The story of the Olympics is a complex narrative full of paradox and contradiction. It not only tells the story of the world’s most gifted athletes as symbols of human power and beauty, but it also reveals political conflict and personal squabbles. Modern-day Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin saw them as a manifestation of the nineteenth-century liberalism of Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill wherein individual liberty was the highest good (Guttman 2002). Realizing that religion often led to bloodshed, he imagined the Olympics as a type of secular faith based on good sportsmanship and fair play. While the Games have attempted to be a meeting place of peace and equality, in reality they have consistently been a site where idealism clashes with the realism of politics and professionalism (Henry 1984).
Although the Olympic Games first were recorded in Greece in 776 B.C., archaeologists have traced evidence of the Games as a pagan religious and fertility festival back into the second millennium before Christ (Kindersley 2004). The Greeks considered the Games to be of enormous political, religious, and social significance and held that the original Olympic flame was lit from the rays of the sun itself. They even calculated their calendar according to the Olympic cycle, which ran in the quadrennial fashion that is now used to count modern Olympiads (a period of four years). A winner of the Olympics would be held in single-minded adulation. Not only would he be immortalized in the statues at Olympia, but the Olympiad itself would be named after the victor. He would be given the sacred olive tree wreath (kotinos) and his ankles and head would be adorned with red ribbons. Winning the Olympics had other enviable benefits as well. If taken prisoner during battle, the Olympic victor would be released or, if accidentally killed, his enemies would erect a monument to him. In either case, the athlete’s home city would pay a poet or orator to compose an ode to celebrate both the athlete and his city. An Olynmpic loser, however, would bring disgrace to his entire polis (city-state) (Coote 1972).
The games grew from a one race event to a five-day program that included the Pentathlon (discus, javelin, running, wrestling, and jumping), chariot races, eulogies to Pelops, sacrifices to Zeus, races, and the Pankration (“all powers”), a type of martial arts contest in which even a man who died after the match could be declared the winner. Athletes would take a solemn oath not to cheat and the judges (calledHellanodikai) dipped their hands in sacrificial blood and swore to the judges that they would be impartial. The most important feature of the Games was the truce that was sworn under the sacred discs of Iphitus which were set out in five concentric rings (hence the five-ringed altar at Delphi and the current five-ring Olympic design). Because of several fertility rituals that were part of the ceremonies, married women were not allowed to even watch the Games; if they did, they were promptly thrown off a cliff. After instances of married women attempting to attend the Games dressed as men, judges decreed that contestants and trainers appear naked (Coote 1972).
The quality of the ancient Games began to decline with the demise of the political independence of the Greek states. Though the Games continued during the Roman period, they were diluted by claims of bribery, as in A.D. 67 when the judges declared Nero the victor despite his being thrown from his ten-horse chariot. The games were fully recorded until A.D. 381 when Emperor Theodosius banned pagan religions and adopted Christianity as the faith of the Roman Empire. While Christian zeal may have ended the Games, they were kept alive by the works of poets such as Pindar. During the Middle Ages, athletic endeavors held little significance, but there were several sporadic attempts during the Renaissance to revived the Games (Kindersly 2004). It wasn’t until Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) enthusiastically argued for the revival of the Olympics at the fifth anniversary of the Union des Societes Francaises de Sports Athletiques (USFSFSA) in 1894 that the Games would be taken seriously (Kanin 1982).
Coubertin and the Beginning of Modern Games
It was the nineteenth-century architectural discoveries that roused interest in ancient Greece, the European exercise movement and its national implications, and the development of English collegiate sports which helped create a receptive audience for reviving the Games (Kanin 1982). Perhaps more importantly, it was the personal will and determination of Coubertin that helped reinstate the Olympic Games in the modern era. Born into one of France’s most aristocratic families, Coubertin was motivated by two seemingly contradictory motives. Fiercely nationalistic, Coubertin saw the Olympics both as a way of re-establishing the glory of France while at the same time establishing a more peaceful and harmonious world (Guttman 2002). To head his vision, Coubertin created the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which would eventually relinquish much of its control to its several federations.
Coubertin suggested to Demetrios Vikelas, a prominent Greek man of letters and the first IOC president, that the first Olympic Games of the modern era be held in Athens. While the Greeks were less than enthusiastic about this unsolicited honor, the first games were inaugurated there in 1896. The most familiar symbols such as the torch, flag, rings, and the motto “Citius, Altius, Fortiu” were still to come. The Greeks made up most of the contestants, though the official Greek reports on the games noted the “annoying” presence of Americans and “their inexplicable noises.” Though the Panathenic Stadium of 330 B.C. was rebuilt and the first Olympic marathon scheduled, the Olympics were still not well publicized. There were around 300 participants from 13 countries, including some tourists who were allowed to compete (Kindersley 2004).
Growing Pains and Increasing Success: 1900-1912
The Games that followed immediately after Greek 1896 Olympics were marred by poor publicity, rumors of cheating, poor attendance, and ugly nationalism. During the Paris Games in 1900, Americans noted the Frenchman finished the marathon “surprisingly fresh” and clean, despite the mud-drenched track. Athlete accommodations were so poor that German athletes assumed their French hosts had meant to deliberately insult them. And due to the World Exhibition being held at the same time as the Games, many athletes were confused whether they really participated in the Olympics at all. The 1904 American Games in Missouri did not do much better as they were overshadowed by the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition. Participant attendance was drastically low because European athletes were reluctant to travel to what they imaged as a wilderness settlement inhabited by “hostile people who ate buffalo meat.” In addition, to the horror of more sophisticated members of the IOC, American organizers set aside two days for “Anthropological Days,” a “scientific experiment” wherein a variety of “savages” such as Pygmies, Patagonians, Filipinos, and Native Americans competed in mud slinging contests and greased pole climbing. Most Olympic historians regard this as a shameful event that almost killed the Olympic movement. It was, however, the first time that gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded. Not surprisingly, most gold medals were awarded to the Americans (Guttman 2002).
The 1908 Olympics were more successful due in part to the fact that they were not part of a world exhibition but staged as an event in their own right (Kindersley 2004). They were originally scheduled for Rome, but the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius prompted officials to move them to Britain. Attendance was up, the opening ceremonies were more organized, and the exact distance of the marathon was established--as was the rule that judges should be selected from countries other than just the host country. More blacks and women were allowed to compete (but just 36 women compared to 1998 men), though no American women participated in swimming events due to fears that the presence of shapely women in swimsuits would attract more voyeurs than sport spectators. Officials, however, continued to battle over the meaning of “amateurism” (derived from the Latin meaning “love”). Many felt that it was a Victorian concept to exclude “lower orders” who worked for wages from participating with those from the leisure class. The amateur-professional distinction still haunts the Olympic movement, particularly now in the age of sponsors and advertisements (Adams 2002).
The Games Reach Maturity: 1912-1936
The Games continued to gain momentum during the early twentieth century. The 1912 Swedish Games in particular were very well organized, taking place within a month's time, rather than spanning several months, and implementing for the first time electronic timing devices as well as art competitions. Despite postwar conditions during the 1920 Belgium Olympics, athletes were moved as they took the new Olympic Oath under the newly designed flag with its five interlocking rings symbolizing the five continents and the colors of their many flags. The 1920 Olympics also saw the debut of the track star dubbed The Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi. who ended U.S. dominance of track and field events (Guttman 2002). Up until this time, there had been no winter games, but Belgium included a week of winter sports, including ice skating and ice hockey. Also, a noticeably absent country was Germany, who had not been invited, and they would not participate again until 1928 (Kindersley 2004).
The 1924 Games in France were the first to officially hold the Olympic Winter Games (though they were actually sanctioned retroactively in 1925), and the long-held tradition of the Winter Games being held in the same years as the Summer Games began. To no one’s surprise, the Norwegians and Finns swept the first Winter Games medals. The 1928 Games inaugurated the return of the Olympic flame to symbolize purity and the endeavor for perfection. And the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles implemented for the first time the Olympic Village, victory platforms, and photo-finish cameras (Guttman 2002).
The Most Controversial Games and WWII: 1936-1944
The first televised Olympics were the 1936 Summer Games, which were actually awarded to Berlin before Hitler came into power. Once in control of the country, Hitler realized the opportunity for Germany to demonstrate its vitality and organizational expertise and so he donated 20,000,000 Reichmarks to the IOC (Kindersley 2004). The star of these Games was African-American track and field athlete Jesse Owens who wowed the German crowds. Ironically, though German newspapers highlighted positive photos of Owens’s achievements, the most liberal of American southern journals, theAtlanta Constitution, showed no shots of Owen. The Olympic torch relay was started during these Games as a way to connect countries of the world to Berlin. Especially in light of Riefenstahl’s film Olympia, which actually set the standard for filming athletic events, scholars still contemplate whether the Berlin Games were an instance of Nazi propaganda or a triumph of Olympianism (Guttman 2002). WWII, however brought a 12-year cancellation of the games.
Politics and Organizational Strains: 1948-1992
The postwar world was very different from the one destroyed by dictators. While the IOC had little influence over fragmented countries such as Germany and Korea, they had to deal with the political consequences of the Cold War (Guttman 2002). When the games resumed in 1948, the IOC struggled with balancing strong anti-communist sentiment with their public commitment to the universality ideal of Olympianism, and the Games were often boycotted by at least one country (including America's boycott of the Moscow Summer Games in 1980).
Commercialism was also beginning to rear its ugly head as television coverage became more important. Ironically, many Americans were more upset by NBC’s decision to delay the nightly broadcast of the 1964 Tokyo Games until 1:00 a.m. to avoid a conflict with Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show than they were about the South African apartheid that banned South Africa from the Games for several years. Some scholars argue that the Olympic ideal died somewhere among the advertisements for brand-name gear and sanctioned “Olympic” butter and sugar. The Games also suffered from persistent racism and accusations of athlete drug abuse. But nothing would prepare the world for the most horrific event in Olympic history—the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and officials by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Games in Munich (Kindersley 2004).
An Era of (Relatively) Good Feelings: 1992-2004
The less-than-celebratory mood that had draped over the Games seemed to change in 1992 in Barcelona when, for the first time in many years, no country boycotted the Olympics, Germany competed as a unified country, and South Africa rejoined after eliminating apartheid. In 1994, the IOC changed the Olympic Charter so that the Winter and Summer Games would be held every two alternating years in order to promote better marketing (which made the Winter Games fall in the same years as the World Cup). The 1996 bombing during the Atlanta Summer Games re-created a somber mood, but the Olympic movement regained momentum with the successes of the Nagano (1998), Sydney (2000), and Athens (2004) Summer Games (Kindersley 2004).
Looking Ahead: 2008
Though China won the 2008 Summer Olympic bid by a large margin, controversy still surrounds the IOC’s decision to hold the Games in Beijing. Protesters cite China’s occupation of Tibet, its ties to Darfur, its response to the Burma tragedy, its chronic pollution, and its obvious human rights violations as reasons to rescind the Olympic offer. The debate continues whether the Olympics will provide the impetus for political remodeling in China or the IOC betrayed the Olympic spirit by granting legitimacy to a repressive regime. Some scholars argue that China will simply use the Games as self promotion in the same way Hitler did (Guttman 2002).
What is definitely known, however, is that it has taken nearly a century for some of the internal contradictions of the Olympics to be understood and for other problems like commercialism and drug abuse to arise. Though none of the Courbetin’s values, explicit or implicit, have been perfectly realized, the Olympics provide a venue for the world to meet to celebrate peace and beauty...whether or not the world takes advantage of that offering.
-- Posted May 24, 2008
Adams, Lindsay W. The Olympic Games: Ancient and Modern. 2002. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.
Coote, James. 1972. A Picture History of the Olympics. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.
Guttman, Allen. 2002. The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games. 2nd ed. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Henry, Bill. 1984. An Approved History of the Olympic Games. Los Angeles, CA: Alfred Publishing Co, Inc.
Kanin, David B. 1982. A Political History of the Olympic Games. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Kindersly, Dorling. 2004. The Olympic Games: Athens 1896-Athens 2004. London, UK: Dorling Kindersly Limited.