The Ancient Olympic Games

The Olympics of today have a very ancient history. Indeed, they date back centuries into the realm of the Greek World, when it was at its apex in the history of civilization. The origin of the ‘Olympic Games’ as we know them today, has been historically dated to 776BC, when they were introduced by King Ipheteus of Elis in order to fulfill the prophecy of the Delphi Oracle. The priestess at the sacred sanctuary had entrusted him to bring peace into the Greek world, which was divided by a series of internal conflicts in the various city-states. Thus by setting up of a ‘Sacred Truce’, all wars were temporally stopped and the Greek citizens from all over Greece were invited to join and participate in the Olympic Games. These Games were held in Olympia, south west of Mount Olympus. They were set up as a religious, sporting and cultural festival, staged to honour the supreme Greek god Zeus, who lived atop the Mount of Olympus, and this is how the games derived their name.

Fundamental to the Greek culture of the time was the belief in the ‘marriage of body and mind’ as being the perfect way to honour their gods. For them, the concept of “agon”, of being competitive, was fundamental to their very being. Indeed their quest was for being the best in all aspects of life. To this end, athletics, music and the academics (philosophy and literature) formed the basis of the education of all Greek youth.

Due to this cultural system, the Olympic Games were not comprised solely of a sports festival, but they were also an opportunity to honour Zeus and the other Greek gods through the recital of literature and crafting of sculpture. The games were held every four years, a period of time, which is called an “Olympiad”.

During the month prior to the games peace reigned throughout the Greek world, so as to allow the athletes to travel from their hometowns to Olympia in safety. The site of the Olympic Games comprised the stadium, temples and gymnasiums. The major sanctuary, the Temple of Zeus, was the most impressive building. Legend has it that this temple housed a huge ivory and gold statue of Zeus, which was around 11m high.

At first the games lasted for one day. After Zeus was honoured and all athletes publicly declared that they would compete in honour and fairness, the games began. The first Ancient Olympic Games consisted of a single event, the “stade race”, with the athletes having to run the length of the stadium.

The winners gave public thanks to Zeus, and were awarded a wreath of leaves, which was placed on their head. A statue in their honour was then sculpted and housed in the Temple of Zeus.

The athletes were held in very high prestige, and were welcomed home with great honour. The “stade race” was the only event up until the 13th Olympiad. Later, more events were added – the “double stade”, the long distance, the pentathlon, boxing, wrestling, horse racing and the pankration (a combination of wrestling and boxing). The duration of these games thus evolved into a 5-day festival. Throughout the years however, the games began to lose their original values and ideal of honourable competition. When money was included in the prize, there was violence and cheating amongst the athletes and bribery amongst the judges. The games had become corrupt and vile, and the Christian Emperor Theodosius II in 394AD finally banned them. He put a stop to the games, as he deemed them a pagan festival and ordered that the site and temple be burned to the ground. Thus Olympia became deserted. A terrible earthquake in the 6th Century AD destroyed it completely. This is how Olympia and the Ancient Olympic Games disappeared from the face of the earth.

Interesting points about the Ancient Olympic Games:

  1. Only Greek citizens were allowed to compete. Non-Greeks were allowed to be spectators. Slaves were not allowed to watch the games.
  2. Athletes competed naked.
  3. The only woman present during the games was the priestess and her virgin helper.
  4. Other women were forbidden to watch the games. Not only were they not allowed to compete but neither could they attend the games as spectators. This applied to wives and mothers of the competitors. Yet strangely enough there was one woman who was an Olympic victor twice. This was because for the Chariot races, it was the owner of the horse that was declared the winner, and not the charioteer. There were two successive Olympiads where the horse of the same rich Greek woman won the race.
  5. Each Olympiad took the name of the winner of the “stade-race”. For example the Olympiad following the 776BC games, the first Olympiad, became know as the Koroibos Olympiad, as the winner was a Greek man names Koriobos of Elis.
  6. The games were such an important constant in the lives of the Greeks that significant events were recorded and re-organised so to reflect the Olympiad during which they occurred. For example the Battle of Thermopylae is recorded as having occurred during the first year of the 75th Olympiad – this would thus be calculated to be in 480BC.

The Modern Olympic Games

Luckily the memory and ideals of the Greek Olympic Games did not crumble with the ruins of Olympia. In the 19th century a team of archaeologists began excavating the site of the temple, and eventually most of the Olympia complex was uncovered. With the growing interest in sport of all kinds in the 19th century, it was not surprising that the ideals of the Greek Olympics were revived.

Pierre de Coubertin and the Olympic Movement

The man who brought the games back to life was a French educator names Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He was born in Paris in 1863 and as an active sportsman himself; he was interested in reforming the French education system to include a more sports oriented curriculum. These reforms were influenced mainly by the already existing system in the English public schools. Through his numerous trips to England between the 1880’s and the 1890’s, de Coubertin met Dr. William Penny Brookes who was the founder of the Wenlock Games. Brookes had a keen interest in the values of a healthy body and a healthy mind. It is through his influence that Coubertin wanted to realize this great dream of the revival of the Modern Olympic Games.

After many battles with his family and the French government in 1894, de Coubertin held an international conference in Paris to discuss the idea of these Games. Twelve countries attended and 21 others sent a letter supporting this idea. At the conference held on the 23rd June 1894, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was formed. It was agreed that there would be an international sports competition held every four years.

Through these Games, de Coubertin believed that international competitions between amateur athletes would help achieve:

  1. Personal excellence,
  2. Mass participation,
  3. Fair play,
  4. Cultural exchange,
  5. International understanding, and
  6. Sports as a means of education.

The modern Olympics are held in the first year of an Olympiad and cannot be postponed. The first modern Olympics were held in Athens in 1896 and since then they were held every four years except in 1916, 1940 and 1944 because of the first and second world wars.

The Olympic Winter Games began in 1924 and have been held every four years ever since. Up to 1992 they were held in the same year of the Summer Olympics but in 1986 the IOC decided to hold the Winter Games every other two years with the result that in 1994, two years after Albertville, the Games of Lillehammer were held. Thus a new cycle of games had started.

The Olympic Symbols


Olympic Rings

The Olympic Symbol comprises five interconnected rings with three on the top and two at the bottom. Each ring is of a different colour: blue, black, red, yellow and green. At least one of the six colours, including the white background, appears in the flag of each participating nation. De Coubertin himself in 1913 designed this emblem. The five rings represent the fact that at least one of the colours is found in all the national flag of the world.

Olympic Flag

The Olympic flag has as its symbol the rings on a white background. De Coubertin introduced the flag in Paris in 1914. It flew over the Olympic Stadium for the first time in Antwerp 1920.

The Olympic Flame

The Olympic flame is lit by the rays of the sun in Olympic, Greece. The flame is transferred to a torch by the priestess in Olympia for the torch relay to begin. The flame is then carried by numerous runners from all over the world to the host country. It finally makes its way to the Olympic Stadium where a runner lights the giant flame, which gives life to the Games. This is the signal that the Games have commenced. It is finally extinguished at the end of the closing ceremony.

The torch relay started in the Berlin Olympics of 1936, while the first winter torch relay was held in 1964 in Innsbruck. The flame symbolizes the strive for perfection, the struggle for victory, peace and friendship.

Olympic Motto

The Olympic motto is
‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’
It means swifter, higher and stronger. It was created by de Coubertin’s friend, Father Didon.

Olympic Oath

During the opening ceremony, an athlete who is representing all athletes takes the following oath:

“In the name of all competitors, I promise that we will take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, in true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams.

Host cities of the Olympic Games

Olympic Games
1896 Athens (Greece)
1900 Paris (France)
1904 St. Louis (USA)
1908 London (Great Britain)
1912 Stockholm (Sweden)
1916 Berlin – (not celebrated)
1920 Antwerp (Belgium)
1924 Paris (France)
1928 Amsterdam (Holland)
1932 Los Angeles (USA)
1936 Berlin (Germany)
1940 Tokyo then Helsinki (not celebrated)
1944 London (not celebrated)
1948 London (Great Britain)
1952 Helsinki (Finland)
1956 Melbourne (Australia)
1960 Rome (Italy)
1964 Tokyo (Japan)
1968 Mexico City (Mexico)
1972 Munich (Germany)
1976 Montreal (Canada)
1980 Moscow (Soviet Union)
1984 Los Angeles (USA)
1988 Seoul (Korea)
1992 Barcelona (Spain)
1996 Atlanta (USA)
2000 Sydney (Australia)
2004 Athens (Greece)
2008 Beijing (China)
2012 London (Great Britain)
2016 Rio (Brazil)
Olympic Winter Games
1924 Chamonix (France)
1928 Saint Moritz (Switzerland)
1932 Lake Placid (USA)
1936 Garmisch Partenkirchen (Germany)
1940 Not celebrated
1944 Not celebrated
1948 Saint Moritz (Switzerland)
1952 Oslo (Norway)
1956 Cortina D’ampezzo (Italy)
1960 Squaw Valley (USA)
1964 Innsbruck (Austria)
1968 Grenoble (France)
1972 Sapporo (Japan)
1976 Innsbruck (Austria)
1980 Lake Placid (USA)
1984 Sarajevo (Yugoslavia)
1988 Calgary (Canada)
1992 Abertville (France)
1994 Lillehammer (Norway)
1998 Nagano (Japan)
2002 Salt Lake City (USA)
2006 Torino (Italy)
2010 Vancouver (Canada)
2014 Sochi (Russia)
2018 Pyeonchang (South Korea)