Greece

  • Date iconJuly 1 2021
  • Curator: Galit Bennett-Dahan
  • Hellenistic Period Gallery, Archaeology Wing


This display of ancient Greek artifacts related to sports and the Olympic Games could not be more timely as we follow with bated breath the games currently taking place in Tokyo.

In ancient Greece, sports were of prime importance. Physical education and the cultivation of the body were seen as an integral part of arete – the quest for all-encompassing excellence. Moreover, athletic competitions were held in honor of the gods and were thus an essential component of religious festivals.

Towering over all the other competitions were the Olympic Games, held every four years in the city of Olympia between 776 BCE and 393 CE. They included boxing, horse races, and the pentathlon (Greek for “five competitions”): footrace, long jump, javelin and discus throwing, and wrestling. As the athletes – all men – competed in the nude, except for chariot races, they took extra good care of their body and covered it in oil. The winners were honored and celebrated, as well as receiving prizes such as wreaths of olive or laurel leaves and oil jars. Sometimes they even had statues made after them, and their names were entered in the city-state’s official records.  

This special display features sculptures and pottery vessels adorned with beautiful depictions of athletes in action, as well as objects that were used by the athletes when competing: decorated oil jars, utensils for removing oil from the body, a victory coin, and an original, standard-weight bronze discus.



two athletes, one holding discus, depicted on etruscan black-figure amphora (wine jar). Etruria, Italy, 5th century BCE, Pottery. Gift of Robin Beningson, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum, in memory of Sarah R. Beningson


Horse and chariot race on an Attic black-figure shoulder hydria (water jar). Athens, Greece, Archaic Period, mid-6th century BCE, pottery. Gift of Jan Mitchell, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum
Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Vladimir Naikhin


Strigils, knives for scraping oil from the body. Cerveteri, Italy, 4th–3rd century BCE, bronze. Gift of Ivor and Flora Svarc, Berkeley, California
Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Vladimir Naikhin



winged nike in flight, holding torch, depicted on attic red-figure lekythos (oil jar). Athens, Greece, Classical period, 5th century BCE, Pottery. Gift of Fiorella Cottier-Angeli, Geneva