Of Greeks and Games

by Freida Nicholls

Who would have thought that a sporting tradition that has its origins over 2000 years B.C. would stand the test of time and be heralded as the greatest sports event on earth? Regardless of how many championship crowns an athlete achieves, the supreme ambition is competing at the Olympic Games.

How Did It All Start?

The first known record of the Olympics dates back to 884 BC, when Iphitus, King of Elis, a city state in the southern region of Greece, sought the agreement of neighbouring states to stage a competition where all Greeks could participate. This meant a temporary suspension of wars and hostilities, and the banning of arms from Elis so that both athletes and spectators could travel to and from the Olympics safely. The Olympic ideal of peace traces its origins back to this ancient practice, and is seen during the Games where athletes compete together regardless of the state of relations with other countries.

The Games in ancient Greece were a celebration of a ritual festival to the god Zeus. His gold and ivory statue stood 42 feet high inside the temple at Olympia, and was acknowledged as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

When I attended the Athens Olympics in 2004, it was a veritable journey into antiquity, for I was walking in the footsteps of Olympians who had competed over 2,500 years ago. Still standing are the 55 foot high marble columns of the temple of Zeus, the Panathinaiko Stadium which was refurbished in marble in 329BC, and the original site of the first Games at Olympia.

Victory was of paramount importance at the ancient Games, and defeat meant disgrace for the city state. This was the antithesis of the philosophy of the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who placed greater value on participation.

The ancient Games came to a temporary halt in AD (Anno Domini – after the birth of Christ) 391, when a decree was issued by the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I prohibiting all pagan worship, which included the Olympic Games.

The Modern Olympic Games

A bust of Baron Pierre de Coubertin commands your attention as you ascend the stairs to the Museum at the Barbados Olympic Centre in Wildey. His Parisian lineage of nobility exposed him to the Greek philosophy of combining athleticism with intellectual development, a philosophy which I strongly support.

Passionate about the ideal of amateurism, de Coubertin believed that fair competition between countries levelled the playing field for all participants. Rewards had to come from participation in sports, and “no material gifts, no desire for profit, and no business interest in sport were to be allowed to prejudice in any way the coming together of athletes”. He also recognised that success in sports would enhance national pride.

de Coubertin jump-started his theory by inviting interested persons from around the world to a Sports Congress at the Sorbonne, University of Paris, in 1894 where a decision was taken to revive the Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens, Greece, after which other countries would take turns to be hosts.

King George I of Greece officiated at the opening ceremony of the first Olympic Games of the modern era on April 6, 1896 in Athens, with 60,000 spectators and 200 athletes from fourteen countries in attendance.

Only men competed in the nine events – athletics, tennis, fencing, weight lifting, cycling, wrestling, shooting, swimming and gymnastics. Bad weather conditions caused the rowing and sailing events to be called off, and the football and cricket tournaments were cancelled because of insufficient competitors.

Winners were presented with an olive branch – a symbol of peace, a certificate and a silver medal, while runners-up received a laurel sprig and a copper medal. We have moved far away from the tenets of amateurism, and the question may be posed – has professionalism made the Olympic Games better?


Next Week: Professionalism versus Amateurism and How drug use tarnish the Games.

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