August 15th, 2016
Every two years, I get pumped for the Olympics. I put my American flag shirt on, put a viewing party together, and spend two weeks glued to the TV or my phone.
My favorite part is the opening ceremony, which always gives me goose bumps. It gets me to start wondering: what were the first Olympics like?
In 776 BC (over 2,700 years ago!), the Olympics were first created as a religious festival, in honor of Zeus, the king of the Gods. Just like the modern games, the ancient Olympic events happened every four years in at the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, a valley near the city of Elis. Olympia was named after Mt. Olympos, the highest mountain in mainland Greece, and where the great Greek gods and goddesses were to have resided, according to mythology. All city-states of Greece were to attend. The Olympics had a “sacred truce” where feuding was put on hold for a month to guarantee safe travel for the athletes.
The first Olympic Games wasn’t too exciting. It had only one event: a sprint. Throughout the centuries, more events began appearing at the Games, including long jump, discus, javelin throws, wrestling, boxing, and chariot racing. Winners were considered heroes of their city-states, similar to how we treat our Olympic winners. While they probably didn’t get a Nike contract, they were idolized by citizens, received free food and libations, and gained access to important parties and dinners.
Crowds up to 40,000 would flock to the Games in order to catch a glimpse of the athletes. These spectators consisted of only men and unmarried women; married women were not allowed to participate or watch. However, there was a separate, smaller event in honor of Hera, the wife of Zeus, where women could participate.
The Olympic Games lasted for nearly 12 centuries. During the mid-2nd century AD, the Roman Empire conquered Greece and while the games continued, they didn’t match up to the initial splendor of the first Olympic games. Eventually in 393 AD, Emperor Theodosis I, a Christian, banned all “pagan” festivals, including the Games.
For 1,503 years, there were no Olympic Games, until a Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Coubertin presented the idea in 1894. In 1896, the Games restarted again in Athens, with 14 countries participating. Now, over 13,000 athletes perform in the Olympic Games, with a new city acting as the host for the Games every two years.
If you want to learn more about the Olympics, be sure to check out what your local CCPL branch has to offer. There are books for kids of all age groups, such as “What are the Summer Olympics?”, “Ancient Greece and the Olympics”, and “G is for Gold Medal: an Olympic Alphabet”.
For adults, there’s the ever-popular “The Boys in the Boat”; “The Complete Book of the Olympics”; “Triumph: the untold story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics”. We also have the DVD “The Real Olympics: A history of the ancient & modern Olympic games” and a list of memoirs written by current and former Olympic athletes.
What’s your favorite Olympic sport, athlete, or anecdote?