The roots of the Olympic Spirit can be found in the ancient Greek civilization. In Ancient Greece, sport was part of man’s overall education which cultivated in a balanced and harmonious way his intellectual, mental and physical faculties.
The Olympic Games were held from 776 B.C. to 394 A.D. every four years in Olympia. They formed an integral part of a way of life, a cultural experience. Their significance compared to the other panhellenic meetings and contests between city states was so great that the four-year period between the games was called an Olympiad and served as a chronological method. During that period, the youth prepared themselves physically, morally and spiritually so as to reach the crest of their abilities at the epitome of the Olympiad, the Olympic Games.
The palestras and gymnasia, which were both sports and educational facilities, were to be found in every city, next to the temples and market places. Socrates, Aristotle and many of the famous philosophers of ancient Greece taught in the gymnasia, while Plato was himself an eminent athlete. The process of education continued after puberty, contributing to the learning of citizens and the life-long development of their mind.
Young people were taught arts, philosophy and music; at the same time they exercised their body in pursuit of the ideal of “kalokagathia”, virtue and beauty. In a similar way they cultivated the spirit of fair competition and sportsmanship, while seeking to achieve harmony in everything.
In accordance with tradition, the origins of sport and the Olympic games in particular are to be found in prehistoric times. The gods and heroes of Greek mythology were the first to take part in contests, becoming role models for all Greeks.
The conquest of victory at the Olympic Games was the highest honor for athletes and their city. Olympic victors were considered heroes. The cities tore down their walls when the Olympic victors returned to their homeland, to show how secure they felt to have among their citizens Olympic winners whose feats were extolled in poems and sculptures.
More than 40,000 people, athletes, philosophers, politicians, artists, poets, and other pilgrims travelled from all over the Greek world to Olympia to watch the Games. The protection of athletes and spectators during their hard journey was guaranteed by the holy truce when all hostilities and warfare ceased. Olympia, as a neutral and sacred place, was able to promote in a unique way, beyond the trivia of everyday life, the ideals of peace, freedom, equality and mutual respect. The thinkers of the Enlightenment looked to the ancient Greek spirit for inspiration and guidance.It was this civilization, as it was expressed through the Olympic Games, that Baron Pierre de Coubertin and those who before and after him contributed to the realization of this unique vision, fostered by educational pursuits, wanted to revive
The Olympic Games in Ancient Olympia
The Sanctuary of Olympia existed long before the Geometric era (9th-8th B.C.) – even before the 12th century B.C. The first shrine was the “Gaeon”, an altar dedicated to Mother Earth. The god Cronos was worshipped here, to be superceded by Zeus, when the latter defeated him in wrestling, as Greek myth has it. In Olympia, the Idaean Hercules had his brothers, the Idaean Daktyloi, compete in footrace after he had marked the place and length of the track. He thus set the foundations for the Olympic Games, and he was also the first to crown the winner with the “kotinos” – a wild olive shoot. The founder of the Games is thought to be Aethlios, the first king of Elis, whose name is associated with the word ‘athlete’. There are many others, who are claimed to be the founders of the Games, according to various myths – among them Peisos, Oinomaos, Pelops, Pelias, Neleus, Oxylos and others.
The first historical data about this grand religious and athletic feast in Olympia date from the early 8th century B.C.; in the year 884, according to ancient sources, King Ifitos of Elis, the legislator Lykourgos of Sparta and the tyrant Cleosthenes of Pissa signed an agreement according to which the sanctuary would be inviolable and all wars would stop during the festival. This agreement was called “Ekecheiria” (Truce) and designated the whole of Elis and the sanctuary of Olympia as sacred and inviolable.
The numbering of the Olympiads began from 776 B.C., because no names of winners were known before that date.Such was the position of the Games in the life of Greeks that, already in the Classical era, the Olympiads were often used for dating the events in the history of Greece. Over time, the Games in Olympia became the most important event for the whole of Greece, and Olympia was the Panhellenic athletic centre.If Delphi was the centre of the Earth, as Greeks believed, there is no doubt that Olympia was the heart of Greece.
For many years, there was only one event – the “stadion” foot-race (1 stadion = 192 m.). More events were added from 724 B.C. onwards: the diavlos race (2 stadia), the “dolichos” (24 stadia), wrestling, the pentathlon (708 B.C.), boxing (668 B.C.), chariot racing, the pancration (648 B.C.), equestrian sports, boys’ contests, etc. Equally old, it seems, were the Heraea – athletic contests for young women. The prizes were useful presents initially, but from 752 B.C. the award was a wreath of “kotinos”, i.e. wild olive. The Games were administered by the Hellanodikai, eminent men of Elis, who were aided by the ‘alytai’ and the staff bearers. At first, the Games lasted one day, but when more events were added, the duration was extended to five days – three days for the contests and the first and fifth day reserved for ceremonies and sacrifices. The glory of Olympia lived on for some 1,200 years and was so great as to prompt the famous poet Pindar to write: “Just as there is nothing stronger or more brilliant than the light of the sun, so there is no contest that is greater or more brilliant than the one in Olympia”.
Changes in the character of the Games
Several factors and historical events contributed to the change in the character of the Games. Professionalism, a desire for material benefits and a considerable emancipation of the games from religious dominance and violations of the truce had already appeared by the end of the 5th century B.C. However, the games continued under the authority of the sanctuary of Olympia, and an Olympic victory was still the most important milestone in one’s life. When Greece was incorporated into the Roman Empire (27 B.C.), the games were open to Roman officials, emperors even, and eventually to all citizens of the vast dominion; Egyptians, Spaniards, Syrians, Armenians and others are often among the Olympic winners, which means that the Games in Olympia were no longer merely panhellenic – they had become universal.
An order by Theodosius I in 393/4 A.D. signaled the end of the games.
This ban was ratified by Theodosius II in 424 A.D. The athletic pulse of Greece ceased to beat every four years and Olympia was ruined by earthquakes, fires, floods and suffered the ravages of barbarian plunderers and invaders. Olympia was no more. However, its immortal spirit, its ideology and the philosophy of the Olympic Games survived and were passed on through modern Greece and Pierre de Coubertin to the entire modern world. The Olympic Games were revived in Athens in 1896 and continue to this day with the participation of athletes from all nations.