The Origins of the Olympic Games

Legend dictates that the games of the Olympiad owed their origin to the Theban hero Heracles who staged them to honour his grandfather Pelops.

It was said of Heracles that while engaged in his 12 labours he brought back a twig of wild olive from the legendary land of Hyperboreans and planted it in Olympia. This was the tree whose branches served to crown the victors. If we look for more practical explanations, the Olympic Games more likely derived from funeral games held in honour of fallen heroes, like the one Achilles held for his friend Patroclus in Homer’s Iliad.

While the games always carried a sacred aspect, held on the open plains of Elis, surrounded by magnificent groves of gleaming, silver-grey olive trees, they also displayed that most Greek of contributions to our civilization: individualism. Greeks respected and feared the gods, but the honour of victory was their own. And the only honour was in victory. Not for the Greeks “as long as we play the game.” Defeat brought shame and competitors prayed for “either the wreath or death.”

The need for military skill culminated in the idea of aretē, manly virtue, “always to be the first and to inspire others.” It was this idea that sports could be highly valuable in educating the perfect individual that so inspired the modern Olympic movement in the late 19th century.

By 776 B.C. the Olympic Games had evolved into a means to bring together all the Hellenes in a peaceful contest. The festival was celebrated every four years in accordance with the Greek calendar, timed so that the central day co-incided with the second or third full moon after the summer solstice.

Each Olympic year, heralds passed through the city states bringing invitations and proclaiming a sacred truce, called ekecheiria. “Any freeborn Greek who has committed no deed of violence and has not invited the wrath of the gods” was eligible. All Greeks were guaranteed safe-conduct and violations were severely punished.  Even Philip II of Macedon was force to pay when one of his mercenaries robbed an Athenian on his way to the Games.

The discus thrower is the most famous image from the ancient Olympic Games. This is a Roman copy of the original Greek, which was likely in bronze.

The first accounts reveal that at the 776 B.C. Games there was only one event, the foot race, a roughly 200 metre sprint to the altar of Zeus. Wrestling was added as early as 708 B.C., boxing in 688 B.C., Pancratium (no-holds-barred combination of boxing and wrestling) and Pentathlon by 708 B.C. The latter comprised running, jumping, javelin throw, discus and wrestling. Chariot racing was the most aristocratic event, for the owner of the horses received the laurel, not the driver.

Tribute was paid to the victors in a closing ceremony. Each was crowned with a wreath of wild olive.

The Games reached their highest point during the Persian Wars from 500 to 440 B.C. At the very moment that the Spartans put up their heroic and tragic defence at Thermopylae, the Greeks were celebrating their 75th Games!

The Games changed with the ages. When the Peloponnesian Wars (431 to 404 B.C.) brought Greece to the brink of ruin, the sacred site of Olympia was overrun by first the Spartans and then the Arcadians. The Hellenic  period (338 to 146 B.C.), when Greece was conquered by the Macedonians, saw a serious decline in the games as organizers introduced more and more events to satisfy spectator lust.

When Rome robbed Greece of its independence in 146 B.C. the games lost their Pan Hellenic character completely and took on the aspect of a circus. The last Games were held in A.D. 393. What was left of Olympia collapsed in the great earthquakes of A.D. 522 and 551.

The Olympic Games had their critics, even in antiquity. Diogenes the cynic dismissed an athlete who boasted that he was the fastest runner in all of Greece. “But not faster than a rabbit or a deer,” replied Diogenes, “and they, the fastest of animals, are also the most cowardly.” Aesop asked a boastful wrestler “what have you earned if you beat a weaker man?” Not that the critics had much effect. Crowds continued to pour in and athletes continued to boast.

The modern Olympic Games were the brain child of a French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Saddened by the low morale of the French since their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, he resolved to revive the Games to inspire competitiveness and “team spirit” unknown in the modern world. For years the Olympic Movement was dogged by its misinterpretation of the nature of Greek athletes. The idea of a “true amateur” never existed in antiquity, though the Games were likely as free from the vices of bribery and corruption as any human enterprise can be. They were certainly free of the rampant commercialism and cheating with drugs that inflicts sports today. The answers to these problems will not be found in the Peloponnesus, but in our own resolve.

The reason why we attach such great importance to athletics and to the Olympic Games was as well described as it could be by Lucian in the second century A.D. It lays, he wrote, in the extraordinary pleasure of “feasting your eyes on the prowess and stamina of the athletes, the beauty and power of their bodies, the incredible dexterity and skill, their invincible strength, their courage, ambition, endurance and tenacity.”

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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