The Olympics Story

By D. Georgiles

Koroibos! Koroibos! chanted the crowd of spectators as the naked sprinter streaked over the winning line to become the first winner of of any Olympic Games ever. The year was 776 B.C. and the sprinter from Elis in the Peloponessus had just won the one stade (64 m) race to win immortality and a wreath of olive leaves. But athletes from long before Koroibos had been an important part of life in ancient Greece, for the ancient Greeks glorified the mind and the body, and believed that humans needed discipline in both to best honour their god Zeus.

The first recorded athletic games were those held at the funeral of Achilles’ friend, Patroclus, who had been slain by Hector during the Trojan War. Homer immortalized these games in his epic poem, the Iliad.

Ceremonial games were held throughout Greece, each being named after the area of the venue, e.g. Nemean, Pythian, Isthmian. The most renowned of these games was that held at Elis in the Peloponnesus, in the valley of the Alpheios River. In this valley at Olympia was one of the most sacred sanctuaries of ancient Greece long dedicated to the omnipotent god Zeus.

The city state of Elis was purposely kept neutral by the more powerful Greek states. In the spring of each fourth year of the Olympiad, the period between the games, three heralds set out from Elis to proclaim to all the other city states that a sacred truce was in effect and that all competitors and spectators travelling to or from Olympia would be under the protection of Zeus. This truce was observed by all states and even those that were actively at war with each other laid down their arms for the duration of the games.

The Olympian celebrations were held throughout the five days of the second or third full moon after the summer solstice, i.e. the 12th to 16th of August or September. The first day was dedicated to religious ceremonies and the swearing of oaths not to defile the precepts of the Olympic Games.

Events at the Games were foot races, discus throwing, wrestling and the pancration (boxing combined with freestyle wrestling). Equestrian events were horse races, with jockeys riding naked on bare-backed steeds; and two- wheeled chariots pulled by teams of four horses. Competitors of all events were completely naked except the charioteers who wore short tunics; and the hoplites – heavily armed foot soldiers, who wore helmets and leg armour as well as carrying shields. These armoured men raced a distance of two stades (384 m).

The last day of the festival was given over to ritual celebrations, processions and banqueting. Victors were awarded chaplets of olive leaves, cut with a silver sickle from a sacred tree near the temple of Zeus.

Holding of the Olympic Games continued at four-year intervals for 1,200 years from the time Koroibos won his olive crown in 776 B.C. Over the years new events were added to the Games: in the XIV Olympics a two stade foot race was added; in the next Games a three mile road race became part of the program; and in 708 B.C. the pentathlon was introduced, with running, jumping javelin, discus throwing and wrestling. Boxing (pygmachia), with a leather mitten around the fists, was introduced in 668 B.C.

The Games continued in the Roman era; at first they were held with reverence and the emperor Tiberius, who ruled A.D. 14-37, had, when a youth, won the chariot race. Nero (A.D. 54-68) was such an enthusiast for the Games, that he proclaimed a special “Olympic Games” in A.D. 67 Ñ a non- Olympic year. Nero himself competed and won the two-horse- and four- horse chariot races; he unsuccessfully competed in a 10-horse chariot race. The Olympic Games were otherwise rigidly controlled by the Elders of Elis, and after Nero’s death, they struck his pseudo games and the names of the victors off the records. So conservative were the Elian priests and elders, that when Herodias Atticus (A.D. 101-177) a Greek-born Roman philhellene and philanthropist offered to rebuild the Olympic stadium and hippodrome the offer was rejected. The Elders did, however permit him to construct a 3 km aqueduct from a tributary of the Alpheios to Olympia. Here Herodias built the Nymphaeum, a colonnade of statues and marble basins decorated with allegorical reliefs. But the most enduring gift conferred by Herodias is the Odeion, an amphitheatre hollowed out of rock and encased in Pentelic marble, which still stands at the base of the Acropolis in Athens.

Olympia declined as the games venue under later Roman rule and the last recorded victor there was an Armenian boxer, Varazeletes in A.D.385. But long before this time, the emperor Augustus had left an endowment for the establishment of a games in Antioch (present day Antakya in Turkey). These games, actually held at Daphne, appropriated the name “Olympic Games” and equalled their splendour. However violent clashes between rival quasi political factions (the greens and the blues) after a chariot race in A.D. 507 caused the Byzantine emperor to finally end these games.

The official ending of the true Olympic Games was A.D. 394 when Theodosius the Great stopped reckoning time in olympiads (the four-year period between Games) and banned all pagan festivals. This makes the Olympic Games of A.D. 393 (the 293rd Olympics since Koroibos won his event in 776 B.C.) the last of the original Olympic Games to be held.

The Olympic Games were dead, but not forgotten, for over the centuries the name occasionally appeared in music and literature, e.g. Mouret’s ballet “Les jeux olympiqes” circa 1720 and Pergolesi’s opera “L’Olympique”, which he composed a few years later. Even earlier in 1592, Shakespeare, in Act 2 of Henry VI wrote to “such rewards as visitors wear at the Olympic Games; and in Act 4 of Troilus and Cressida he refers to “Olympian wrestling. John Milton in “Paradise Lost” mentioned the Olympic Games. Some dictionaries defined “Olympic fire/feu Olympique” as fire generated by the concentration of solar rays with a magnifying glass or concave mirror.

In early 17th century England, a Captain Dover inaugurated an annual “Olympick Games” held on his estate during Pentecost. These games died with him, despite a brief renewal by Charles II.

A yearly Olympic games was held near Wenlock, Shropshire, England from about 1849 to 1900. There were sporting events, a procession to the “Olympian Fields” and the dedication of trees to the Greek royal house and to Greek ministers. The King of the Hellenes sent the organizer of these games, Dr. W. P. Brookes, a large silver trophy, to be presented annually to the winner of the pentathlon.

But it was not only in Britain that men still thought of and revered the Olympic Games. Evangelos Zappas (1800-85), a Greek philanthropist who made his millions dealing in grain in Romania, donated the Zappeion in Athens. This building was used for athletic events and practice. Then in 1858 he offered King Otto of the Hellenes a large endowment for “the restoration of the Olympic games, to be held quadrennially in the traditions of our ancient ancestors”.

The revived Olympics took place on a Sunday in November 1859 just outside Athens. Events were the Diaulos and the Dolichos, ancient Greek for the short and long sprints; jumping, wrestling, javelin- and discus- throwing, rope climbing and tug of war. Winners were awarded olive wreaths and 100 drachmas, The champion wrestler was awarded a cow, this was in honour of Milo an ancient Greek pancration winner. Milo is said to have developed his physique by carrying a calf up a hill daily until it was full-grown. It was rumoured derisively, that when the bovine got too big for him to carry he dispatched it by firing an arrow through its heart. Even if Milo did not literally do so, he, like many athletes, did metaphorically “shoot the bull” .

The revived Olympics were not held again until 1870, then in 1875 and 1888. The site of the 1875 games was the stadium of Herodias Atticus (A.D. 101-177). Event winners were awarded olive chaplets, second-placers olive branches and those coming third got branches of flowering oleander.

Although these truly Hellenic Games resuscitated the idea of a new Olympics, the true father of the modern Olympic Games was Baron Pierre de Coubertin (born 1860) an athletic French nobleman, who rode horses, boxed, fenced and rowed. Pierre de Coubertin had been a spectator at the Wenlock Olympics and wrote that since the ancient Greeks had passed on, it was only the Anglo-Saxons who appreciated the moral influence of physical culture and athletics.

De Coubertin was obsessively influenced by the novel “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” (published in 1857). This book describes life at Rugby College, one of Britain’s renowned public schools, when Thomas Arnold was Headmaster. Discipline in the school was severe and lower form boys were obliged to do menial jobs for senior students and could be chastised by them. Caning was an accepted form of punishment in the school and there was a heavy emphasis on sport and athletics.

Baron de Coubertin believed that these harsh schooldays and the inclusion of athletic sports in the curriculum, had a toughening effect on the students and imbued them with the ancient Greek virtues of physical courage, justice, self-discipline, temperance and cooperation. In fact the Baron was convinced that Britain’s ascendency as the superpower of the day was attributable to the combination of severe schooling and athletic participation.

With this belief, de Coubertin devoted his time and energy to effect the changing of the French educational system to be close to that of the British. He lectured and lobbied throughout France despite being labelled an Anglophile and a poor patriot. But it was not until 1892, when addressing an assembly at the Sorbonne, Paris, that he suggested re-establishment of that grand and magnificent institution the Olympic Games.

On June 16, 1894, de Coubertin filled the great amphitheatre of the Sorbonne with 2,000 persons, including representatives from Greece, Russia, Spain and Italy, as well as politicians, bureaucrats, academics, and students. The opening session was entitled “Congress for the Re-establishment of the Olympic Games.

The Congress was divided into two commissions, one headed by Dimitrios Bikelas (1835-1908) an historian, novelist, poet and translator of Shakespeare into Modern Greek. Bikelas’ main task was the establishment of the International Olympic Committee, whose members were to present the principles of modern Olympianism to their countries.

At the final dinner of the Congress on June 23, 1894, when enthusiasm was at its highest de Coubertin realised that the time was ripe and that if the Committee waited until the Exposition Universale in Paris in 1900 all this intense enthusiasm would be dissipated. Caught up in the euphoria, he proposed that the first Olympics be held four years earlier in 1896 and that they be held in Athens.

All of Greece was enthralled with the idea, but as time progressed and the vastness and cost of the project began to sink in, there were some grim doubts. Stephanos Dragoumis a politician and member of the Zappeion Commission, which was charged with considering international games in Greece, voiced reservations because of the current economic crisis in Greece. Bikelas was in favour of installing temporary wooden seats in the stadium of Herodias Atticus at a cost of 200,000 drachmas. But he informed Baron de Coubertin that the prime minister Charilaos Tricoupis was not in favour of Greece hosting the Olympics and with reason, GREECE WAS LITERALLY BANKRUPT.

But de Courbertin was not to be dismayed, two days after the meeting with Tricoupis he published a letter in the newspaper “Asti” and in it he wrote, “We have a tradition in France that the word impossible is not French. Someone told me this morning that it was Greek, but I did not believe him.

His words had effect, for increasing support grew and at a rally in the Zappeion, de Coubertin convinced Constantine, Duke of Sparta to be president of an organising committee. Tricoupis resigned and Deligiannes became prime minister. Commissions sprang up all around; some recruited athletes, others arranged reception facilities for foreign athletes and spectators, and others planned the program of events.

Eventually Constantine realised that financing would have to come from other than government sources. but the government did exempt all tickets and gate receipt from taxation and raised funds by an issue of commemorative postage stamps. Constantine made an appeal to Greeks at home and abroad. heavy donations poured in and on February 19, 1895 Timoleon Philemon, Secretary-General of the Greek Olympic Committee reported that 130,000 drachmas had been donated. Philemon sent word of Greece’s need to George Averof, a Greek millionaire in Alexandria, Egypt. Averof had already given Athens a military academy, a reformatory and a technical school; he was later to purchase a new 10 000 tonne cruiser, which he presented to his country.

Bikelas’ proposal of wooden seats and temporary rebuilding of Herodias Atticus stadium was waived and plans to restore it to its original state were drawn up. The estimated cost was 585,000 drachmas and Averof declared that he would underwrite the entire restoration. The final cost was just under a million drachmas and George Averof true to his word footed the bill, but modestly declined to be an honoured guest at the Games.

Herodias Atticus would have been delighted to see his stadium restored to its pristine state: Atticus and Averof, two philanthropists, could shake hands over almost two millennia and be gratified with a job well done. Pierre de Coubertin had achieved his goal and the host country was Greece. The stadium, one of the best anywhere at that time sat 70,000 spectators and 50,000 more adorned the hillside: THE 1896 OLYMPIC GAMES WERE ON.

Athletes from 12 nations competed, the largest teams being from the U.S.A. and Greece. Both teams dominated the standings Ñ the U.S.A. had 11 gold, seven silver and one bronze. Greece had 10 gold,19 silver and 17 bronze. The highlight of the 1896 Games was truly the marathon. In it Spyridon Loues, an army conscript, beat the best long distance runners of the day, to win the race and like his “forerunner”, Koroibos, to wear the victor’s chaplet of olive leaves in a first Olympics.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin died in Geneva, Switzerland on September 25, 1937 and was buried in Lausanne. But his heart that had once burned with Olympic fire is buried in the hallowed sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, Greece.

A century has passed since this first Modern Olympic Games and we are about to enter a new millennium, the Summer Olympics of the year 2000 will be held in Sydney, Australia; however, many chronologists proclaim, that the exact beginning of the millennium is not until midnight December 2,000. According to this logic, the following Olympics to be held in Athens, Greece in 2004, will de facto be the first Olympic Games of the Second Millennium.

Regardless of either contention, 1,228 years after Greece gave birth to the first Olympics in B.C. 776 and a century after the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896) the stadia of Athens will again echo with the encouraging cheers of enthusiastic spectators; and perhaps the ghost of Koroibos will sprint silently alongside the competitors in the 100 metre race and stand behind the medalists on the podium.