The ancient Greeks regarded the Olympic Games as the most important of their festivals. Starting in 776 BC, the Games honoured Zeus, King of the Gods, and were believed to have been instituted by his son Hercules.
Ancient Greece consisted of independent city-states that frequently warred with one another, and the Games served to train young men for military service. However, the Games were also designed as a moment of unity and, every four years, a special truce allowed athletes to travel across Greece to Olympia to perform.
The ancient contests included many of the same modern events such as running, jumping, wrestling, boxing, discus or javelin, but also the insanely dangerous chariot race and the immensely violent pankration – a ‘no holds barred’ mixture of wrestling and boxing. Only the winners were celebrated in these contests – the Greeks had no interest in those who came second or third. The first prize itself was a simple garland of olive leaves, but victors were celebrated in their home towns with choirs and dinners.
The festival was also furnished with sacrifices and processions, speeches by public figures, displays of music and poetry – and by the buzz of traders, hucksters and showmen. Despite the Romans invading Greece in 136 BC, the Games continued until they were closed down at the end of the Roman era, around AD 393, by Christian rulers.
The Olympics were resurrected in 1896 by a visionary and obsessive French aristocrat, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Previously, there had only been a few modern Olympic Games in Greece, and in Britain the Cotswold ‘Olympick Games’ beginning in 1612, and the Much Wenlock ‘Olympian Games’, held since 1850. Coubertin was the first to host Games on an international scale, and to move them to a different city each time.
De Coubertin’s Olympics were also the first in modern times to adorn the Games with music, art and pageantry, which have helped to make the Games the foremost global media event that it is today. Like many nineteenth century intellectuals, De Coubertin idealised ancient Greece and thought that the modern Olympics would help to foster ideals of pure sportsmanship and international brotherhood.
In fact, the ancient Olympics were marked by sporting scandals just as the modern ones have been. Infusions of money, and especially power, have brought about a new set of problems for the modern Games, however, as seen with the Nazi Games of 1936, the terrorist attack in Munich 1972, conflicts over apartheid in the 70s, and the superpower boycotts of the 80s.
Other major changes since the ancient Olympics have been the inclusion of women, who were banned from competing until the modern Games, and the introduction of the Paralympics. The Olympic torch relay, which starts every four years in Olympia and proceeds to the host city in time for the start of the Games, is also a modern event. Although this appears as a historical ritual – particularly with the priestesses lighting the flame at Olympia – it was actually devised for the 1936 Berlin Games.
Whatever London 2012 brings to the history of the Olympic Games, the torch relay will trigger a host of stories, old and new.
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Barbara Goff is professor of classics at the University of Reading. Michael Simpson is senior lecturer in English and comparative literature at Goldsmiths, University of London. Together they have edited Thinking the Olympics: the classical tradition and the modern Games (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011), which investigates the continuities between the ancient and the modern Games.
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