It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of modern-day Olympics. With so much drama, so much romance, so much pizzazz, it is hard to imagine this world-wide spectacle being anything less than perfect. But you don’t have to dig too deeply to discover a humble and oft-times peculiar origin. Truly, it has taken several decades of Hollywood magic to produce the polished sports event we take for granted today.
According to Roman legend, the original Olympic Games were founded by none other than Heracles, the super human son of Zeus, no doubt as an opportunity to demonstrate his god like strength in front of the ladies. An alternative legend tells the story of Pelops, a Greek romantic, and father of the Olympics. In a desperate attempt to win the hand of his bride, Hippodamia, Pelops challenged her father, the King of Pisa, to a chariot race. To give himself the edge, Pelops replaced the king’s linchpin with one made of wax, which melted during the race, throwing the king from his chariot and killing him. Upon winning the race, the girl, and the entire empire, Pelops declared this the first Olympic Games – forever instilling the qualities of cheating and deception upon the games.
The ancient Olympics had their own version of celebrity appearances, including Homer, Socrates, Aristotle and Hippocrates. Even Plato got in on the games, winning not one but two gold medals in the pankration event.
The original “games” really only entailed one game, a 192 meter dash known as “the stade” – which was run entirely in the nude (once again giving Heracles an excuse to strut his stuff). In fact, the word “gymnasium” comes from the Greek “gymnos”, which literally means “school for naked exercise”. Later additions to the Olympics included boxing, jumping, discus and javelin, which gladly did include clothing. The surprising exception to this events list is the marathon race. This famous run, including the torch, were never part of ancient Olympics, and were not added to the venue until over 1500 years later.
The ancient games lasted nearly 1200 years, from at least 776 BC to 393 AD, when the Roman emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, abolished the games because he felt they were pagan and evil. And so the Olympic Games slept for over a thousand years until 1892, when a young Frenchman named Pierre de Coubertin proposed the idea at a meeting of the Union des Sports Athletiques in Paris. His pitch failed miserably. But ever the optimist, Pierre tried again two years later, this time in front a meeting of 79 delegates representing 9 countries. The delegates voted unanimously in favor of the revitalization, and so, in 1896 in the city of Athens, the Olympics were reborn.
The 1896 games were a disaster. As the games were poorly publicized, they never received the international support needed. Contestants were not backed by their respective countries, and in fact were forced to travel to Greece at their own expense. Several of the contestants were tourists who just happened to be in Greece on holiday.
Due to poor planning, the 1896 games was held in very cold weather, though it consisted entirely of “summer” events. In her book First to the Wall, 100 Years of Olympic Swimming, Kelly Gonsalves describes the first swimming event: “Not only did they battle 12-foot waves, but the weather in Greece was unusually cold and the water was a frigid 55 degrees Fahrenheit.” The book goes on to tell the story of Garner Williams, an American Swimmer, who despite spending a fortune to train and travel to the Olympics, jumped out of the water after only a few moments into the race yelling “I’m freezing”.
Other athletes also had difficult experiences at the Olympic games. After traveling on foot from Rome to Athens, a one month journey, the Italian athlete Carlo Airoldi was banned from the games because he was a professional. As the book The Olympic’s Strangest Moments describes, Dorando Pietri was denied his marathon gold because an over-anxious official helped him cross the finish line.
The Olympics are typically thought of as an event of world unity, though history would have something else to say. The official Olympic flag, designed in 1914 by Pierre de Coubertin, contains five interconnected rings, the symbolize the “five significant continents of the world”, leaving Africa completely off the map. 1936 brought the games to pre-war Germany, an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of the “Aryan” race, or so thought Adolf Hitler, who campaigned heavily to secure the games. Of course, many will remember Jesse Owens, the African American runner who proudly taught the Germans a thing or two. The win of Luxembourg’s Josef Barthel in 1952 was met with an embarrassed silence. As no one expected a Luxembourg athlete to win, the orchestra at the medals ceremony was without the score to Luxenbourg’s national anthem.
Over the years, several attempts have been made to improve the Olympics. Both motor-boat racing, and bicycle polo were introduced, and later removed from the games. Hollywood was literally brought in to add some pizzazz in the 1960 Winter Games. Walt Disney was elected head of the organizing committee over opening ceremonies, which included special effects, ice statues, and the releasing of 2,000 white doves.
Scams, politics, wins and heartbreaks: these words apply equally as well to the modern day Olympics as to ancient. If the Olympic games have taught us anything, it’s that society never changes, even after thousands of years. If Pelops could visit our games today, while he might be impressed with our bright fireworks and Hollywood illusions, I think he would feel quite at home with the true game on display: human nature.