7 Things You Didn’t Know About The Olympics

With the 2016 Olympic Games being right around the corner, do you think you know enough about the ancient as well as the modern sporting tradition? Brush up on your Olympic knowledge before heading out to Rio de Janeiro!

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Olympics Was Started By Hercules

The Ancient Olympic Games were held in Greece as a religious festival dedicated to the Greek God Zeus. It took place in a place called Olympia in Peloponnesos, Greece. The first written records of the Olympic Games suggest that they were held back in 776 BC, but most historians believe that the Games were held even before that. According to popular Greek legends, it was Herakles (who was termed as Hercules by the Romans) who started the tradition of hosting Olympic Games every four years!

Herakles, after completing his legendary twelve labors, built the Olympic Stadium in honor of his father, Zeus. After building the stadium, he walked 200 steps and called this length a ‘stadion’, which then went on to become a Greek unit of distance. Which is why the first 13 Olympic Games had just one game: the 700 feet long stadion foot race!

All Male And All Nude

To compete in the foot races, you would have to fit three criteria: you would have to be male, you would have to not be a slave, and you would have to be willing to be naked in front of a large audience of 45,000! That’s right, folks! All the runners were necessarily nude (even the word ‘gymnasium’ comes from the Greek word ‘gymnos’ meaning ‘nude’). No wonder married women were not even allowed to watch the Games!

Longer distance running was introduced by the 14th Olympic Games. In addition to athletic events as these, over time games such as the pentathlon, boxing, horseback riding, chariot-racing, etc. were added. The pentathlon, designed to test a participant’s all-round athleticism, consisted of five games: wrestling, javelin, long jump, discus and running.

Ancient Greek statues seen during the opening ceremony of the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Ancient Greek statues seen during the opening ceremony of the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Prizes

Instead of awarding people medals like we do now, winners were awarded wreaths of olive leaves. They were also awarded with the prize money of about 500 drachmas (gold coins).

Another unexpected prize was the truce that was induced because of these Games. The city-states of Greece were often at war with each other. However, one month before the Games were held, messengers were sent throughout Greece to announce a sacred truce. The one-month peace period allowed participants to train themselves and merchants and spectators to travel through the Greek city-states without any fear.

olive wreaths are still used today as a sign of high quality (Photo credit: creadib)

olive wreaths are still used today as a sign of high quality (Photo credit: creadib)

The Revival

By 393 A.D., the Olympic Games were banned by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I on account of being a ‘pagan’ festival. But as we know, history repeats itself and the Olympics were sure to grace the human race again.

Also Read: Where Did The Idea For Gold, Silver And Bronze Medals Come From?

Modern Olympics was started by a French historian and educator Pierre de Coubertin. He founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894 as he felt that the creation of Olympics would be a step towards international peace.

Finally, in 1896, about 1500 years after the last Ancient Olympic Games, it was time to restart the Games! It took place in Athens with 13 countries, 280 participants competing in 43 events. The first medal to be handed out in this Olympics was given to the American James Connolly for triple jump. The 1896 Games also featured the world’s youngest Olympian, Dimitrios Loundras, a Greek gymnast who was only 10 years and 218 days old!

James Connolly at the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens

James Connolly at the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens

The Olympic Flag

The Olympic flag was first designed by Coubertin himself in 1914 and was used for the first time in 1920 Olympic Games held in Antwerp. It consists of five rings of different colors on a white background. The colors used on this flag, i.e. red, blue, yellow, green and black weren’t chosen just arbitrarily. Every national flag of the participating countries have at least one of the colors of the rings! Go on, check it for yourself.

Coubertin thus thought that a flag that has colors from all flags would truly be an international symbol. He chose five colors for five rings to represent the five continents: Americas, Asia, Europe, Africa and Oceania.

Boycotts And Cancellations

The tradition of hosting Olympic Games has been carried for more than a hundred years now and it doesn’t seem to be waning. Nevertheless, the modern Olympic Games were cancelled three times in history, always on the account of war. Unsurprisingly, due to the two World Wars, there were no Olympic Games in 1916, 1940 or 1944. Obviously, people were too busy surviving rather than celebrating an international sports event.

Politics regularly seeps in the Olympic Games, resulting in a lot of propaganda and boycotting. For example, during the Cold War, both America and Soviet Union boycotted each other’s Olympic Games. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow were boycotted by the US as well as other 64 nations. In return, the USSR and 15 countries boycotted the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games contending that they could not guarantee the safety of their athletes. As a matter of fact, of all the nations in the world, only Britain, Switzerland, Australia, Greece and France have competed in each and every Games!

The crowd gives the Nazi salute at the Berlin Olympic games, August 1936. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The crowd gives the Nazi salute at the Berlin Olympic games, August 1936. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Women In Olympics

As I mentioned before, women were not allowed to participate in the ancient Olympics. They had their own festival Heraea, to honour Zeus’s wife, Hera. However, in modern Olympics, that changed. It was the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris when women were first given the opportunity to participate. Despite the encouragement, even by 1992, there were still 35 countries that only had male participants.

But that changed very rapidly. By 2010, only three countries had never sent female athletes to the Olympics: Brunei, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Brunei could be excused though, considering that they only sent one athlete each Games. Saudi Arabia and Qatar however were an entirely different story. The IOC soon after started pressurizing the two countries to lift their individual bans on women athletes. Which is why, the 2012 London Olympic Games was the first time that every country competing had included female athletes! Even Brunei had one!

Also Read: What Benefits Does A Country Get After Winning The World Cup?

Charlotte Cooper, first female to win a medal at 1900 Olympics Games

Charlotte Cooper, first female to win a medal at 1900 Olympics Games

Despite the strained international political atmosphere though, the modern world is still increasingly receptive towards the Olympics. The last few Olympics have seen a record number of nearly 11,000 people, from a record number of 204 countries, competing in a record number of 28 sports and 41 disciplines over a record 302 events. Now that’s a crowd!

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About the Author

Vaishnavi has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology/Anthropology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai (India) and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Global Studies (whatever that is) from Humboldt University, Berlin (Germany). She loves to read and to sing, especially to avoid awkward situations. She claims she has learned a lot through traveling but she still ends up pulling a door marked ‘Push’, so the jury is still out on that one.