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Brief History of the Olympic Games

Ancient Olympic Games
Chronology of athletic events added to the Olympic Games
Myths and  the Olympic Games
Pelops myth
Hercules myth
The Importance of the Olympic Games
The Importance of Ancient Greek Athletics
The Religious Aspects of the Ancient Olympic Games
The Olympic Games and the Greek Calendar
The Sacred Truce
The internationalization of the Olympic Games
Modern Olympic Games
Highlights of Modern Olympic Games
International Olympic Committee
Official Olympic Anthem (Greek & English)
Host Cities of Olympic Games
Sydney Olympic Games of 2000
Athens  Olympic Games of 2004
Beijing  Olympic Games of 2008

Ancient Olympic Games 

The Olympic Games begun at Olympia in Greece in 776 BC. The Greek calendar was based on the Olympiad, the four-year period between games. The games were staged in the wooded valley of Olympia in Elis. Here the Greeks erected statues and built temples in a grove dedicated to Zeus, supreme among the gods. The greatest shrine was an ivory and gold statue of Zeus. Created by the sculptor Phidias, it was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Scholars have speculated that the games in 776 BC were not the first games, but rather the first games held after they were organized into festivals held every four years as a result of a peace agreement between the city-states of Elis and Pisa. The Eleans traced the founding of the Olympic games to their King Iphitos, who was told by the Delphi Oracle to plant the olive tree from which the victors' wreaths were made.

According to Hippias of Elis, who compiled a list of Olympic victors c.400 BC, at first the only Olympic event was a 200-yard dash, called a stadium. This was the only event until 724 BC, when a two-stadia race was added. Two years later the 24-stadia event began, and in 708 the pentathlon was added and wrestling became part of the games. This pentathlon, a five-event match consisted of running, wrestling, leaping, throwing the discus, and hurling the javelin. In time boxing, a chariot race, and other events were included.

The victors of these early games were crowned with wreaths from a sacred olive tree that grew behind the temple of Zeus. According to tradition this tree was planted by Hercules (Heracles), founder of the games. The winners marched around the grove to the accompaniment of a flute while admirers chanted songs written by a prominent poet.

The Olympic Games were held without interruptions in ancient Greece. The games were even held in 480 BC during the Persian Wars, and coincided with the Battle of Thermopylae. Although the Olympic games were never suspended, the games of 364 BC were not considered Olympic since the Arkadians had captured the sanctuary and reorganized the games.

After the Battle of Chaironeia in 338 BC, Philip of Makedon and his son Alexander gained control over the Greek city-states. They erected the Philippeion (a family memorial) in the sanctuary, and held political meetings at Olympia during each Olympiad. In 146 BC, the Romans gained control of Greece and, therefore, of the Olympic games. In 85 BC, the Roman general Sulla plundered the sanctuary to finance his campaign against Mithridates. Sulla also moved the 175th Olympiad (80 BC) to Rome.

The games were held every four years from 776 BC to 393 AD, when they were abolished by the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I. The ancient Olympic Games lasted for 1170 years.

The successful campaign to revive the Olympics was started in France by Baron Pierre de Coubertin late in the 19th century. The first of the modern Summer Games opened on Sunday, March 24, 1896, in Athens, Greece. The first race was won by an American college student named James Connolly.

Chronology of athletic events added to the Olympic Games

According to the tradition of Hippias of Elis ca. 400 BC, the events of the Olympic Games were added to the program in the following order.

 

Year

Olympiad

Event

776 BC

1st Olympiad

Stadium race

724 BC

14th Olympiad

double-stadium race

720 BC

15th Olympiad

long-distance race

708 BC

18th Olympiad

Pentathlon

708 BC

18th Olympiad

Wrestling

688 BC

23rd Olympiad

Boxing

680 BC

25th Olympiad

4-horse chariot race

648 BC

33rd Olympiad

horse race

648 BC

33rd Olympiad

Pankration

520 BC

65th Olympiad

race in armor

408 BC

93rd Olympiad

2-horse chariot race

Myths and the Olympic Games

Pelops myth

There are several Greek myths about how the games were started. The most common myth was the story of the hero Pelops, after whom the Peloponnese is named ("Pelopsí isle"). The story of Pelops was displayed prominently on the east pedimental sculptures of the Temple of Zeus. Pelops was a prince from Lydia in Asia Minor who sought the hand of Hippodamia, the daughter of King Oinomaos of Pisa. Oinomaos challenged his daughter's suitors to a chariot race under the guarantee that any young man who won the chariot race could have Hippodamia as a wife. Any young man who lost the race would be beheaded, and the heads would be used as decoration for the palace of Oinomaos. With the help of his charioteer Myrtilos, Pelops devised a plan to beat Oinomaos in the chariot race. Pelops and Myrtilos secretly replaced the bronze linchpins of the King's chariot with linchpins made of wax. When Oinomaos was about to pass Pelops in the chariot race, the wax melted and Oinomaos was thrown to his death. Pelops married Hippodamia and instituted the Olympic games to celebrate his victory. A different version of the myth refers to the Olympic games as funeral games in the memory of Oinomaos.

Hercules (Herakles) myth

Another myth about the origin of the Olympic Games comes from the Tenth Olympian Ode of the poet Pindar. He tells the story of how Herakles, on his fifth labor, had to clean the stables of King Augeas of Elis. Herakles approached Augeas and promised to clean the stables for the price of one-tenth of the king's cattle. Augeas agreed, and Herakles rerouted the Kladeos and Alpheos rivers to flow through the stables. Augeas did not fulfill his promise, however, and after Herakles had finished his labors he returned to Elis and waged war on Augeas. Herakles sacked the city of Elis and instituted the Olympic Games in honor of his father, Zeus. It is said that Herakles taught men how to wrestle and measured out the stadium, or the length of the footrace.

The Importance of the Olympic Games

The Importance of Ancient Greek Athletics

The ancient Greeks were highly competitive and believed strongly in the concept of "agon", or "competition" or "contest". The ultimate Greek goal was to be the best. All aspects of life, especially athletics, were centered around this concept. It was therefore considered one of the greatest honors to win a victory at Olympia. The fact that the only prize given at Olympia was an olive wreath illustrates this point. The athletes competed for honor, not for material goods.

Athletics were of prime importance to the Greeks. The education of boys concentrated on athletics and music as well as academic subjects such as philosophy. Education took place in the gymnasion and the palaistra as well as the academy.

The Religious Aspects of the Ancient Olympic Games

In ancient Greece, games were closely connected to the worship of the gods and heroes. Games were held as part of religious ceremonies in honor of deceased heroes, a concept displayed in the funeral games for Patroklos in Book 23 of Homer's epic poem, The Iliad. Games were also held in the context of many ancient fertility festivals. The games at Olympia were connected with both the funeral games of Oinomaos, established by Pelops, and a fertility cult involving any number of gods and goddesses who were worshipped at the site. The Olympic games began to be usurped by the prominent cult of Zeus, and eventually lost much of their religious character.

The Olympic Games and the Greek Calendar 

The Greek calendar was based on the conception of the four-year Olympiad. When Greek historians referred to dates, they most often referred to a year (i.e., first, second, third, fourth) within the Olympiad that the event occurred. The winner of the stadium race in a given year had the Olympiad named in honor of him. The first Olympiad is therefore known as that of Koroibos of Elis, the winner of the stadium race in 776 BC.

The Sacred Truce 

The sacred truce was instituted during the month of the Olympiad. Messengers known as "spondorophoroi" carried the word of the truce and announced the date of the games all over the Greek world. The truce called for a cessation of all hostilities for a period of one month (later three months) to allow for the safe travel of athletes to and from Olympia. Armies and armed individuals were barred from entering the sanctuary. In addition, no death penalties could be carried out during the period of the truce.

The Internationalization of the Olympic Games 

From the beginning, the games at Olympia served as a bond between Greeks and strengthened the Greek sense of national unity. During the Hellenistic period, Greeks who came to live in foreign surroundings such as Syria, Asia, and Egypt, strove to hold on to their culture. One of the ways to achieve this was to build athletic facilities and continue their athletic traditions. They organized competitions, and sent competitors from their towns to compete in the Panhellenic games.

In the 2nd century A.D., Roman citizenship was extended to everyone within the Roman empire. From then on, the participation of many competitors from outside of Greece in the Olympic games, gave them to a degree, international nature.

When the Greek government reinstated the games in 1896, this international character of the competitions was preserved by Baron de Coubertin. Now, 16 centuries later, the Olympic games attract competitors from countries all over the world.

Modern Olympic Games 

The best amateur athletes in the world match skill and endurance in a series of contests called the Olympic Games. Almost every nation sends teams of selected athletes to take part. The purposes of the Olympic Games are to foster the ideal of a "sound mind in a sound body" and to promote friendship among nations.

The modern Olympic Games are named for athletic contests held in ancient Greece for almost 12 centuries. They were banned in AD 394 but were revived and made international in 1896. The Winter Games were added in 1924. World War I and World War II forced cancellation of the Olympics in 1916, 1940, and 1944, but they resumed in 1948 and are held every four years. After 1992 the Winter and Summer Games were no longer held within the same calendar year. Winter Games were scheduled for 1994, after only a two-year interval, and every four years thereafter. The Summer Games were scheduled for 1996, and every four years thereafter.

Summer and Winter Sports 

Summer sports include archery, basketball, boxing, canoeing, cycling, equestrian events (horseback riding), fencing, field hockey, gymnastics, handball, judo, rowing, shooting, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field, volleyball, water polo, weight lifting, wrestling, and yachting. Winter events include skating, skiing, bobsledding, luge, tobogganing, ice hockey, and the biathlon (skiing-shooting).

The most exacting track and field event is the decathlon (from the Greek words deka, meaning "ten," and athlon, "contest"). Contestants compete in ten different running, jumping, and throwing events. The athlete scoring the greatest total number of points is the winner. The pentathlon, consisting of five such events, was discontinued after 1924. It was restored in the 1948 games as the modern pentathlon, based upon five military skills--fencing, riding, running, shooting, and swimming. The marathon race, covering 26 miles 385 yards, honors the ancient Greek runner Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory against the Persians.

Women take part in separate summer and winter events. Ten new women's summer competitions added in 1984 included the marathon and a 49-mile cycling event. The pentathlon, introduced in 1964, was replaced by the heptathlon, which consists of 100-meter hurdles, shot put, high jump, long jump, javelin throw, and 200- and 800-meter races. Additional events for women in the 1992 Winter and Summer Games included the biathlon, 10-kilometer walk, baseball, and judo.

Highlights of the Modern Games 

One of the most dramatic feats of the Olympics was the triumph of the United States track and field team in 1896. Competing as unofficial representatives, the ten-man squad reached Athens barely in time to participate. They won nine out of 12 events.

In 1912 Jim Thorpe, a Native American, became the only man to win both the decathlon and pentathlon in one year. Officials canceled his record and took back his medals when they learned that he had played professional baseball. His medals were restored posthumously in 1982. In track and field, Jesse Owens, a black American, won four gold medals including a team medal in 1936. The first woman to win three individual gold medals was Fanny Blankers-Koen of The Netherlands. The first athletes to win the decathlon twice were Bob Mathias of the United States, in 1948 and 1952, and Daley Thompson of Great Britain, in 1980 and 1984. The first perfect 10.0 in Olympic gymnastics was scored by Nadia Comaneci of Romania, who received seven perfect scores and three gold medals in 1976.

In the 1964 Winter Games the Soviet speed skater Lidya Skoblikova was the first athlete to win four individual gold medals. Her feat was duplicated in the 1968 Summer Games by the Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska.

In 1972 the United States swimmer Mark Spitz won a record seven gold medals at a single Olympics. Swimmers John Naber of the United States and Kornelia Ender of East Germany each won four gold medals in the Summer Games in 1976.

The all-time individual medal winner was the American track athlete Ray C. Ewry, who won eight events in the 1900, 1904, and 1908 Games.

The 1972 Summer Games in Munich, West Germany, became a tragedy when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Olympic team members from Israel. In a protest against a New Zealand rugby tour of South Africa about 30 African nations boycotted the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, Que. To protest the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan more than 60 countries, led by the United States, withdrew from the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. The Soviet Union, which first participated in 1952, withdrew from the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Scandals rocked the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. Ten athletes were disqualified after drug tests revealed steroid abuse. Charges of bias and incompetence in the officiating at the boxing events led to two-year suspensions for five Korean boxers and officials and several other judges and referees.

The 1992 games were unusual in that there were no more Soviet teams; the Soviet Union had split up in December 1991. The teams that participated from its former republics, sometimes still wearing the old Soviet uniforms, represented either now-independent Baltic states or the Commonwealth of Independent States, which had been formed from 11 of the former Soviet republics. Nevertheless, at the Winter Games in Albertville the Commonwealth's United Team came in second, after Germany, in number of medals won.

In the 1896 Olympic Games there were fewer than 500 athletes representing 13 nations. In 1988 the Seoul games drew entries from a record total of 160 countries. While the number of athletes who competed in Los Angeles did not surpass the high of 10,000 set at Munich in 1972, the 1984 games set records for the largest total attendance--almost 5.8 million people--and the most gold medals for one country--83 for the United States.

The centennial Olympic Games opened in Atlanta, Ga., with more than 10,000 athletes from a record 197 nations in attendance. The opening ceremonies, which began 16 days of athletic competition, featured a tribute to the ancient Greek games and slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Former world heavyweight boxing champion and Olympic gold medalist Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic torch, which completed a 84-day, 15,000-mile (24,000-kilometer) trek across the United States. The games featured 28 delegations that were participating for the first time, including athletes from the Czech Republic, FYROM, and Burundi, and Palestinians competing under the name Palestine. Tight security and Atlanta's hot and humid August weather were major concerns for Olympic organizers and those attending the games. In spite of security precautions, a homemade pipe bomb loaded with nails and screws exploded at a late-night concert in Centennial Olympic Park, killing one person and wounding more than 100 others. In addition, a Turkish television cameraman died of a heart attack while running to film the blast. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.

International Olympic Committee 

The development and governance of the modern games are vested in the International Olympic Committee (IOC), founded in Paris in 1894. Its headquarters are in Lausanne, Switzerland. The original committee had 14 members; today there are about 70. These individuals are considered ambassadors from the committee to their national sports organizations and are dedicated to promoting amateur athletics. Normally there is only one member from each country. Presidents of the IOC are elected for an eight-year term and eligible for succeeding four-year terms.

Each country sending teams to the games must have its own National Olympic Committee. By 1988 there were 167 such committees. One responsibility of a national committee is arranging for its team's participation in the games, providing equipment, and getting the team to the game site and into specially arranged housing.

Official Olympic Anthem (Greek & English)

The Olympic Hymn (given below in Greek and English) was written by Costis Palamas, one of Greece's most famous poets, in 1893 and was set to music by Spiros Samaras in 1896. The Hymn was adopted as the Official Olympic Hymn by the International Olympic Committee in 1957.

Greek

Αρχαίο Πνεύμ' αθάνατον, αγνέ πατέρα
του ωραίου, του μεγάλου και τ' αληθινού,
κατέβα, φανερώσου κι άστραψ' εδώ πέρα
στη δόξα της δικής σου γης και τ' ουρανού.

Στο δρόμο και στο πάλεμα και στο λιθάρι,
στων ευγενών Αγώνων λάμψε την ορμή,
και με τ' αμάραντο στεφάνωσε κλωνάρι
και σιδερένιο πλάσε κι άξιο το κορμί.

Κάμποι, βουνά και πέλαγα φέγγουν μαζί σου
σαν ένας λευκοπόρφυρος μέγας ναός,
και τρέχει στο ναό εδώ προσκυνητής σου.
Αρχαίο Πνεύμ' αθάνατο, κάθε λαός.

Κωστής Παλαμάς (1859-1942)

 

English Translation

Ancient immortal spirit, pure father
Of the beautiful, the great and the true,
Descend, appear, and emblaze this place
With the glory of your own earth and sky.

In the race, the grappling, and the toss,
Kindle the impulse in all noble contests,
Crown with the perennial wreath,
And fashion the steely and worthy body.

Plains, mountains, and seas glow in your presence
Like some great clear porphyrous shrine,
And every nation hurries here to your temple
In supplication, ancient immortal spirit.

Costis Palamas (1859-1942)

Translation by: Sotiris Sotiropoulos, 
Canada ©2001

Host cities of Olympic Games

Since their resumption in their modern form in 1896 in Athens, the Olympic Games took place in the following cities:

1896
1900
1904
1908
1912
1916
1920
1924
1928
1932
1936
1940
1944
1948
Athens
Paris
Saint Louis
London
Stockholm
Cancelled (was due in Berlin)
Antwerp (Belgium)
Paris
Amsterdam
Los Angeles
Berlin
Cancelled (was due in Tokyo)
Cancelled (was due in Helsinki)
London 
1952
1956
1960
1964
1968
1972
1976
1980
1984
1988
1992
1996
2000
2004
2008
Helsinki
Melbourne
Rome
Tokyo
Mexico City
Munich
Montreal
Moscow
Los Angeles
Seoul
Barcelona
Atlanta
Sydney
Athens
Beiging

Sydney Olympic Games of 2000

Athens  Olympic Games of 2004 

Beijing  Olympic Games of 2008

London Olympic Games for 2012


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