If you love the Olympics, remember the name Pierre de Coubertin. You have him to thank for them.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin was twenty-nine when he traveled to Olympia on the western Peloponnese peninsula of Greece in 1892. Walking among the ruins of the nearly 3000-year-old site of the first Olympic games, he got an idea. Bring them back. Resurrect the ancient Olympic competitions of the Greeks.
Rekindle the Olympic flame.
Baron Coubertin requested a meeting with the Union des Sports Athlétiques in Paris and earnestly made his proposal, urging that les jeux olympiques be reborn as an international athletic competition.
Two years later, his proposal was accepted and Baron Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee.
Four years later, the games opened. King Georgios of Greece and 100,000 spectators came to their feet as 280 athletes from fourteen nations entered the arena in Athens. The games included track and field, gymnastics, swimming, cycling, tennis, weight lifting, shooting and fencing. But the most glorious was the marathon. The race would replicate one of the cherished events in Greek history. In 490 B.C., the Greeks were at war with the Persian Empire and the Persians were advancing on Athens. A pitifully outnumbered Athenian force met them at Marathon, and stopped them there. A runner was dispatched to Athens with news of the astonishing victory. He ran the mountainous, 25-mile route without stopping until he reached the anxious city. “We have won,” he cried, and collapsed.
In 1896, with the heart of every Greek beating for him, Spyridon Louis pushed off with 17 other competitors for the 25-mile race from Marathon to Athens. Just under three hours later, the lone runner loping into the Olympic stadium in Athens was Spyridon Louis. Greece roared.
WE HAVE WON!
The first records we have of these early Olympic games were written in 776 B.C. At the time, the only competition was a footrace. The winner of the race in 776 B.C. was a cook named Coroebus. He is our first recorded Olympic champion.
The games were held every four years and were the most famous of all the many Green sporting festivals. Ancient historians measured time by the four-year increments (Olympiads) between them. (Apparently the Greeks were as sports-crazy as we are.)
Over the space of about a century, other games were added to the competition: the pentathlon (consisting of a foot race, long jump, discus and javelin throws and a wrestling match); boxing; and chariot racing (a shame that we’ve discontinued this one). Only freeborn males could compete, of course, and married women weren’t allowed to attend. Probably a ban suggested by the husbands, the contestants all being stark naked.
And maybe that’s why in the fourth century, the Christian Emperor Theodosius I banned them. (Christians again, spoiling all the fun). But by then, the games were a joke anyway. After the Romans conquered Greece, the standard were somewhat, shall we say, lowered. For instance, that lunatic Emperor Nero entered a chariot race, fell out of his chariot and still proclaimed himself the winner. Nobody said a word.
Well, anyway, the Christians said the games, with all that sacrificing to the gods, were heathenish (they did not believe, as the pagans did, in freedom of religion), and in 393 A.D., Olympia fell silent. Over the next 1500 years, the sanctuary with its magnificent temples, alters, hippodrome and stadium slowly crumbled.
And then just over a century ago, a young Frenchman strolled along the lane above, reverently walked in the footsteps of the ancient Olympic athletes beneath the arch into the stadium, and decided, “Well, it’s time.”
But after the first modern Olympic event in Athens in 1896, the games were not held Greece again for 108 years.
The Sacred Flame
The Olympic Games of ancient Greece were in honor of Zeus, the father of all the gods. In Greek mythology, the deity Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mankind. To commemorate this “gift of the gods,” a sacred flame was lit at the start of the ancient Olympics and kept burning throughout the games.
The tradition of the Olympic flame should not be confused with the tradition of the Olympic torch relay, which began at the Olympic games of 1936 in Berlin. At that time, the practice began of igniting the flame in Olympia and then transferring it in a special ceremony to the country hosting the games.
In 2004, the Olympic flame was lit again in Olympia. It then began a journey, passing hand to hand 11,300 times, around the planet earth. Zeus, in the incarnation of a chartered Icelandic Boeing 747, carried it aloft above the oceans of the world, bringing it home at last to Greece.
The theme of the 2004 Olympic games, in which eleven thousand athletes 201 nations walked into the stadium in Athens, was “Welcome Home.”
On the night of August 13, Olympic Gold Medal winner, Nikolaos Kaklamanakis, leapt with the torch up the grand staircase in Athens,
The cauldron descended to the flame,
Let the games begin!