The Olympic Games have become the pinnacle of sport. The Olympic Rings are one of the most commonly known logos in the entire world and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has become one of the most powerful sports (and political) organizations in the world. The Games are one of the biggest cultural accomplishments of modern history due to the amount of money that is spent every 2 years on building infrastructure and preparing the host country’s to be able to host the sporting events, and due to the fact that every 2 years, there is thousands and thousands of people moving around the world to either participate in the Games, be spectators, work at the Games, or even just to watch on television in different locations rather than their house. With the Tokyo Olympics beginning this week, let’s take a look back at the history of the most famous sporting event in the world, the Olympic Games.
The Early Olympics
The Olympic Games go back close to 3,000 years ago to Ancient Greece. According to written records, the first recorded Olympic Games can be dated back to 776 B.C., but there is a possibility that the Games go back even further than Ancient Greece as the 776 B.C was the first written record of the Games. There are beliefs that the Roman Hercules, son of Zeus, and mortal woman, Alcmene, founded the Olympic Games as a Greek sporting festival.
During the 776 B.C Games, a cook named Coroebus won the only event at that specific games, the 192 meter foot race. The ‘foot race’ was called the ‘strade’. The ‘strade’ has become the origin of the modern name of ‘stadium’.
Just like the modern Olympic Games, the ancient Olympics were held every four years, between August 6th and September 19. The Games took place during the quad-annual religious festival that was created to honor Zeus. The Games typically were held at Olympia in Greece. Olympia in Greece is a site near the Peloponnese peninsula which is located on the western coast of Southern Greece.
As they are today, the Olympic Games were a huge event, especially in Ancient Greece. The Games not only were a celebration of athletic ability and a religious celebration, they were also the marking of a new increment of time. Obviously, back in 776 B.C. and prior, written records would be hard to come by. Therefore, modern-day historians, who have researched Ancient Greece’s society, have begun judging time by when the Olympic Games took place, instead of counting every, individual year that occurred between the Games. Historians refer to these 4-year increments as ‘Olympiads’, a term that is still used today in 2021 to refer to the Olympic Games.
The Decline of the Ancient Olympics
Despite 13 successful Olympiads and more events being added to the lineup every Olympiad, the Olympiads suffered during the mid-2nd century B.C. In the middle of the 2nd century B.C.,the Roman Empire that was in control conquered Greece, aka the birthplace of the Games. With their being a new ruler in control, life changed drastically. The Olympiads still took place after Greece was conquered but the standards and practices that the Games typically had were declining. There began to be more cheating, less fair play and more chaos surrounding the Games. Competitors who were competing in the events became less and less concerned about playing fairly, respecting their opponents, and became more concerned about winning. Their concern with winning became so intense that they would declare themselves the winner of the event even if they fell or drastically lost. You can ask Emperor Nero, competitor in the Olympic chariot race, about how he cheated himself into a gold medal finish at A.D. 67 Games.
With the Olympics being created and established to represent the best in sport, these cheating and lying scandals created a bad name for the Olympiads. Obviously, the Roman Empire did not want their controlled area to look bad and contradict their beliefs, the demise of the Olympiads was on its way.
Eventually, that idea did come true. In A.D. 393, Emperor Theodosius I (now known as Theodosius the Great), who was a Christian and was vigorously against any sign of paganism, called a ban on all “pagan” festivals. The Olympiads, which as you will remember were established in 776 B.C. as a religious festival that was used to honour Hercules, were a direct form of paganism and were therefore cancelled by Emperor Theodosius I.
The Games are Back
The Olympic Games took a rather large break before returning. It was over 1,500 years until the Games would even be considered as something that could work in modern-day society. The modern-day Olympic Games have Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat, to thank for bringing the Olympic Games back to life.
Pierre de Coubertin was a French aristocrat who was concerned with physical education and military preparedness. He believed that males were becoming ‘too weak’ and were not strong like they were back in Ancient Greece because there were not as many men working physically demanding jobs as they were in the past because society and technology was evolving.. As society evolved and there were rumblings that a war would be coming, aristocrats like de Coubertin began to worry. He was worried that if a war broke out, the French men would not be ready to fight and would eventually lose the war due to their inability to ‘be strong and physically active’.
Pierre de Coubertin was focused on physical education and promoted amateur sports to grow and instill valuable skills in young boys and men in France. However, instead of just focusing his efforts in Europe, de Coubertin brought his belief of physical education and fitness around the world, but specifically to the Union des Sports Athletiques in Paris in 1892.
After visiting the site of an ancient Olympic stadium, Pierre de Coubertin got the idea to revive the Olympiads and create a modern Olympic Games. In November of 1892, he proposed the idea of reviving Ancient Greece’s Olympiads. De Coubertin proposed that the Games would take place every four years and feature countries from all across the world and would be governed by an overarching governing body; hence the IOC is born. In 1894, the International Olympic Committee was founded and the first Olympic Games was being planned.
The First Modern Olympic Games
The first modern-day Olympic Games was held in Athens, Greece in 1896. The Games was held in Athens to represent and pay tribute to the ancient Olympiads that the new modern-day Games were attempting to replicate. There were 13 participating countries that competed in Athens in 1896. There were 280 participants from 13 countries, all of the athletes were male, who participated in 43 events. Some of the events included track and field, gymnastics, swimming, shooting, fencing, and cycling.
Despite the best efforts of the IOC, the participating countries came to win and would not have accepted a loss to a smaller, weaker country. Countries, like the United States and Britain, made sure they had their say in how the Games would run in order for them to be able to produce winners and not to embarrass themselves.
The participating countries saw the Games as a perfect opportunity to promote their country on the world stage. The countries realized that there was no other opportunity for them to showcase their country in a magnitude that the whole world would see. Countries pulled out all the stops by sending their best athletes in hope for them to medal and win for their country because they knew that if the world saw that they had athletes who were physically fit and ‘at the best of their game’, other countries would realize that they were not joking when they exercised their military ability.
The 1886 Athens Games were successful and began the storied line of modern-day Olympics Games. Despite there being times when the Games were cancelled, for example, during World War I and II, the Games have become an international sporting tradition. Every 4 years with a Winter Olympics in between, the Summer Olympics take place with a record number of athletes and provide the world with 2 weeks of pure athletic entertainment.
When the Tokyo Olympics begin, these games will be yet another installment of the greatest celebration of sports known to man. While Pierre de Coubertin or Hercules never would have imagined a Olympic Games to be taken place in the middle of a global pandemic or in the middle of a state emergency in the host country, you can’t help but think how proud they would be of what the Olympic Games have become and what they will continue to become in the future.