The Olympics, we all have a favourite athlete or event in the games. Most people know that the event was started in ancient Greece and many people know that they were revived on an international scale in 1896. Every four years without fail, the summer games astound us. We all love to see our favourite athlete win a small round neck decoration, but the games were not always the international media event that they are today. In fact, prior to 1896, there had not been a true Olympics in over a thousand years. The Olympics of ancient Greece differed widely from what we watch on televisions today. To understand the Olympics properly we have to go back to where it all began in 776 BC. A single foot race won by a small town cook named Coroebus of Elis.
For the first few Olympics there was really only one event, the foot race. Sprinters would line up on a short track that was about 176 meters long, a measurement called a “stadion” in Greek. When the Romans pilfered the word, they called the distance a “stadium”, then Englishmen further stole the word from the Romans and then Taylor Swift filled the stadiums with fans instead of foot races.
Over the time, more events were added, different races lengths came first, such as the Diaulos and the Dolichos which would roughly translate to 400 meter and 5000 meter today respectively. They also had a race in full armour in order to simulate running during the combat but man cannot live on running alone and soon a Pentathlon emerged with the Long jump, Discus Throw, Javelin Toss, Wrestling and of course Stadion Footrace. Boxing and horse races were also added, weirdly though the winners of the horse races were not the jockeys or the charioteers, but the owners of the horses. This led a very famous Greek named Alcibiades, enter seven teams in a single race and he took first, second and the fourth place.
After the Olympics reached maturity, essentially every Greek city / state participated in them. They became a cultural unifier amidst the diverse and warring states, like today the games were peaceful collaboration between both friends and enemies. Even though Greeks never truly stopped fighting with each other, a truce emerged that would at minimum protect athletes who were gathering for the games. But unlike today the events were a violent mess. The chariot races usually ended with multiple deaths from horse on horse pile up. Instead of gloves, boxers would tie rough leather on their hands in order to maximise the pain inflicted. Wrestling frequently ended with the death of one participant, the only ways to win were to kill the opponent or force them to surrender by raising one finger, which would be the ancient version of tapping out. During a bout in 564 BC, a dead man won a wrestling match by breaking his opponent’s foot, moments before dying, the pain caused the opponent to surrender only to realize that he had already killed his fellow athlete.
Even after the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BC, the games continued for a while. But they got only more scandalous and violent under the Romans and for Romans anything that should be done, should be overdone. So the violence got a bit out of control, the boxers upgraded from rough leather to full on spikes, meant to make their opponents bleed. Whether or not we think this is okay today, this bloodsport element made the games even more popular at the time.
As the time went on and the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, a small religion called Christianity emerged. The Olympics always had a religious element to them. They were held in honour of Zeus and all the priests of Greek Paganism were the ones to actually crown the games. The religious part of the Olympics was never forgotten. As Christianity spread throughout the empire, the violence and paganism was starting to offend a large part of the citizens of Rome. In 394 AD, a Roman emperor named Theodosius the First, made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire and he banned the Olympics. The final nail in the Olympics’ coffin came in 426 AD when Theodosius the Second destroyed the temple of Zeus in Olympia.
The Olympics had a few brief revivals in the 17th and the 18th centuries but the modern Olympic movement did not begin until nearly the end of the 19th century. A man named Baron Pierre De Coubertin became enthralled with the Olympics and he was a pioneer in the efforts of reviving the games but he was largely wrong about the nature of the ancient Greek games. Coubertin imagined it as an idealisation of manliness where unpaid athletes came together as gentlemen to determine who was the most honourable. He once wrote that “the important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle….. Not to have conquered, but to have fought well.” One of Coubertin’s inspirations was a man named William Brooks, who founded the Wenlock Olympian Society in England. Overtime Brook society grew and began working with the Liverpool Athletic Club in order to create the National Olympian Association. Their first Olympian Games drew ten thousand spectators and Brooks knew that the games could be a huge hit. He reached out to Coubertin in 1890 and together they managed to hold an Olympic Congress on June 23rd 1894. From the International Olympic Committee was formed and the first games were scheduled in Athens in 1896. And just like Coubertin desired, only unpaid amateur athletes were allowed.
The first Olympics served as the perfect bridge between the old and the new games. Like the old games the first winner of the marathon was a Greek man who won after two days of constant fasting and prayer like new games the water in the swimming events was unsuitable for human life, the 100, 500 and 1200 meter freestyle were held in the sea where the water was freezing and the waves were constantly crashing against the swimmers. Twenty thousand people came to watch the swimmers do their racing thing, only to find them shivering and trying to survive the waves. Perhaps the amateur nature of the games or maybe just poor planning, lots of silly and unprofessional things happened in the first few Olympics. Bad water would be a common thing in 1904, the swimming competitions were held in a polluted green pond that made some of the athletes sick.
The marathon of 1904 was a complete mess. An American named William Garcia suffered haemorrhages and almost died on the side of the road before being hospitalised just in time. A South African runner was chased a mile off paths by wild dogs but perhaps most amusingly a Cuban runner named Andarin Carvajal hitchhiked his way to the games. He was almost late and had to cut his trousers so that they would look like running shorts. In the course of the race he stole two peaches from a truck that refused to give him some, ate some rotten apples, laid down and took a nap to recover and still finished fourth.
After 1896, the Olympics fell into a bit of a rut. The 1900 and 1904 Olympics were both held during the World’s Fairs and unfortunately this drew most potential spectators away from the games. Due to these two unsuccessful games, and the Greeks were throwing a hissy fit and wanted to host their games every four years in Athens the IOC decided to host an event called the Intercalated Olympics in 1906 as a compromise. Even though at the time it was considered to be a true Olympic contest, today the IOC does not recognise medals given at these games. However, it was still important because it introduced both the opening and closing ceremonies which today are as much the staple of the games as the events themselves. They were also the first to have an Olympic village and to raise the national flags of the victors. The 1906 games drew more spectators and were overall more successful than either of the previous games. The popularity of the 1906 games saved the modern Olympics.
Our generation saw the Olympics getting cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has also happened before during the world wars. Even though world war one and two caused several Olympics to be cancelled, today the spirit of peace on completion prevails. Just like in the Rio games, for the first time in history, a refugee competed. The Olympics have represented athletic conflict but in large part thanks to Pierre de Coubertin it has come to also represent peace. This idea of creating peace began with a simple truce in ancient Greece allowing athletes to travel safely. Today nothing helps us recognise the humanity of people in other countries more than watching the best athletes march in the parade of nations with their flags.