At the core of Greek athletics was an individual's struggle to gain victory over an opponent; hence it included not only (as ‘athletics’ implies nowadays) track and field events but also boxing, wrestling, and equestrian events (see horse‐ and chariot‐races), and excluded team competitions and performances aimed at setting records (‘athletics’ derives from the root athl‐, denoting struggle, competition for a prize, and misery). Athletics was a popular activity; valuable contemporary evidence for it is provided by vase‐paintings and the victory odes of Pindar and Bacchylides.
The first substantial description of Greek practice comes from Homer's account of the funeral games for Patroclus in Iliad 23. Eight events are mentioned there (chariot‐racing, boxing, wrestling, running, javelin, an event similar to fencing, throwing the weight, and archery); the five in italics regularly formed the central part of all later games.
From the middle of the 5th cent. the four major venues for athletics competitions were the Olympic, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games. The running‐races were the stadion (a length of the stadium, 192 m. (210 yds.) at Olympia), diaulos (there and back), and dolichos (twelve laps at Olympia). There was no marathon, although acc. to Herodotus Phidippides, who ran from Athens to Sparta, trained as an ultra‐distance runner for the purpose of delivering messages. A race in armour, derived from military training, was introduced into athletics programmes at the end of the 6th cent., and there was a pentathlon consisting of long‐jump, stadion, discus, javelin, and wrestling. At the Olympic and Pythian Games there were separate events for men and boys, while at the Nemean and Isthmian Games there was also an intermediate category for youths (ageneioi, lit. ‘beardless’).
Training took place in the gymnasium, or xystos (covered colonnade); for the running events, esp. the dolichos, long training‐runs must have been done outside the confines of these buildings. The need for athletes to have a suitable diet (see dietetics) was widely recognized. Sometimes an athlete's father would act as his coach; often, past victors became coaches. Before the Olympic games, the wise precaution was taken of making competitors swear by Zeus that for the previous ten months they had trained properly. When training or competing, athletes covered their bodies with olive oil to keep off the dust and were generally naked, though there is some disputed evidence pointing to the use of loincloths. Male sexual interest in young athletes, admired for their physique, was common‐place (see homosexuality).
Women competed at Olympia in separate games, the Heraea in honour of Hera; there was just one event, a shortened stadion‐race. During the men's athletics, married women were forbidden to watch, but virgin girls were permitted, a custom perhaps derived from a conception of the games as an occasion for girls to meet future husbands.
It is hard to evaluate athletics performances, because running‐races were not timed, and distances in field events not measured; a sign that standards may have been low is the fact that Pausanias (3) records many examples of men who had been able to win in several different types of event.