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History of the Olympics

As official suppliers to the British Sailing Team for the past three years, I Love meet and greet is looking forward to the forthcoming Olympics with great anticipation. The Olympic Games are often regarded as the greatest contemporary sporting event, but they weren’t always the games as we know them now. The games we will watch over the next few weeks have certainly evolved from their origins nearly 3,000 years ago in Greece.

The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC on the ancient plains of Olympia, in the western part of the Peloponnese. The site had temples and shrines as well as ancient sporting facilities because the games were dedicated to the Olympian gods.

At the very first games in 776 BC there was just one event – a short sprint from one end of the stadium to the other. However, the running track was wider than the modern one we know. Twenty people could run at once!

More and more events were gradually included in the games until the competitions took up four whole days. The events included wrestling, boxing, long jump, javelin, discus and chariot racing and there were almost no rules. Often the all-in wrestling involved competitors poking people’s eyes or biting each other. After 12 centuries, during which the games were played every four years, they were eventually banned in 393 A.D by Emperor Theodosius.

While the games were extremely popular and the stadium would fill with 50,000 spectators, it took 1503 years until they returned after being banned. In 1894, Baron Pierre de Coubertin presented the idea of modern games based on the ancient games to 34 delegates. They were so pleased with the idea that the first games were set for 1896 in Athens and the modern Olympic Games were born.

The 1896 games were such a success that there were also games held in 1900 at the Paris Exposition and at the World's Fair at St Louis in 1904. Although the games in Paris did not have a stadium, they are significantly known as the first time that women took part. In the ancient games, the athletes were all male citizens from all over the Greek world. However, there was also a festival at Olympia every four years for unmarried women. In this festival, the Heraia, only unmarried women could compete in running races because Greek married women were not allowed to participate in sport unless they were Spartans.

The modern games do not distinguish between married and unmarried women and while women first took part in 1896 it was only in 2012 that women athletes were equal with men. In 2012, for the first time in Olympic history, every country included female athletes and with women's boxing added to the program, 2012 was the first time women could compete in all the same sports as men.

Although women were not always a part of the modern Olympic games, some of the key symbols that we associate with the Olympics were established early on. In fact, the grandeur of the opening and closing ceremonies reflects the ancient games. They ended with a feast where oxen were roasted on a barbecue. There were entertainers, jugglers and acrobats and politicians made speeches, similar to the opening and closing ceremonies nowadays. The ritual of the torch relay also has its roots in the ancient games but was first initiated at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

The modern Olympic flag, which was flown for the first time at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, consists of five linked rings coloured blue, yellow, black, green and red. While there are no ancient origins of the rings, they do symbolise the unity of the five continents (Asia, America, Africa, Europe and Oceania). The colours were also selected because every countries' flag contains one of the colours.

Another difference between the modern and ancient games is the disruptions caused by war. In ancient times the city-states of Greece were often at war, meaning that travelling between them was quite difficult. However, for the month preceeding the games there was a 'sacred truce' so that people could travel to Olympia safely. This is not the same for the modern games which have been disrupted on several occasions by wars between the competing nations. World War One and Two caused the cancellation of the 1916, 1940 and 1944 games and there was limited participation during the 1980 and 1984 games because of the Cold War.

Despite this, the modern games have made several improvements to their ancient predecessors such as the creation of the Winter Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games and the Youth Olympic Games. The first modern Winter Olympic Games occurred in Chamonix, France. They were scheduled to be held in 1916 but World War One delayed them until 1924. In 1994 the decision was made to alternate the Winter and Summer Olympic Games every other year rather than both together every fourth year; it was to accommodate TV networks and audiences.

From the 1896 modern Olympic Games, which consisted of 14 nations and 241 participants, the games have grown to become the biggest international sporting event in the world with 204 nations and 10,500 competitors competing in the 2012 Summer Games. This year, 120 years after the first modern Olympics and nearly 3,000 years since the first ever games in Greece, the games are travelling for the first time to a South American country.


By Sarah Anglim at 29 Jul 2016

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