How popular were the male athletes?
They were as close as you could get to being a demigod in the mortal world. You would gain incredible prestige and wealth from an Olympic victory. You never had to work again.
Officially, the winner was given an olive wreath. But your home city would give you piles of money, honors like front seats at the theater, lifetime pensions, vats of olive oil, maybe even priesthood. Your name would be passed down from generation to generation. You became part of the very fabric of history.