Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

The Olympic Medal: It's All Greek to Us!


The Lesson


Myron's Discobolus

Depicting Myron's Discobolus, this U.S. Postal stamp was issued to commemorate the centennial of the modern-era Olympic Games.

…inquire of Zeus of the flashing thunderbolt, if he has any message to give concerning men whose spirits are seeking to attain great excellence and a breathing-space from toils."
—excerpt from the Eighth Olympic Ode, by Pindar (c. 522-420 BC), courtesy of the Perseus Project digital library.

During the original Olympic games in ancient Greece, champions were not awarded gold, silver, and bronze medals as they are today. Instead, ancient Olympic victors were awarded an olive branch twisted into a circle to form a crown. The wild olive, called kotinos, had deep religious significance for the ancient Greeks. At the ancient Olympics, only the champion was recognized—there were no prizes for runners up. In the modern era, medals recognizing the top three finishers have supplanted the olive-crown as the Olympic award.

Most students can probably recall seeing at least one Olympic medal ceremony. The sight of a triumphant Olympic athlete stooping to receive the gold medal as his or her country's anthem plays is one of the more moving images of each Olympiad. However, students have probably never had a chance to inspect an Olympic medal up-close. If students were to examine the medals awarded at the Athens 2004 games, they would find on both sides of the medal a series of strange markings—some looking remarkably like English letters and others appearing as incomprehensible lines and squiggles.

The string of symbols on both sides of the medal are, of course, Greek letters. The Olympic Movement website had this description of the medal design for the 2004 Athens Olympics: "the main feature of the medals is the Greek character shown on both sides… This is of particular importance, as from now on all Olympic medals will reflect the Greek character of the Games as regards both their origin and their revival." Students can view a graphic of the medal in full detail on the Olympic Movement's Athens 2004 page available through the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library.

Students are bound to be curious to know what all that Greek writing means. This lesson plan uses an EDSITEment-created Greek alphabet animation

to help students "decode" the inscription on the Olympic medal. Because the Olympic medal is both a familiar and mysterious object for students, it presents an ideal prompt to build basic literacy in the Greek alphabet. Thus, this lesson uses the Athens 2004 medal inscription as an elementary "text" to help students practice reading Greek and to help reinforce the link between ancient Greek culture and the Olympic games.

Guiding Questions

  • How can familiarity with the Greek alphabet help us decipher the inscription on the Athens 2004 Olympic medals?

Learning Objectives

By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • Recognize and identify Greek letters by name.
  • Read (by sounding out) a string of Greek words.
  • Explain the content and significance of the inscription on the Athens 2004 Olympic medal.
  • Identify Greek roots of two English words.
  • Identify the Greek poet Pindar, and the Greek poetic form called epinicia.
  • Briefly state Greece's role in Olympic history.

Preparation Instructions


  • Familiarize yourself with the short description of the medal designed for the 2004 summer games by visiting the Athens page of the Olympic Movement website, available through the EDSITEment resource, Internet Public Library. You may wish to project or print out, copy, and distribute the worksheet of the graphic depicting the medal, as this will become the central "text" in the activity described below.
  • Peruse the ancient Olympics exhibit from the EDSITEment-reviewed Perseus Project website. The exhibit provides background on the Greek foundations of the Olympic concept, while comparing and contrasting the Ancient and Modern games.
  • reverse (back side) of Olympic medal, Athens, 2004translation and transliteration of the Greek poet Pindar's Eighth Olympic Ode, available through the Perseus Digital Library. Note that the first seven words of the Ode appear on the reverse side of the Olympic medal. The ode was composed in 460 BC to honor the victory of Alkimedon of Aegina in wrestling. Pindar, who lived from c. 522 to 440 BC is remembered as the greatest master of a Greek poetic form called epinicia—poems that celebrate champions of athletic festivals throughout the ancient Greek world.
  • To acquaint yourself with Pindar's biography and with the basic form and content of the Olympic Odes, please refer to a reference article from the Perseus Project website. You can also read about Pindar and other epinician poets by reading a brief article called "Cultural achievements and the Games," from the Perseus Project ancient Olympics exhibit.
  • Make sure that your students will have access to the EDSITEment-created Greek alphabet animation. The animation is a feature of the EDSITEment lesson plan titled, The Greek Alphabet: more familiar than you think! but can be accessed directly through the link provided.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Why Greek?
  1. Project or have your students click here to view a graphic of the Athens 2004 Olympic medal. Alternatively, distribute printed paper copies of both sides of the medal. Explain to your students that the characters appearing on the medal are Greek letters.
  2. Inform your students that beginning with the Athens 2004 games, all Olympic medals will showcase Greece's connection to the Olympics. Briefly explain that this is because the very first Olympic games took place in Olympia, Greece in 776 BCE. Explain that the ancient Greeks held Olympic games every four years from 776 BCE until 393 CE in honor of their god Zeus. Then, at the end of the nineteenth century, a Frenchman named Pierre de Coubertin had the idea of reviving the Olympic tradition by holding an international competition for amateur athletes. The first modern Olympics were hosted by Athens, Greece in 1896.
  3. Help your students understand some basic similarities and differences between the ancient and modern Olympics by drawing on information presented in the ancient Olympics exhibit from the EDSITEment-reviewed Perseus Project website.
Activity 2. Cracking the code
  1. Have your students open the EDSITEment-created Greek Alphabet animation, and have them use the animation to read off the names of all the Greek letters appearing on the two Greek words on the medal's obverse side. Students will need to mouse-over each Greek letter to reveal the letter's name.
  2. Going by the names of the Greek letters, have the students try to sound out the two Greek words appearing on the front (obverse) side of the medal (e.g. theta makes a "th" sound, eta makes an "eh" sound, pi makes a "p" sound). Remind your students to be careful: some letters might not sound like the English letters they appear to be. The words on the front of the medal should read: Olumpiada Athena.
  3. Now have your students turn to the reverse side of the medal. Tell your students that the text in front of them is the opening lines of a poem written in 460 BCE by a famous poet named Pindar to honor the victory of an Olympic wrestler named Alkimedon.
  4. First, have your students name the Greek letters appearing on this side of the medal. (Note: There is one letter that students will have trouble with. In the inscription, the letter theta appears in a more ancient form, as a circle with two intersecting lines, rather than as an oval with a single horizontal line. Please inform your students accordingly. You may tell them that the archaic form of theta appearing on the medal shows that the Phoenician alphabet provided the model for many of the Greek letters. To demonstrate this point, you may show the class an EDSITEment-created animation presenting the relationship between the Greek and Phoenician alphabets.)
  5. Then, going by the names of the Greek letters, have the students try to transcribe the Greek text by substituting the equivalent English letters.
  6. Next, students can compare their own work to a transliteration of Pindar's Ode available through the Perseus Project Digital Library. Students will note that the medal contains only the first seven words of the ode. Have your students read the seven words in transliteration a few times, and then see if they can read them directly off the medal itself.
  7. With the transliteration in front of the students, ask them to identify any words that sound like English words. Let students guess at what those words might mean. (see Step 9)
  8. Finally, show students the English translation of Pindar's Eighth Olympic Ode. They will find that the seven Greek words inscribed on the medal translate as: "Mother of golden-crowned contests, Olympia, queen of truth!"
  9. Note the Greek derivation of two of the English words (i.e. mater = mother; aethlon = contest, as in "athletics" or "triathlon")
Activity 3. Pindar and Alkimedon

Once students have successfully deciphered the medal inscription, you may provide them with some basic background information on the author and subject of the Ode. You might want to share some of the information provided in the Cultural achievements and the Games article from the Perseus project. Make sure that students can define epinicia. You can make the concept of the epinicia more relevant to students by encouraging them to cite examples of modern-day "odes" to real or fictional sports heroes. Besides poetry, how do we go about commemorating great athletic achievements? Can students name films or books they've enjoyed that pay tribute to a particular athlete?

One well-known ode to a fictional athlete is Ernest Laurence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat." The full text of the poem is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website of the American Academy of Poets. You might read a few passages from "Casey at the Bat" and compare or contrast them to some of the more accessible passages from Pindar's Olympic Ode. What do the poems tell us about the attitudes towards sport, competition, victory, and defeat in the societies in which each poet lived?

Remind students that Pindar's Ode describes the victory of a wrestler named Alkimedon, who came from a Greek island just southwest of Athens called Aegina. You can point out the location of Aegina on this map of the ancient Greek world from the Plato and His Dialogues site available through Perseus Project. Finally, to give students a sense of the rules of ancient Greek wrestling, share with them the short piece on wrestling available through the Perseus Project exhibit. Make sure to show students the Greek vase painting depicting two wrestlers.


Instruct students to create their own 2-line epinician verse celebrating one of the accomplishments of their favorite athlete. Then, have students transcribe the ode they've written into Greek by using our Greek alphabet animation to substitute Greek letters for the equivalent English sound. If desired, you can invite volunteers to write their own odes in Greek letters on the board and let the class practice reading those.

Extending The Lesson

This lesson can be extended in three different directions, depending on which of the lesson's themes you choose to emphasize.

  1. If you want to emphasize the relevance of the Greek alphabet, this lesson can be used as a segue into the EDSITEment curricular unit The Alphabet is Historic. The unit traces the evolution of modern Roman lettering from the Greek and Phoenician alphabets. While the lessons in the unit are designed for students in grades K-2, the basic question, "Where does our alphabet come from?" will likely interest students in grades 3-5 as well.
  2. Alternatively, if you want to more deeply explore the question of how cultures commemorate heroic feats, this lesson may serve as an introduction to to Portrait of a Hero, a K-2 lesson which may adapted for older students.
  3. Finally, if you want to more carefully consider comparisons and contrasts between the ancient and modern Olympics, this lesson can serve as a companion to Live from Ancient Olympia!


Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Foreign Language > Ancient > Ancient Greek
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Archaeology
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Other
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Jeremy Golubcow-Teglasi, Yale University (New Haven, CT)


Activity Worksheets