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Olympic Games: Part One


By Jessie

The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games is now on, and to celebrate, I've delved back in history to bring you the story behind the event. In this series of blogs, I'll discuss the history and the myth, the highs and the lows, the courage and the controversy. (In between watching the highlights on TV you'll be able to amaze your family and friends with this obscure Olympics trivia!) 
Without further delay then...

From ancient origins steeped in legend… 

The Ancient Olympic Games were first recorded in 776 BC in Olympia, Greece, and were celebrated until 393 AD.

According to legend, the great warrior Heracles (often known in the West as Hercules) built the Olympic Stadium to honour his father, the god Zeus. Construction began after he had completed his twelve labours (which included capturing the Golden Stag of Artemis and slaying the Stymphalian Birds), as recounted in the epic poem written by Peisandros of Rhodes. After Heracles built the stadium he walked in a straight line for 400 strides and called the distance a “stadion”. This is why modern Olympic Stadium tracks are 400 metres in circumference.

The Ancient Olympics were of fundamental religious importance and the athletic contests were interspersed with sacrifices and ceremonies honouring both Zeus and Pelopes. Pelopes was a divine hero and mythical King of Olympia, famous for his legendary chariot races with King Oeromaus of Pisatis, in whose honour the games were held.

Just like today, winners of the Ancient Olympics were greatly admired throughout the community and were immortalised in poems and in sculpture. Only young men were allowed to enter the Games and they competed in the nude. This was due in part to the weather and also because the festival was a celebration of the feats of the human body. Winners were presented with a crown of olive leaves which was a sign of peace and hope, and this symbolic gesture has been carried through to modern times. Other familiar symbols however, such as the lighting of a torch and the five connected rings had no part in the Ancient Olympics.

The Ancient Games began to decline in importance as the Romans gained power in Greece. After Emperor Theodosius I proclaimed Christianity the religion of the Empire in AD 393 and banned pagan rites, the Olympic Games were outlawed as a pagan festival. The Olympics were not seen again until their revival 1500 years later.

A rebirth for modern times…

Interest in reviving the Olympic Games was first shown by the poet and newspaper editor Panagiotis Soutsos in his poem Dialogue of the Dead (1883). The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was founded in 1894 by a French nobleman, Pierre Frédy, Baron de Coubertin. The five Olympic Rings were designed in 1913 and debuted at the 1920 Games at Antwerp.

As the Olympic Movement has grown so has the profile and complexity of the Games. Nearly every nation on earth now participates and new challenges, never anticipated by Coubertin, include political boycotts, performance-enhancing drugs, bribery of officials and the impact of terrorism.

Fast facts about the Olympic Games…

  • The first Modern Olympic Games was held in Greece and had only nine disciplines: Athletics, Cycling, Fencing, Gymnastics, Shooting, Swimming, Tennis, Weightlifting and Wrestling.
  • Women were first allowed to compete in the second Modern Olympics – held in Paris in 1900.
  • The total number of athletes at the first IOC Olympic Games (1896) was less than 250 – a tiny amount compared to the 10,000 + who will be taking part in the 2008 Beijing Games!
  • The “Youth Olympic Games” will be held for the first time in Singapore in 2010. Planned as a junior version of the Games, a maximum of 3,500 athletes aged 14 -18 will be able to enter and compete in the same disciplines as the traditional Games (albeit with a limited number of events).
  • The 1956 Melbourne Olympics were the first Games to be boycotted for political reasons. The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland refused to attend because of the repression of the Hungarian Uprising by the Soviet Union. Cambodia, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon also boycotted the Games due to the Suez Crisis.
  • The use of performance-enhancing drugs by Olympic Athletes has a long and chequered history. The winner of the marathon at the 1904 Games, Thomas J. Hicks, was given Strychnine and brandy by his coach – even during the race! As these methods became more and more extreme, the sports federations placed a ban on doping (in the mid-1960s) and the IOC followed suit in 1967.
  • The first Olympic athlete to test positive for doping was Hans – Gunnar Liljenwall, a Swedish pentathlete at the 1968 Summer Olympics, who lost his bronze medal for alcohol use. The only Olympic death occurred in 1960 at the cycling race in Rome. Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen fell from his bicycle and later died. A coroner’s report found he was under the influence of amphetamines.
  • The five Olympic Rings are the most widely used and recognised symbol of the Games. The intertwined rings represent the unity of the five inhabited continents. The colours white (background), red, blue, green, yellow and black were chosen because each nation has at least one of the colours in its national flag.
  • The ‘Olympic Motto’ is Citius, Altius, Fortius, a Latin phrase meaning Swifter, Higher, Stronger.
  • Coubertin’s Olympic ideals are best illustrated by the ‘Olympic Creed’:
    The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought  well.

*The Wikipedia entry on the Olympic Games was the major source for this blog entry. 


1 Response to

Olympic Games: Part One

joeyho said:
August 11, 2008 at 11:01 PM

Very interesting reading Jess, I'm a sports tragic and the Olympics is the ultimate. Didn't realise the colours of the rings were chosen for that reason. I commend all athletes who are fortunate enough to compete in such an event as the work put in to achieve this goal is tremendous and not always recognised regardless if they are on the podium at the end.