How many attended the first official Olympic Games way back in 776 BCE? Sadly, they didn’t have TV or broadband in those days but I’m sure the games were extremely popular, as, judging by their architecture, the Greeks knew how to do things in style!
Originally, the games were held in honour of the gods; the most famous of them, at Olympia, being consecrated to Zeus, as were the Nemean Games – while Poseidon got his share of the kudos from the Isthmian Games near Corinth. Delphi also cottoned onto this great way to attract the crowds, staging their own events at Pythia.
Starting in Olympia with a single foot race, the Ancient Greeks went onto widen their programme of events to include wrestling, boxing, discus and javelin throwing, running and chariot racing. (How this latter event compares to modern cycling is open to debate but I’m sure bikes are a whole lot safer to steer!) Anyone competing in the Games had to take a vow, committing themselves to a stringent ten-month period of training, supervised by the judges who lived alongside the contestants. To qualify for an event, participants spent years developing their abilities under extremely harsh conditions. Runners had to train with weights on their feet, and boxers sparred with each other in cumbersome uniforms – all for a fleeting moment of glory and a garland of leaves – wild olive leaves at the Olympian Games, wild celery at the Nemean arena, pine leaves at the Isthmian Games and laurel leaves at the Pythian Games. These treasured trophies were sometimes held on display next to the finishing line so that runners would be spurred on by keeping their eyes on the prize.
Short-lived maybe, but the spoils of victory were enjoyable while they lasted. Winners were idolised, praised, showered with gifts and invited to all the best places – not unlike today. And, in Corinth, triumphant athletes received a pension for life, which is more than can be said for many people today.
When the Greek empire went into decline, so did the Games, for the next world power, Rome, had little respect for athletes – at least until Nero took to the stage. Being rather a vain chap, Nero not only presided over the Games in 67 CE but entered every event – which, of course, he won! Well, would YOU have dared pip him at the post? The Olympics never felt the same after that for some reason and by 400 CE were no longer held....that is, until centuries later when a team of German archaeologists found traces of the original games on the Olympian plain. Excited by the find, a young French baron, Pierre de Coubertin, suggested holding a modern version of the games in 1896, heralding a new era for this supreme physical contest which has taken place every 4 years ever since.
In reviving the Olympics, it was Coubertin’s dream to promote a noble spirit, claiming: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part . . . The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
He believed fervently in the Olympic ‘ideal’ – a competition to foster good conduct, character and judgement and to encourage nations to live peaceably. Sadly, this last hope perished with the advent of global conflict and, during World War II, the Olympics were abandoned altogether.
The five Olympic rings – linked to symbolise friendship, represent the five continents - Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and North and South America.
The lighting of the Olympic flame was originally a religious dedication to Zeus before the Games began. As in ancient times, the modern torch is lit at Olympia by the sun’s rays, then passed from one runner to another until it reaches the site where the games are to be held.
The Olympics have a motto: “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, which is Latin for “Faster, Higher, Braver”, although nowadays it’s translated as “Swifter, Higher, Stronger”.
Although the first games were recorded in 776 BCE, many believe they actually began more than 5 centuries earlier.