While the modern Olympic Games go back to 1896, the ancient Olympic Games reach back as far as 776 B.C. and beyond. While historians hang the beginning on that date, it seems the Games had been going on for several centuries prior to the 8th century B.C. Held originally in Olympia, Greece — a sister city of my town of Colorado Springs, the home of the U.S. Olympic Training Center — the games were dedicated to Zeus, father of the Olympian gods and the site was one of the most important religious centers in Greece.
The ancient Games were more religious in nature than sporting. For five days during the first full moon in August, there was religious worship, including the sacrifice of hundreds of oxen, grand processions, temple adornment and banquets to honor the gods. Over time, this changed as commerce took an increasingly larger part along with the greater emphasis on athletic competitions.
The first and only sport was the foot race, the stade held in a stadium. Legend has it that Heracles (Greek: “Hera glory,” Latin: Hercules) measured out 200 of his steps to inaugurate this race in Zeus’ honor. For the winner, this 200-yard race could bring fame. Additionally, it became a form of an international dating system as the 5th century B.C. sophist philosopher Hippias began recounting:
“…in the XXth year of the YYth Olympiad, when ZZ was the victor in the foot race.”
There was only one prize, and only for first place in the race. Rather than a medal, it was the kotinos, the intertwined branch of a wild olive tree, formed into a circle or a horseshoe. This was, according to legend, introduced by Heracles and taken from an olive tree in Olympia for the winner, in honor of his father, Zeus. The award was fleeting, four years later another winner would receive the glory. But the value of the prize was not lost on the ancients. The Greek historian Herodotus recounts a comment made about the olive-wreath when General Tigranes, fighting for the Persian enemy Xerxes, complaining about the dearth of Greek soldiers at the Battle of Thermopylae (made famous in modern times by the film 300) who were instead at the Olympic Games:
“Good heavens! …what kind of men are these against whom you have brought us to fight? Men who do not compete for possessions, but for virtue.”
Much has been said of the “Olympic Truce” where heralds were sent out months ahead of the Games to declare that athletes, their supporters, and visitors could travel safely to the Games. While true, this does not mean that warring city-states or nations would cease hostilities. The Greeks continued to prosecute their wars. But the host city was safe from invasion by outside armies and travelers could expect safe passage.
In modern days, there is a call to return to the halcyon days of a-political games of the past. But the games have always been political, indeed, they serve as a stage to air political differences.
Even the ancient games were colored by politics. In 365 B.C. the 104th games were declared invalid after the Elians regained the venue from the Arcadians and Pisatans who had been presiding over the games. The historian Thucydides records that political alliances were announced at Olympia. Herodotus describes how the champion Cimon, who was in exile at the time, won the four-horse chariot race. When he won again at the next Olympiad, he resigned the victory and was allowed to return to his property under truce.
In modern times there have been a host of political opportunities taken with the games: boycotts, protests, banned countries or athletes, terrorism, kidnapping, and postponements due to violence.
In A.D. 394 the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, who made Christianity the state religion of Rome, abolished the Olympic Games as part of wide-ranging reforms against pagan rituals. Though the last official Olympics were recorded in 393, there is evidence that some games continued after that. In any event, following the sack of Rome in the early 5th century by Alaric I, the first king of the Visigoths, the Games finally came to a halt. They had survived for over a millennium but would return.
In 1892 a young French baron, Pierre de Coubertin, proposed reviving the Olympics as a major international competition to occur every four years, as the original Olympics had. At an international sports conference in Paris in 1894, he proposed it to delegates from nine countries who unanimously approved it. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was formed to organize the first modern Games in Athens in 1896. While the ancient Olympics in the 8th century B.C. represented competitors from 12 locations across Greece, these Games in 1896 came from 13 nations with 280 athletes in 43 events, including the first Marathoncompetition. While Coubertin emphasized international competition among amateur athletes, the definition of amateur evolved, as well as his own understanding of it, in subsequent years. Note the subplot of “amateur” with Olympic athlete Harold Abrahams in the 1981 Academy Award-winning movie Chariots of Fire.
In tribute to the ancient Olympics, for the XXIII Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, the Olympic torch was lit at the Temple of Hera in Olympia on October 24, 2017, marking the traditional start of the Greek phase of the torch relay. This custom, first introduced at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, hearkens back to the stealing of fire from the gods by Prometheus, and during the original Games in a continuous flame was common in the temples and sanctuaries of ancient Olympia.
Let the Games begin.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian