Where did the Olympics come from?

Olympic Flag image from Collins Flags

The Olympics are back! Time once again for athletes from around the world to show us what they’re made of as the best of the best compete for the gold. It’s an epic event that only happens every four years, during which people around the world are watching and cheering on their home country’s team.

But why do we do this? Why do we have an Olympic Games, and why are they only every four years? Where did the Olympics come from?

The answer is a bit more complicated than you might initially think. To understand the Olympics, we have to go back in time to ancient Greece.

The original Olympics

Ancient Greek pottery image by MatthiasKabel

According to tradition, the first Olympic Games were held in Greece in 776 BC. There are multiple legends explaining the origins of the games, all of them based on Greek mythology. What is known is that the games were a very important religious festival for the ancient Greeks, who counted the years in their calendar in relation to the Olympiad, the four-year period between the games. These ancient games were always held in Olympia, a small village that was home to one of the most important temples to Zeus.

During the games, all the city-states of Greece would observe an Olympic Truce, agreeing not to fight any wars with each other during the games so that athletes could safely travel to the games and back. Any Greek man who was not a slave could participate, and everyone from kings to peasants won awards for their athletic achievements. Interestingly, only unmarried women were allowed to watch the event; married women had to stay away. This was probably because ancient Olympian athletes were completely naked.

These ancient games included some sports that are still a part of our modern Olympics today – foot races, jumping competitions, discus throwing, wrestling, and boxing. However, the ancient games also included chariot races, something our modern Olympics don’t have.

These ancient Olympic Games lasted for a thousand years, surviving the conquest of Greece by the Macedonians and then again by the Romans, and they remained a part of Greek culture for generation after generation. There was one thing it would not survive, though: Christianity.

In 312 AD, the Roman emperor Constantine claimed to see a vision just before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge that told him to paint Christian symbols on his soldiers’ shields. After Constantine won the battle, he converted to Christianity. A later emperor, Theodosius I, banned the earlier pagan faiths and ordered all Romans to convert to Christianity. The Olympics, a festival that honored Zeus, not Jesus, were abolished in 393 AD.

That was the end of the story for the Olympics, then, for 15 centuries. That is, until one French baron had an idea.

The Olympics reborn in the modern age

1896 Olympic Games image from Wikipedia

Baron Pierre de Coubertin was a historian in the late 19th century who studied ancient Greece and was passionate about education. He saw both training a strong mind and training a strong body as being necessary for a healthy man, and encouraged schools to adopt the same philosophy.

Coubertin was not the first man to think that some sort of revival of the ancient Olympic games for the modern age would be a good thing. As early as 1850, the small English village of Much Wenlock began organizing the “Wenlock Olympian Games”, an annual competition founded by Dr. William Penny Brookes, a local doctor and lover of all things ancient Greek who wanted to encourage the townsfolk to get more exercise.

Meanwhile, interest in ancient Greek history was also experiencing a major revival in Greece itself, as the nation had just won its independence from the Ottoman Empire. Two wealthy and patriotic, if eccentric, cousins, Evangelos Zappas and Konstantinos Zappas, organized and funded modern recreations of the ancient games in 1859, 1870, and 1875, as a way to celebrate Greek history and culture.

Coubertin was inspired by these earlier competitions, but objected to certain aspects of them. The English were too obsessed with social class, he believed, and he sternly objected to the Zappas family’s refusal to let any non-Greek participate in their games. In Coubertin’s mind, the essence of the ancient Greek Olympics was about building bridges, understanding, and common brotherhood.

In 1892, Coubertin proposed an international competition in keeping with his interpretation of the spirit of the ancient Olympic games. He managed to get a large number of like-minded sports officials from several countries together in Paris in 1894, where they set up the International Olympic Committee. In 1896, the very first of the modern Olympic games were held in the ancient Panathenaic Stadium, a racecourse built in 330 BC in Athens. These games saw 241 athletes from 14 countries participate in 43 events. Four years later, another Olympic Games were organized and held in Paris as part of that year’s World’s Fair.

The unrecognized games that saved the movement

Marathon race finish photo by James Edward Sullivan

It turned out that having the Olympics as a side-show for the World’s Fair was not a good idea. Far more people were interested in the fair itself than in some guys in shorts running. The 1900 Olympics had no opening or closing ceremony of any kind, and the competitions were a mish-mash of whatever sports the organizers could think of from ballooning to motorcycle racing. The 1904 Olympics at the St. Louis World’s Fair was even more embarrassing. That year, only 12 countries participated, and in the majority of the events, only Americans competed. Official “Olympic” events recognized by the IOC were mixed in with competitions crammed in by the Americans. After 1904, it was looking like Coubertin’s dream would be a side-note of history.

Then, in 1906, Athens hosted another “Olympics” at the Panathenaic Stadium. Originally, Coubertin and the IOC planned to host an official Olympics in a different city every four years as well as a secondary competition in Athens in between. The 1906 Athens games, however, proved to be a far bigger and grander event than the official Olympics thus far. Twenty countries sent 854 athletes to compete in 78 events. These were the first games to have an opening ceremony where the athletes paraded with their national flags through the stadium, the first to have a medal awards ceremony that featured the national flags of the winners being raised, and the first to have an Olympic Village for the athletes to stay in during the games.

The 1906 games were a massive success that provided a model for all future Olympics would follow. Yet, ironically, today they are not recognized by the IOC and all the medals and awards given out to its athletes have been scrubbed from Olympic history. The reason? In 1949, a commission examined whether the 1906 games were considered official at the time or not, concluded that they weren’t, and argued that accepting them could set a precedent for anyone to organize their own “Olympics”.

The flag and the torch

Of course, there are two more things we associate with the Olympics that need some explaining: the Olympic flag and the Olympic torch.

The flag was designed by Coubertin in 1912, featuring five colored, interlocking rings on a white background. Blue, yellow, black, green, and red – the colors of the Olympic rings – are also the most common colors you will see on most flags around the world. The rings represent the five continents (Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Australia) while white represents peace.

During every Olympic Games, a flame burns in a massive cauldron over the main stadium, a tradition introduced in the 1928 Amsterdam games in honor of the ancient Greek myth of how Prometheus stole fire from Zeus to give it to humanity. However, it would be the 1936 Olympics in then-Nazi-controlled Berlin that would first light a torch in Olympia and have an international relay of honorary runners carry the flame from Greece to the stadium hosting the games. In spite of its origins, the torch relay was reintroduced for the 1948 London Olympics, and it has been a key component of the build-up to the games ever since.

Enjoy the Olympics in Rio, everyone! I know I will. Good luck, Team USA!

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