Of all the games held throughout Greece, the Olympic Games are the most famous. Held every four years between August 6 and September 19, (though later beginning on July 1st) they occupied such an important place in Greek life that time was measured by the interval between them–an Olympiad.
Although the first Olympic champion listed in the records was one Coroebus of Elis, a cook, who won the sprint race in 776 BC, it is generally accepted that the Games were probably at least 500 years old at that time. According to one legend they were founded by Heracles, Son of Alcmene, the Greek legendary hero. But other traditions speak of the games being introduced in 1453 B.C. by the Idæi Dactyli in honour of Zeus, or by Pelops, 1307 B.C., then revived byIphitus, 884 B.C.
The Games, like all Greek games, were an intrinsic part of a religious festival. They were held in honour of Zeus on the banks of the Alpheus at Olympia in the city-state of Elis, on a track about 32 metres wide. The racing length was one stade, a distance of about 192 metres. In the early Olympics a race, called a stade, covered one length of the track. Horse racing, which became part of the ancient games, was held in the hippodrome, south of the stadium. At the meeting in 776 BC there was apparently only one event, the stade, but other events were added over the ensuing decades. In 724 BC a two-length race, diaulos, roughly similar to the 400-metre race, was included, and four years later the dolichos, a long-distance race possibly to be compared to the modern 1,500- or even 5,000-metre event, was added.
Wrestling and the pentathlon were introduced in 708 BC. The latter was an all-around competition consisting of five events–the long jump, javelin throw,
discus throw, foot race, and wrestling. Boxing was introduced in 688 BC, and in 680 a chariot race. In 648 the pancratium, a kind of all-strength, or no-holds-barred, wrestling, was included. Kicking and hitting were allowed; only biting and gouging (thrusting a finger or thumb into an opponent’s eye) were forbidden.
Between 632 and 616 BC events for boys were introduced. And from time to time further events were added, including contests for fully armed soldiers, for heralds, and for trumpeters. The program must have been as varied as that of the modern Olympics, although the athletics (track and field) events were limited; there was no high jumping in any form and no individual field event, except in the pentathlon. Until the 77th Olympiad (472 BC) all the contests took place on one day; later they were spread, with perhaps some fluctuation, over four days, with a fifth devoted to the closing-ceremony presentation of prizes and a banquet for the champions. Sources generally agree that women were not allowed as competitors or, except for the priestess of Demeter, as spectators. In most events the athletes participated in the nude.
The Olympic Games were originally restricted to freeborn Greeks. The competitors, including those Who came from the Greek colonies, were amateur in the sense that the only prize was a wreath or garland. The athletes underwent a most rigorous period of supervised training, however, and eventually the contestants were true professionals. Not only were there substantial prizes for winning but the Olympic champion also received adulation and unlimited benefits from his city. Athletes became full-time specialists–a trend that in the modern Games has caused a long and bitter controversy over amateurism.
The Games continued unabated for a great length of time, and were only abolished finally by Theodosius in 394 A.D.
Revival of the Olympics
The architect of the modern Olympics was Pierre de Fredi, Baron de Coubertin, (born inParis on New Year’s Day, 1863, and lived until 1937.) As a young man he was intensely interested in literature and in education and sociology. Family tradition pointed to an army career or possibly politics, but at the age of 24 Coubertin decided that his future lay in education. At the same time, he had the idea of reviving the Olympic Games, and he propounded his desire for a new era in international sport when on November 25, 1892, at a meeting of the Union des SportsAthlétiques in Paris, he said :
“Let us export our oarsmen, our runners, our fencers into other lands. That is the true Free Trade of the future; and the day it is introduced into Europe the cause of Peace will have received anew ad strong ally. It inspires me to touch upon another step I now propose and in it I shall ask that the help you have given me hitherto you will extend again, so that together we may attempt to realise, upon a basis suitable to the conditions of our modern life, the splendid and beneficent task of reviving the Olympic Games.”
The speech did not produce any appreciable activity, but Coubertin was not fainthearted. At a conference on international sport in Paris in June 1894 at which Coubertin raised the possibility of the revival of the Olympic Games, there were 79 delegates representing 49 organizations from nine countries. Coubertin
himself wrote that except for his co-workers Dimitrios Vikelas of Greece, who was to be the first president of the International Olympic Committee, and Professor William M. Sloane of the United States, from the College of New Jersey (Later Princeton University), no one had real interest in the revival of the Games.
Nevertheless, and to quote Coubertin again, “a unanimous vote in favour of revival was rendered at the end of the Congress chiefly to please me.”
It was at first agreed that the Games should be held in Paris in 1900. Six years seemed a long time to wait, however, and it was decided to change the venue–what better site thanAthens, the capital of Greece–and the date, to April 1896. A great deal of indifference, if not opposition, had to be overcome, including a refusal by Athens to stage the Games at all. But Coubertin and his newly elected International Olympic Committee of 4 members won through, and the Games were opened by the King of Greece on April 6th 1896, which was also the 75thanniversary of Greek independence. The ancient stadium, capable of seating 50,000 was renovated by M. Averoff of Alexandria. The King was accompanied by the royal family, and 129 foreign athletes participated. In all there were 311 competitors, representing 13 nations in 9 sports. The Marathon, won by Louis, a Greek peasant on April 10th, was watched by an estimated 70,000 people. The Games were concluded on April 15th with many speeches, and the recitation of the Pindaric Ode by Mr. G.S.Robertson.
The modern Olympics have been held ever since, with the exception of 1916, 1940, and 1944, due to the two world wars.
What has been the purpose of this historical sketch? Interesting as it is, what reason has been behind the inclusion of it in this series of essays? Two factors stand out, first the date – 1896, and second, the fact that the revival brought onto the world stage one important event that was part of the scene in A.D. 29 – 33, the years when Jesus ministered. In the following chapters, we shall see that other revivals have likewise restored a world chess-board to its earlier format, and there seems to be some special reason for this in connection with God’s end-time judgements.
[Information for this chapter has been selected from Britannica 2001, the Macmillan Encyclopaedia, and Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates.]