As Rio welcomes the world to the 2016 Olympic Games, we take a look at this important event on the world’s calendar. We discover its story, meet some of its backstage heroes, and celebrate two Olympic runners separated by 28 centuries of history.
The Olympic torch arrives in Rio today after a four-month journey. It has traveled through the magnificent landscape of Brazil, lush rainforests, coastal dunes and lagoons, wetlands teeming with wildlife, and the massive Iguacu Falls. It reaches its destination in the city renowned for its annual Carnival, ringed by beautiful beaches and impressive mountains.
Heracles and the ancient Olympic Games
According to legend, it was the Greek god Heracles who first started the Olympic Games in honour of his father, Zeus. The earliest surviving written records show that the Games took place in Olympia in 776 BC, although it is probable that they were held for many years before this time.
In the first years, the only event was the Stadion, a running race of 192 metres (210 yards). A second race of twice this length was added at the 14th Olympiad, and later still more events were added, including longer runs, wrestling, boxing, chariot races and an especially gruelling race for runners dressed in armour.
The Games took place every four years, continuing until the 4th century AD. By this time Greece’s power had declined, and when the new Roman emperors adopted Christianity, they abolished all ‘pagan’ festivals including the Games which honoured the Greek god Zeus.
Revival of the ancient Games
By the mid-1800s, interest was growing in the revival of the ancient Olympic Games.
In the pretty town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire, doctor and magistrate Dr William Penny Brookes believed there was a need for education and structured physical exercise for the working classes. Brookes set up a library and, in 1850, established the first Wenlock Olympian Games: a mixture of athletics and traditional country sports such as quoits, football and cricket. Sometimes the Games included a ‘fun’ event, and always there was a procession with a band leading flag bearers, competitors and officials as they marched through decorated streets. To this day, Brookes’ sports festival is still held each year in Much Wenlock.
Meanwhile, in Greece, a new Olympic Games took place in 1859 in a city square in Athens, attracting athletes from all over Greece and the Ottoman Empire to take part. Evangelis Zappas, a wealthy Greek living in Romania, funded the event and paid for the restoration of the ancient Panathenaic Stadium in Athens as a home for future games.
Pierre de Coubertin and the modern Olympic Games
Baron Pierre de Coubertin created the modern international Olympic Games. Coming from an aristocratic French family, he was a very keen sportsman, enjoying boxing, fencing, horse-riding and rowing. Coubertin believed in the development of the individual as a way to recover hope and self-respect to his nation’s people after the Franco-Prussian War, and to help build a peaceful and better world. He firmly believed that sport was the key to developing mental energy. In his words: “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.”
In 1890, Coubertin founded the Olympic Games Committee. He built on the ideas and work of Brookes and Zappas to create a modern international Olympic Games which would take place every four years, hosted in rotation by participating countries.
Coubertin’s first Summer Olympics took place in 1896 in the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens with 14 nations taking part in foot races, lawn tennis, swimming, diving, fencing, bicycle races, rowing and a yacht race. The first prize was an olive wreath, second prize a laurel wreath, and all winners received diplomas and medals.
Great pageantry was a hallmark of Pierre de Coubertin’s Games and he instigated the opening ceremonies, parades and fireworks which are still a major part of the modern Olympics.
The world’s fastest man and the cook from ancient Greece
At the first Olympic Games of 776 BC, Coreobis, a cook from Eris, made history as winner of the Games. He won the sole event, the Stadion race: a sprint along open ground on a track of clay covered with sand. His prize was an olive branch and of course, the prestigious honour of winning.
Some 28 centuries later at the 2008 Olympics in Beijng, another runner made history, becoming the world’s fastest man. Usain Bolt won three gold medals, breaking three world records at the same time. Bolt defended his titles at the London 2012 Olympic Games, winning all three Olympic titles again, and setting a new world record time.
Separated by many centuries, but united by their phenomenally fast running, Coreobis of Eris and Jamaica’s Usain Bolt are both legendary figures in the story of the Olympic Games. We are all set to enjoy the 2016 games and admire some more fast running and other engaging sports.