Athletes and votive objects
Hundreds of real life bronze statues of Olympic victors were set on stone-inscribed bases in close proximity around the temple of Zeus and towards the Heraion. These were votive objects with which athletes thanked Zeus for their victory. Here were also included the votive objects for victories in equestrian events, which could be from simple representations of horses to votive objects representing the owner of the horse, the charioteer, the chariot and the horses. However, besides the primary devotional function, these votive objects demonstrated and immortalized the name, the athlete's performance and the homeland of each victor. Such statues were set, to a lesser degree, and to other sacred sites where panhellenic games were organized (for example in Delphi), as well as in the homelands of the victors, but this in rarer cases.
Today, no statue of Olympic victor is preserved intact. Besides the stone bases, most of them quite fragmentary, the largest preserved past of such a statue is the head of a boxer dated to the 4th century BC, which is related to the athlete Satyrus of Elis. According to Pausanias, it was the work of Silanion, the famous Athenian sculptor of representative statues.
However, in around 175 AD, when Pausanias visited the sanctuary of the Altis, hundreds of statues of Olympic victors were still preserved, and he dedicated the first 18 chapters of the sixth book of Description of Greece to the description of them. From these numerous statues, Pausanias chose to describe around 200, depending on the one hand on the athletic performance and the life of the represented athletes and on the other on the artistic value of the works, so that mainly statues of the early years and of famous sculptors should represented. Pausanias mentioned fifty-five artists by name, whose fame made the Altis of Olympia an exhibition area of great masterpieces of Greek sculpture. The sculpture of the 5th century BC was represented by famous names, such as Onatas, Calamis, Pythagoras, Myron, Polyclitus, while among the sculptors of the 4th century BC dominant figures were the Athenian Silanion, the renowned Lysippus and representatives of the school of Polyclitus. These were mainly sculptors who specialized in athletes' statues. Pausanias mentions eight statues of Pythagoras from Rhegium, and five of Lusippus, Polyclitus the Younger, Daedalus and Cleon from Sikyon, and four statues of Glaukias of Aegina and Myron, as well as the votive statue of Hieron, tyrant of Syracuse, which was created by the sculptors Onatas and Calamis, both from the island of Aegina.
The oldest statue of an Olympic victor was commissioned in 628 BC by the Spartan Olympic victor Eutelidas and was created in the beginning of Greek plastic art, while the most recent statue mentioned belonged to Valerius Eclectus, the herald, dated to 261 AD.
Pausanias occasionally mentions some details about the representation of these statues. In some cases the characteristic symbols of the event are depicted (for example, halteres for the athlete of the pentathlon, helmet, shield and greaves for the hoplite-runner, wheel for an athlete of a chariot race). In rarer cases, a characteristic posture of the athlete was depicted, mainly for events that included an opponent, for example boxing. Most likely, the majority of the statues followed a predefined type, as in the case of the earliest statues that followed the Kouros type. Surely the type of the worshipper would also be depicted in early statues.
The Charioteer of Delphi, the bronze wreathed athlete at the Getty Museum and recently the bronze runner from the Late Hellenistic period, found in the sea outside Cyme, which today is at the Archaeological Museum in Smyrna, give an idea, however limited, of the splendor and the variety of such types of statues. Other famous statues that depict victorious athletes are the Late Hellenistic bronze rider of Artemisium in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, the seated boxer in the Museum of Thermae in Rome (1st century BC), as well as many Roman copies, for example the Discus Thrower of Myron, the Westmacott Youth and the Diadoumenos by Polyclitus.
The numerous, mostly bronze, statuettes of athletes that have been preserved copied statues of Olympic victors and did not function as the votive objects of victorious athletes as much but mostly as an expression of hope for future athletic success.