History of the Olympic Games
While exact origin is unknown, the Ancient Olympic Games were held in a sacred valley at Olympia in Elis near the western coast of Greece and the earliest recorded Olympic competition was in 776 B.C. So important were these contests that time was measured by the four-year interval between the Games; the term"Olympiad"describing this period.
It is a well established fact that religious festivals in honor of Olympian Zeus had been observed in the sacred valley for several centuries previous to that remote date. The Greek Games were celebrated in the belief that the spirits of the dead were gratified by such spectacles as delighted them during their earthly life.
During the Homeric age, these festivals were simply sacrifices followed by games at the tomb or before the funeral pyre. Gradually they grew into religious festivals observed by an entire community and celebrated near the shrine of the god in whose honor they were instituted. The idea then developed that the gods themselves were present but invisible and delighted in the services and the contests.
Later these festivals lost their local character and became Pan-Hellenic. Four of these festivals, Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian, had attracted world wide attention but the one held at Olympia was by far the most important consecrated to the Olympian Zeus. The Olympic Games became the greatest festival of a mighty nation. Once every four years trading was suspended, the continuously warring states and the fighting tribes laid down their arms, and all of the people went forth in peace to pay tribute to the manhood of its nation.
The immediate site of the Games, the Stadium of Olympia, lay towards the northeast of the Altis beyond Mount Kromion. It was an oblong area of about 643 feet in length and about 97 feet wide. It consisted of four sloping heights, two at the sides and two at the ends. The one at the north had been cut into a hill, while the other had been artificially formed by earth that had been taken from the arena. The spectators sat on the grassy slopes which accommodated more than 40,000.
For the first 13 Olympiads, the competition consisted of a single race of 200 yards, approximately the length of the stadium. The race was called the"Stade"from which our word"stadium"was derived.
The first recorded victor in 776 B.C. was Coroebus of Elis, a cook. The athletes of Elis maintained an unbroken string of victories until the 14 h Olympiad at which time a second race of two lengths of the stadium was added. In the 15th Olympiad, an endurance event was added in which the athletes went 12 times around the stadium, about 4 1/2 kilometers. The athletes competed in groups of four, which were determined by drawing lots with the winners meeting the other winners until a final race was run. The track was composed of shifting sand which gave way under the athletes' feet.
In 708 B.C., the Pentathlon and Wrestling events were introduced. In 688 B.C., Boxing; in 680 the Four Horse Chariot Race; in 648 the Pancration (a fierce combination of boxing and wrestling), and in 580 the Armed Race where the men traversed the stadium twice while heavily armed. In the pentathlon, those who jumped a certain distance qualified for the spear throwing; the four best then sprinted the length of the stadium, the three best then threw the discus, and the two best then engaged in a wrestling match to the finish.
The early rewards were simple crowns of wild olive, but, by the 61st Olympiad, it was permitted in Olympia to erect statues in honor of the victors. However, the athletes had to win three times before the statues could be made in their likeness. Later, it was often the practice to make a breach in the walls of the city through which the victorious athletes returned.
During the fifth century before Christ, the Games reached their climax; in fact, they were already showing the first sign of decay. Trying for records and specialization claimed the interest of the crowd. From there on to professional sport was only a step and it was quickly taken.
The invasion of the Macedonians put an end to the Greek city-states and, relieved of the political controversies, they devoted themselves entirely to the Olympic Games. Instead of training their growing youth, they merely hired athletes and nationalized them.
During the middle of the second century before Christ, Greece came under the domination of the Romans, who permitted the Games to continue but they had little interest in them.
Centuries passed. The Games still continued but the high Olympic ideals were entirely discarded and profit alone provided the incentive. In 393 A.D., the Emperor Theodosius forbade the Games altogether but they had survived a period of nearly 300 Olympiads or approximately 1200 years.
Full credit for the revival of the Olympic Games in the modern era must go to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who was born in Paris, Jan. 1, 1863 and who died at Geneva, Sept. 2, 1937. Very early in life he showed a taste for the study of literature, history, and the problems of education and sociology.
At the age of 17 he began to scrutinize the weaknesses of his people who were trying to recover hope and self-respect following the Franco-Prussian War. He concluded that three monarchies, two empires, and three republics during a single century were not indicative of stability in the French character. The solution, he believed rested in the development of the individual.
Coubertin had sufficient means to travel. He visited England and America where he studied organized athletics conducted by the students. He observed that competing for a place on an athletic team developed qualities of character whereas the attitude in French schools was that games destroyed study. He was convinced that he should devote his entire time and energy to securing a pedagogical reform in his own country. He decided to start at the bottom because, as he expressed it,"the foundation of real human morality lies in mutual respect-and to respect one another it is necessary to know one another."
Coubertin was not an athlete but he chose athletics as his field. The first major sport with which he associated himself was rowing, but when he attempted to bring the British oarsmen to France or send the French oarsmen to compete at Henley, he found the British and French conceptions of amateurism were not the same. This gave him the idea of bringing together educators, diplomats, and sports leader for the purpose of developing a universal understanding of amateurism so that the athletes of all nations might meet on an equal basis.
Coubertin realized that to capture the attention of disinterested persons he would have to originate something spectacular. He began to dream of a revival of the Olympic Games. At a meeting of the Athletic Sports Union at Sorbonne in Paris, Nov. 25, 1892, be first publicly announced the Olympic Games idea. Speaking at the conference, Coubertin said,"Let us export oarsmen, runners, fencers; there is the free trade of the future-and on the day when it shall take place among the customs of Europe the cause of peace will have received a new and powerful support."
However, his proposal to revive the Olympic Games went for naught as his auditors failed to grasp the significance of the idea.
His next opportunity came in the spring of 1894 at an international congress which be had assembled for the purpose of studying the questions of amateurism. At this meeting, official delegates from France, England the United States, Greece, Russia, Sweden, Belgium, Italy, and Spain, were in attendance. Hungary, Germany, Bohemia, Holland and Australia sent proxies or letters.
Seven questions concerning the problem of amateurism were on the agenda and Coubertin took the liberty of adding an eighth,"Regarding the possibility of the revival of the Olympic Games."Coubertin imparted his enthusiasm so well that it was unanimously agreed on June 23, 1894 to revive the Games and an International Committee was formed to look after their development and well-being.
Two years later, in 1896, Greece celebrated in the rebuilt stadium of Athens, the first Olympic Games of the present cycle and from this beginning, the world's greatest athletic spectacle was established.
Only the ceaseless labour, the tenacity and the perseverance of Baron de Coubertin accomplished and perfected this great work Its main organization benefitted from his methodical and precise mind and from his wide understanding of the aspirations and needs of youth.
In fact, Coubertin was the sole director of the Games as regards their form and character; the Olympic Charter and Protocol and the athlete's oath were his creation, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games. In addition, until 1925, he personally presided over the IOC, assuming single-handed all the administrative and financial duties.
The work of Coubertin was, above all, a work of peace but there is one basic fact, almost universally misunderstood-Peace is not the major aim of the Olympic Games.
"Peace,"Coubertin hoped and believed,"would be furthered by the Olympic Games . . . but peace could be the product only of a better world; a better world could be brought about only by better individuals; and better individuals could be developed only by the give and take, the buffeting and battering, the stress and strain of fierce competition."
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