An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: the Olympic Games

As an aid to students, teachers and parents dealing with the challenges of home learning, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. Day by day, we will be sharing a bite size introduction to a historical figure, event or period – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. Today, Gombrich covers the Olympic Games.


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Olympic Games

E. H. Gombrich: Ancient Greece had no one king or administration in common. Instead, each city was a kingdom in itself. But one thing united the Greeks: their religion and their sport. And I say ‘one thing’ because, strangely enough, sport and religion weren’t two separate things – they were closely connected. For instance, in honour of Zeus, the Father of the Gods, great sporting contests were held every four years in his sanctuary at Olympia. As well as large temples there was a stadium at Olympia, and all the Greeks – the Dorians, Ionians, Spartans and Athenians – came there to show how well they could run, throw the discus and the javelin, fight hand to hand and race chariots.

To be victorious at Olympia was the greatest honour in a man’s life. The prize was no more than a simple garland made from sprigs of wild olive, but what fame for the winners: the greatest poets sang their praises, the greatest sculptors carved their statues to stand for ever in Olympia. They were shown in their chariots, throwing the discus, or rubbing oil into their bodies before the fight. Victory statues like these can still be seen today – there may even be one in your local museum.

Since the Olympic Games took place once every four years, and were attended by all the Greeks, they provided everyone with a convenient way to measure time. This was gradually adopted throughout Greece. Just as we say BC meaning ‘Before the birth of Christ’ or AD for after the birth of Christ (Anno Domini which means the year of our Lord in Latin),the Greeks would say: ‘At the time of this or that Olympiad’. The first Olympiad was in 776BC. Can you work out when the tenth would have been? But don’t forget! They only happened every four years.

Discover more A-Z blogposts here.

Free Resources to Learn More about the Olympic Games

BBC Bitesize (KS2)
How did the Olympic Games begin?

BBC History
The Olympics: Ancient versus Modern – Dr Stephen Instone
Ancient Greek Olympics Gallery – Judith Swaddling

Olympic.org
Welcome to the Ancient Olympic Games

TED-Ed
The Ancient Origins of the Olympics (video) 

The Khan Academy
Olympic Games

The Children’s University of Manchester
The Ancient Olympics (game)

The Yale Blog
Neil Faulkner’s series of blogposts to support his book A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.


A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

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Following in the footsteps of E. H. Gombrich’s worldwide bestseller A Little History of the World, the books in our Little Histories series explore the history of the world’s most remarkable people, events and ideas. With engaging personal insights, our authors will take you on a whistle-stop journey from ancient times to the present – exploring all of life’s big subjects from archaeology to science. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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