Brief History of the Olympics
Written by Alfonso Elizondo
Created on Monday, August 15, 2016, 9:52
Although the first Olympic Games were very different from what they are today, the basic objective of celebrating victory in sports peacefully still remains. In 776 B.C., when the Olympics started there were no team sports nor prizes for second place, in addition to the fact that women were not allowed to participate in or attend the competitions. At that time men competed in the nude and infractions were punished by flogging.
Every four years, for almost a thousand years, people from every region in ancient Greece went to the sacred land of Olympia to celebrate their passion for sports competitions. Boats came from various Greek colonies to a place where philosophers, poets, writers, gamblers, pimps, peddlers, musicians and dancers mingled. They gathered for five days to attend the games which started in August as a religious holiday.
At those games no tickets were sold and many spectators slept outdoors while the delegations from the different competing regions set up tents and booths for their athletes. So those Games were a combination of religious ceremonies, sacrifices, theatrical performances, speeches by renowned philosophers, poetry readings, parades, banquets and noisy victory celebrations.
According to Hatzoupoulos, Director of the Research Center for Greek and Roman Antiquity at Greece’s National Hellenic Research Foundation, the ancient Olympics were very different from the modern version, as there were fewer sports and only men who spoke Greek could compete instead of athletes from all countries in the world speaking different languages, as is now the case. Hatzoupoulos notes that the first Olympic Games consisted of a footrace of between 185 and 190 meters and then longer races, wrestling and the pentathlon comprising discus and javelin throws, cross-country running, long jump and wrestling were added. Later, boxing, chariot races and races for horses with a rider, plus long jump and armor races were added.
The revival of the Olympic Games in modern times is attributed to the French aristocrat Pierre de Fredy, known as Baron de Coubertin, who, as a young man, visited Rugby School and Eton College in England and began to suggest that French students would learn more by practicing sports than by repeating lessons in Latin. Out of this came the idea that schools should introduce games and competitions with each other. It was then that the French government asked Coubertin to organize an international conference on Physical Education.
In those days he was supported by a Dominican prior from the Arcevil College in Paris, who wanted his students to play sports and taught them the motto “higher, faster, stronger” that later became the slogan of the Olympics, which was used for the first time in 1920 at the Olympics in Antwerp. And this phrase has appeared on the billboards of the Olympics since 1932, although it is not consistent with the spirit of the ancient Olympics where winning was most important. So in the end it was de Coubertin who revived the ancient games by increasing the interest of young people and their families.
While the ancient Olympics were taking place a sacred truce was established in which all wars were suspended, where the death penalty was halted and competitors, regardless of their legal problems were safe. It was said that the truce was inscribed in five rings of the sacred disk of King Iphitos of Elis who in 884 B.C. first declared the armistice as instructed by the Delphic Oracle. In 1913, Baron de Coubertin visited Delphi, the first place where the ancient Olympic Games were held in Greece, which was the sanctuary of the god Apollo and where the altar was decorated with five interlocking colored rings. It was then that Coubertin realized the great potential media value of those five interlocking rings among the various nations of the world and he coined a phrase that said: ‘These five rings represent the five continents of the world united by the Olympics and ready to compete nobly with each other.’
Then he designed a flag with the five rings in different colors: blue, yellow, black, red and green on a white background. That flag flew for the first time in Paris in 1914 at a conference marking the twentieth anniversary of the Olympic movement. A few weeks later World War I broke out and the Olympics was canceled and postponed until 1916 in Berlin. But starting in 1920 Olympism adopted the emblem of the five rings that is still used today.
It can be said, to sum up, that the Olympic Games were born in 775 B.C. and for nearly 3,000 years they were the framework of competition where athletes from all regions of Greece participated and where peace reigned. For even if there was a war, at the time of the Games a truce was imposed so as to not interfere with the staging of the Games.
Those who participated did so on an individual basis, not representing a nation as they do now. No medals were awarded and only a wreath made of olive leaves was placed on the winner’s head. In their hometowns busts were erected to the winners and poems were written in their honor. Upon their return, the winners were received as heroes in a parade through the streets. Sometimes they were rewarded with money, gifts or tax waivers and other charitable gestures. But if they cheated they were punished with a fine that was used to finance bronze statues in honor of Zeus, which stood on the way to the Olympic Stadium and where the offense and the cheat’s name were written.
The last Olympics of antiquity was in the year 394 A.D. when they were banned by the Roman emperor Theodosius I who considered it a pagan spectacle. But 1503 years later, thanks to the efforts of Baron de Coubertin and a group of European dreamers, this wonderful show was revived.
Addendum: As we are seeing now at the Olympics in Río de Janeiro, the original idea of peacefully celebrating winning athletes still persists. In addition to this, the dominant powers in a way are reaffirming their political, economic and military might. Perhaps the only visible differences from the ancient Olympic Games is that now women participate in a similar proportion to men, autocracies are cruelly exploiting young children by training them to compete and robbing them of the joy of their early years, and large mass media companies have found a new source of wealth.