Some differences between the Ancient and Modern Olympic Games

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Friday, 3 August 2012

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This edited article about the Olympic Games originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 758 published on 24th July 1976.

First Olympic Games, picture, image, illustration

The Olympic race in which Greek youths competed for the honour of lighting a sacrificial fire in honour of the Gods by Peter Jackson

Although the Games of the 21st Olympiad in Montreal from July 16 to August 1 will celebrate 80 years of modern Olympic sport, this span of time is like a short sprint compared with a marathon, when we look at the age-old history of the Olympics.

The original series of Olympiads went on for nearly 1,200 years and when they finally ended in 393 A.D. three hundred and twenty Games had been held. In fact, there were certainly many more in ancient times, but it is the first recorded Olympics, in 776 B.C. which are taken as the starting point.

The modern summer Olympics have only twice been held in the same city, in Paris (1900 and 1924) and London (1908 and 1948). Three (1916, 1940 and 1944) have had to be abandoned because of World Wars I and II. The ancient Games were nearly all held at Olympia, in Greece, and if, as often happened, there was a war on at the time, a truce was called while the sports went on.

Although they are now recognised as the greatest international sports festival in the world (there will be approximately 9,000 competitors in 21 different events in Montreal), there was only one sports event in the first 60 years or so of the original celebrations at Olympia.

This was a race of one stadium (a Greek measure of length of about 200 yards from which our modern name for a sports venue is derived) between youths competing for the honour of lighting a sacrificial fire in honour of the Gods which began a quadrennial religious festival at Olympia.

In 776 B.C. the winner of this event was recorded for the first time. He was Koroebos of Elia. His name is linked with that of James Connolly, an American triple-jumper, who 2,672 years later at Athens in 1896, became the first gold-medal winner of modern Olympics.

Incidentally, Connolly jumped 44ft 11 and three quarter inches, which would have placed him last but one of the 34 men in the 1972 Olympic triple jump in Munich.

The original race is commemorated in modern Olympics by the carrying of the torch from Olympia to the venue, where it is ceremoniously paraded around the stadium before the assembled competitors at the Opening Ceremony and then used to light a symbolic flame which is kept burning throughout the Games.

One of the ancient Greek Olympic traditions not carried out today is competition in the nude. This is said to have started because one of the youths in the early races lost his shorts and as a result won the honour of lighting the flame because “he could run more freely.”

It is said that it was because of this tradition of nudity that women were barred from watching the Ancient Games. But the real reason is because Olympia, for centuries before, had been a site sacred to the worship of male gods, and only one priestess was allowed there.

One woman had managed to smuggle herself into a Games disguised as a trainer, but then revealed her true identity in the excitement of seeing her son win a boxing contest, since then, all trainers and coaches, as well as competitors, had to appear nude.

Later, (the date has not been recorded), women were given their own Games at Olympia in celebration of the goddess Hera. They competed wearing short tunics.

But it is also known that at least three women won chariot races which were an exciting feature of the Olympics from 680 B.C. onwards, but probably they only ‘owned’ the chariots and did not drive them themselves.

These were perilous events in which up to 40 chariots at a time, each drawn by four horses, raced over 12 laps of the stadium with 180 degree turns at each end, causing many crashes.

Soon after the Ancient Games ceased in 393 A.D., Olympia was almost totally destroyed by a series of natural disasters, including earthquakes and floods, and it was not until the middle of the 19th century that a German archaeologist uncovered the ruins of the site.

This discovery encouraged a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, to revive the Olympics as a modern sports festival, an idea he had already had since learning that there was an event called the Cotswold Olympics which had been going on in England for over 200 years.

After many set-backs, de Coubertin’s ideal was realised in 1896 when the first of the modern Olympics was held in Athens. Four years later, in Paris, women were allowed to compete and a British lawn-tennis player, Charlotte Cooper, became their first gold-medallist.

Now the Games have become world-wide. They went outside Europe for the first time in 1904 when they were held in St. Louis. In 1956, Melbourne staged the first Olympics held in the Southern Hemisphere and eight years later, Tokyo the first held in Asia.

Mexico, in 1968, held the first Games in Central America and Moscow in 1980 will stage the first in Eastern Europe. Then only the Middle East, Africa and South America will be major areas of the world which have not seen at first-hand the modern version of what the Greeks started nearly 3,000 years ago.

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