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The Olympics - then and now

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The Olympics - then and now

UCI classics scholar shares four ways today’s competition contrasts with its ancient predecessor

Nude competitors, chariot racing as a sport and potential death in combat matches—these are just a few ways the ancient Olympics differ from the global competition we know today. With the Tokyo Olympics now underway, Zina Giannopoulou, associate professor of classics at UCI, dives deep into four ways today’s competition contrasts with its ancient predecessor.


The ancient Olympics were as much a religious festival as an athletic event. The first Olympics in recorded history, held in 776 B.C.E., included only one athletic competition: a 600-foot race, won by the cook Koroibos. The event was dedicated to Zeus, the chief Greek god. Up until 393 C.E., when the ancient Olympics were banned by the Roman emperor Theodosius I, athletes and spectators gathered in Olympia every four years (a cycle called “Olympiad”) to honor Zeus through sports, sacrifices, and hymns. By contrast, the modern Olympics, which began in 1896, are a secular event that promotes the host’s national and cultural identity in an international context.

Visual symbols of the Olympics

  • The logo of five interlocking rings of the same diameter in blue, yellow, black, green, and red, which represents the five continents as a unity, was designed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1913.

  • A modern invention inspired by ancient Greek practices, the Olympic Torch Relay heralds the start of the Olympic Games and transmits the message of peace and friendship along its route. It was first performed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

  • The three medals were first awarded in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. Medals for each Olympic Game have their own distinctive design. Gold medals are at least 92.5% silver and must be coated with at least 6g of gold.

  • The olive wreath (kotinos) is a branch of wild olive leaves from the sacred tree at Olympia, intertwined to form a circle. The kotinos is the main award to ancient Olympic victors.

Fun facts

  • The metal of each medal represents one of the Ages of Man in Greek mythology. Gods and mortals lived in peace and harmony during the golden age. Humans of the silver age were insolent and less noble than their golden age counterparts. Finally, the humans of the bronze age were prone to violence and carried armor forged of bronze.

  • With 28, the American swimmer Michael Phelps holds the most Olympic medals to date. The record for the greatest number of medals held by a woman belongs to Larisa Latynina, a Soviet artistic gymnast, with 18.

  • Winning athletes are often photographed biting their medals. This is usually done at the photographer’s request and is based on an old practice of biting into gold to test its purity and authenticity.

  • The Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger” (in Latin, “Citius, Altius, Fortius”), was the official motto of the Games since 1894. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the motto has been modified to “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together.”

Athletes (“competitors for a prize”) in ancient Olympics were amateurs since the Greeks thought that professionalism would be an unfair advantage over those who could not afford the luxury of full-time training. To erase social markers and promote ease of movement, ancient athletes competed in the nude (gymnast is derived from gymnos, which means “naked”). Until the 1970s, competition in the Olympic Games was reserved for amateurs, now defined as “athletes who do not get paid to perform their sport.” Over time, thanks to corporate endorsements and sponsorship, Olympic sports allowed for professionals to compete, including in boxing (since 2016).Ancient Olympic victors were treated like heroes. They were crowned with the kotinos, wore ribbons around their arms and heads, and held palm branches. They were carried on strong shoulders around the stadium, amidst frenzied cheers, all the way to their city where they thanked the gods and participated in public feasts. Their city-state often paid for statues or portraits in their honor and gave them substantial material rewards. An Athenian winner, for example, would receive up to 500 drachmas, an ancient Greek currency, and free meals at the city hall for life, while other honors included a lifetime pension and special seats at public events. In modern Olympics, victors receive three medals – gold for the winner, silver for the first runner-up, and bronze for the second runner-up – which translate into cash prizes.For the ancient Greeks, athletic achievement was the highest manifestation of kalokagathia, the harmony of body and mind shown in physical beauty and virtuous behavior. Ancient Greek athletics gave to modern Olympics the idea that the virtues behind athletic excellence are more important than athletic excellence itself: athletes winning by unfair means were considered harmful to society, and now the medals of those competing on performance-enhancing drugs are revoked. The opportunity for athletes to display virtues like courage, perseverance, and self-sacrifice to large audiences, as well as their role in unifying communities and fans, has been a staple of the Olympics since antiquity. In our pandemic times, the Tokyo Olympic Games are especially meaningful bearers of the virtues of athletic excellence, mutual respect, and solidarity. They remind us of our need to be inspired by those striving for greatness, and to celebrate them while being mindful of the fragility of human life itself.To learn more about UCI’s Department of Classics, visit the website here

Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.