The History of the Olympic Games - Ancient & Modern


Harvey Abrams, BS, MAT, Ph.d/abd,
Olympic & Sport Historian

These history pages are designed to promote the knowledge and understanding of the Olympic Games to a wide audience via the world wide web, also referred to as "the internet." I will assume that the average reader knows very little about this subject. I offer comments and notes within the text to help clarify the meaning of words or phrases, or to explain an issue. At this time these pages will be in English only, but in the future I will try to translate them into German and French. I invite comments and critique from everyone - middle school students, high school students, teachers and academics as well as other Olympic historians. Anything that will improve these pages is welcome! Please return often to find historical & educational resources on the Olympic Games, History of Sport, Physical Education, Sports & Athletics, Wrestling, Fencing, and numerous sports subjects with numerous links.

Brief Autobiography

When you read the history of any subject it is important to know about the author because of "bias" or "prejudice." Never trust anything you read that has not been clearly identified by the author. Just because it has been written does not make it accurate or true. There are many things on the internet that are false, misleading or intended to be propaganda. Avoid pages that try to "push" a particular historical point of view. In other words - be aware that the writer of history may have a personal agenda other than a merely factual story. Be a good researcher and look for multiple sources. background.

I graduated from the prestigious Central High School of Philadelphia with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1967. Beginning my college education in the five year program of architecture at Penn State University I changed direction and entered the Physical Education department in orderto become a Physical education teacher because I wanted to be an athlete first and foremost. During the late 60's and the Vietnam war era I entered Air Force ROTC but left when I was told I would be trained as a navigator and not as a pilot. I graduated in 1971 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education. My entire career has revolved around the sport of amateur wrestling, the Olympic Games, history, law, art, international relations and sport, language and books.

I am a Physical Education teacher by training (BS in Physical Education, Penn State University, 1971; MAT in Physical Education, S.E. Missouri State University 1979; Ph.D./abd Penn State University 1977-82, 1987-90). My education and academic training coincided with my athletic career. I lettered in wrestling at Penn State University and through wrestling I learned about the Olympic Games. Since 1971 I have been a Health and Physical Education teacher in several public schools and two universities. For five years I lived in Europe and served as acting Department Chairman for Sport and Student Activities at the John F. Kennedy School in West Berlin, Germany.

After college I continued to compete in Olympic freestyle wrestling in order to earn a spot on the US Olympic Team. I tried out for the US teams in 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984. In 1972 I placed 2nd in the qualifying tournament in Lancaster, PA and in 1976 I placed 4th in the qualifying tournament in Binghampton, NY. Although I attended the Olympic Games in Munich (1972) and Montreal (1976) as a visitor I never realized my dream of wrestling in the Olympic Games.

Along the way I became interested in the history of my own sport -- amateur wrestling. In time I developed a much broader interest in the ancient and modern Olympic Games and Sport History in general. This led me to chose attending Penn State University for a Ph.D. in History of Sport rather than going to law school, which was actually my first choice. In 1979 I started my own rare book business in order to further develop my own Olympic and Sport History library. While living in Europe I expanded my interests to Olympic posters, memorabilia and historical objects including ancient Greek art -- such as vase paintings, reliefs and writings.

My athletic career came to an end in 1984 when I was injured while training for the Olympic trials and I retired from wrestling. My academic career geared up -- and in addition to teaching I was a rare book dealer, appraiser, researcher, writer, professional historian, consultant, and founder of two non-profit corporations. My focus was on the Olympic Games.

As an American my mother tongue is English, of course. As a typical American student - I did not care for foreign language classes in high school or college. This changed in 1972 when I attended the Olympic Games in Munich and I realized that I was missing a lot that was in other languages. While in France I found that my high school French was actually pretty good, and useful -- except for the meal I had in Southern France where I ignorantly ordered cow's eyes for dinner. For my Ph.D program I wanted to study Russian but was not allowed to do so by my advisor, so I studied German instead. This was actually a good decision since German historians had done a lot of work on the ancient and modern Olympic Games. But it was in 1981, when I attended the International Olympic Academy in Greece, that I was strongly influenced by a Swiss athlete who became my friend, George V. I was amazed how this Swiss swimmer could carry conversations in English, French, German and Italian all at the same time. And he could swim faster than me, too. I vowed in 1981 to be more talented like this Swiss athlete, but it's slow progress for me. Although I am now fairly good with German and French, I am not fluent -- not truly bi-lingual like George (who is actually quadra-lingual). I also have learned other languages over time with some mediocre skills in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Swedish, Italian, Spanish and Russian. However -- I will continue to study these languages until I am fluent in each one.

Now that you know more about me - you, the reader, can place any historical bias that I have on these pages into proper context from knowing my background, experience and education. We can find common ground in this diverse world through sport and the Olympic Games. I hope these pages are useful for your research and studies.

Originally located at
Created on Sunday, August 27, 2000
Updated Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Updated Friday, March 16, 2012
Updated September 30, 2012
Updated September 7, 2013
Relocated to and
Updated June 12, 2018
These pages are dedicated to K & A

1. A Brief Overview of Olympic History

The Olympic Games are the largest sporting event in the world. Some people would argue that the Olympic Games are NOT the largest sporting event because they believe that soccer's World Cup is the largest sporting event - so this statement of mine is "argumentative".

the Olympic games are constantly growing and changing in order to fit the needs of a changing society (meaning the entire world). each celebration brings more nations and more athletes to the games. in the beginning there were only a few hundred athletes but today there are over 10,000 athletes. in the first few Olympic games there were very few women athletes -- because they were not welcome -- while today almost half of the athletes are women and they even compete in wrestling and boxing. boxing for women was been added to the 2012 Olympic games in London with three weight classes and twelve boxers in each weight class.

The Modern Olympic Games started in 1896 in Athens, Greece and the 100th anniversary, the Centennial Games, were celebrated in 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia. The last summer Olympic Games were held in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). The next summer Olympic Games will be in Tokyo (Japan) in 2020.

The host city for the 2020 Olympic Games (formally known as the Games of the XXXII Olympiad) was selected on September 7, 2013. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) met for its 125st Session in Buenos Aires, Argentina and voted for Tokyo (Japan) as the host city, beating Madrid and Istanbul.

Six cities around the world had prepared their bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games, but Rome, Italy abandoned its bid due to the lingering financial crisis in Europe. The remaining five bid cities were: Baku (Azerbaijan), Doha (Qatar), Istanbul (Turkey), Madrid (Spain) and Tokyo (Japan). The IOC had narrowed the field to three finalists: Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul.

The winter Olympic Games were not part of Pierre de Coubertin's original plan, but came later from the influence of European sport, especially from the Nordic nations (Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway). "Winter" sports are considered to be sports that are practiced on snow or ice. There were some "winter" sports in the 1908 London Olympic Games. The first "official" winter Olympic Games were held in 1924 in Chamonix, France. They were held every four years, the same year as the summer Olympic Games, until 1992 when a change was made in the Olympic calendar. After 1992 (Albertville, France), the winter Olympic Games were held in 1994 (Lillehammer, Norway), the second year of the Olympiad and then every four years since then. This new schedule allowed the IOC more time to chose a host city as the process had become very time consuming and expensive, resulting in ethical problems that included bribery of some IOC members. In 2002 (Salt Lake City, Utah, USA), the ethics issue became big news and some IOC members were kicked out of the Olympic Movement. In 2006 the winter Olympics were in Torino, Italy and the 2010 winter Olympic Games were in Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada). The host city for the 2014 winter Olympics was Sochi, (Russia). The 2018 winter Olympic Games host city was PyeongChang, (South Korea). The 2022 winter Olympic Games host city will be in Beijing (China).

The Winter Olympic Games are not considered part of the OLYMPIAD, the four year time period between the Games. This special recognition of time - the OLYMPIAD - is only for the summer Games, which are more important and have higher participation numbers in both number of countries attending and athletes competing.

The Modern Olympic Games was an idealistic creation to promote sport primarily for French youth. The French government was looking for ways to train the youth of France to be stronger so they would not be humiliated in war again, as they were in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.

At the time the modern Games were revived (1894-1896) cars were not yet on the road, in fact there were few roads. The roads which did exist were dirt covered. Asphalt roads were being built to accommodate bicycles, not cars. Travel was primarily accomplished by riding horses, buggies, trains and ships. There were no airplanes, no radio or television; few telephones. Sports sections of newspapers did not yet exist. Sports were a national affair - not international. There were no teams that traveled to compete against other countries. At that time wrestlers from Europe came to the United States and thrilled crowds in theaters with their skills - the origins of professional wrestling. But in the 1890's it was still real wrestling. Rowing was a big sport in the Eastern USA and Great Britain. Baseball was growing in popularity in the USA. Sport was mostly very provincial - there was very little travel involved. Travel that was available was very slow and very expensive.

In 1896 the first modern Olympic Games was held in the ancient stadium in Athens, renovated for the first time in almost 2,000 years to host 50,000 spectators. In contrast, at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 there were over 10,600 athletes, and over 21,000 newspaper reporters, photographers and members of the media. An existing stadium was upgraded and new facilities were constructed for other events. Over three billion (3,000,000,000) people were able to watch the Olympic Games on television sets all over the world -- but there is no way of knowing how many actually did watch the Games. Now -- if each one of them would visit this web site, I would be very happy!

The early history of the modern Olympic Games is very interesting -- but also very different from the Olympic Games today. When reading and studying about the early (modern) Olympic Games -- you should try to understand the TIMES in which it was held. Read old newspapers to see what was happening in the world of politics, international affairs, and business. See what food cost, what a train ride cost, what people were paid for their labor. See the clothing that people wore. Try to find music from the period and listen (Alexander's Rag Time Band should liven things up in your class). This will help you to understand the changes that have taken place in all aspects of history-- not just sport and the Olympic Games.

2. Hosting the Olympic Games

The Modern Olympic Games are not hosted by a country -- they are hosted by a city. The 2002 Winter Olympic Games were not the "American" Olympic Games, they were the "SALT LAKE CITY" Games. The 2004 summer Olympic Games were not "Greek" Olympic Games, but they were the "ATHENS" Games. The 2008 Games were the "BEIJING OLYMPIC GAMES" and the 2012 Games were the "LONDON OLYMPIC GAMES." Much of the press and even sports officials in Great Britain have incorrectly called the 2012 Games the "British Olympics." Keep in mind as you read newspapers and books that the writers may not always be accurate. Sometimes they do not have much knowledge of their topic because they are doing a job - filling space with an article, or publishing a book. Research wisely. Question facts and details. Try to find the "best" sources of information. It will be tricky.

For a list of cities that have hosted the Modern Olympic Games, (both the SUMMER Olympic Games and the WINTER Games) click here Host Cities of the Olympic Games.

3. The Origins of the Modern Olympic Games: War and French Youth

The Modern Olympic Games exist because an aristocratic Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin (Pierre Fredy Baron de Coubertin) wanted to promote sport among the youth of his own country, France.

As an aristocrat he decided not to enter politics or the military -- which is what a French aristocrat was supposed to do, as men in his family had done for over 400 years. Instead Monsieur de Coubertin worked for the French Ministry of Education, and specifically he studied sport and physical education. His mission was to improve French physical education and the fitness of French youth -- primarily for the military. He traveled to other countries and was profoundly influenced by the robust sports played in schools and universities in England (rugby) and the United States (football). Coubertin himself was a fencer.

You must understand that the intention of Baron de Coubertin was not just to promote sport because it is a fun thing to do. You must understand history. Lots of things influence history -- and sport. Such things as politics and wars. More accurately -- losing a war is a major influence on this topic. Losers have long memories. In 1870-71 the Germans and the French had a brief war called the Franco-Prussian War (July 1870-January 1871). From our perspective (American, of course) an accurate and very brief description could be stated as this: -- the Germans kicked the snot out of the French. In more polite terms -- two European powers had another one of their wars and the French lost. But this war had different results than previous European wars. As a result of their victory, Otto von Bismark of Prussia was successful in uniting all the different Germanic states into a single country called GERMANY. At the same time this new country of Germany or Allemagne in French, annexed some French territory -- the region known as Alsace-Lorraine. This issue of annexing Alsace-Lorraine comes up again in historical events we now know as World War I and World War II. The French and Germans battled repeatedly over this land -- France took it back in 1918 after World War I. Then the Germans invaded France in World War II and regained the territory in 1940. After the Germans were defeated in World War II the territory returned to France in 1945. It is not a coincidence that Germany was not invited to the Olympic Games after these two wars (German Olympic teams were not invited to the Antwerp 1920 nor London 1948).

Our European ancestors fought lots of wars, all the time, which is why Americans became so removed from Europeans and avoided alliances from the Revolutionary era to the 20th century. Americans remained "neutral" -- well, at least until Teddy Roosevelt came along and kind of forced the issue. He resigned as secretary of the navy to join the Army and fight in the Spanish-American War in 1898. He became a national hero charging up San Juan Hill. Then, as President of the United States, in 1907 he sent the US Navy on a 14 month worldwide cruise to show-off the growing American military power to the Japanese, Chinese, Russians, Germans -- actually everyone -- but you can read about that somewhere else -- look for the Great White Fleet. So, you ask, what does all this have to do with the Olympic Games??

Let us go back to Pierre de Coubertin. The French Ministry of Education sent Coubertin on a mission -- to find out how to reform the educational system and make French youth stronger and more fit (so the next time "we French" fight the Germans, we will beat them). The perception in France at that time was that French youth were weak and wimpy. French schools were strong academically, but placed no emphasis on fitness. Therefore the military was weak, and the French nation was at risk. "Make our French kids stronger" was the goal. So Coubertin studied how other nations made their kids stronger. Germans did gymnastics in turnvereins. Swedes did a different form of gymnastics. The British played rugby. The Americans played football. Coubertin traveled to various schools and countries where he studied these forms of physical education -- with the intention of changing French education.

He was very impressed with the British and Americans. In England he visited various schools and in 1890 he witnessed the Wenlock Olympian Games which had been in existance since 1850. These Olympic Games were organized by William Penny Brookes in the town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire, England. See more about the Wenlock Olympian Society and the history of those Games here. Just two years later Coubertin organized an International Physical Education Congress in 1892 at the Sorbonne University in Paris where he proposed the revival of the Olympic Games to a group of educators who were not at all enthused. Although he failed in 1892 he continued to promote his ideas. Coubertin repeated his Congress again in 1894 and this time he was successful in getting some international support for the revival of the Olympic Games.

But there were already Olympic Games taking place in Greece -- but only for Greeks. These Greek Olympic Games were not well-known outside of Greece. Organized by a wealthy Greek nationalist, Evangelis Zappas (1800-1865), the first celebration was in 1859 and they were repeated twice -- in 1870 and 1875. Read more about these Greek Olympic Games here.

Pierre de Coubertin did not invent the Olympic Games. He is the "reviver" of the Olympic Games (French term, "renovateur").
He used the model of the ancient Greek Olympic Games in an effort to build interest in sport within his own France. He was influenced by the people he met and the places he visited -- especially in Great Britain and the United States.

Images above, left to right:
Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, William Penny Brookes of England, Evangelis Zappas of Greece.

His original ideas of improving education for French youth changed into a mission of sport for everyone. His ideas matured beyond his own country of France to include other countries as well. He was responsible for making the idea of the Olympic Games a successful international sports event. Eventually he wrote about promoting world peace through sport and the Olympic Games.

After a century of glorifying Pierre de Coubertin as the renovateur -- the reviver of the Olympic Games -- there are calls for others to be recognized. In spite of the French claim that Coubertin is responsible for the Olympic revival, the British claim it was William Penny Brookes who was really responsible. The Greeks claim it was Evangelis Zappas who should be considered the "father" of the modern Olympic Games. Yet nobody mentions Robert Dover's Olympick Games which started in 1612 in England. Read more about DOVER'S OLYMPICK GAMES here.

In order to understand the origins of the Olympic Games better - one must study nineteenth (19th) century European and American history. The idea of the Olympic Games was never just about sport -- it was a combination of nationalism, politics, history and culture -- and it has evolved into the most important sports event in the world today. Language will be a barrier, as well as national pride and bias. The vast quantity of material about Pierre de Coubertin is still in French. A handful of books are available in English. Lots of material is in German, and very little of this has been translated into English. There is a lot of information for the early period of time in Swedish because the 1912 Olympic Games were in Stockholm.

You will find that each nation has significant amounts of information, as well as a bias from their point of view. Start reading. Do your research. Try to understand the bias that is behind much of what has been written so that you can evaluate all the information and draw your own conclusion. Compare sources and try to find the truth. Good luck!

4. Ancient and Modern Greece

The Greece of today cannot be compared to the Greece of the ancient era -- over 2,000 years has elapsed. The ancient Greeks ceased to exist. The Greeks and their pagan culture (worship of Zeus and multiple gods) were conquered and overwhelmed by the Roman Empire. In turn the Romans were weakened and finally overwhelmed by invading tribes of Goths, Vandals, Huns and Visigoths. When Rome itself finally fell in 426 CE, an era we call the Dark Ages began and lasted for a thousand years. Do you understand that length of time? The United States is only 200+ years old -- how well do you understand the origins of the United States fron the 1770's to the Civil War in the 1860's? Keep in mind that much has happened in a thousand years - and lots of it is not in English for you to read. Even if it was in English -- you would not understand medieval English anyway!

This period of time, from the early 400's to the 1400's, (5th century to 15th century) was a time of ignorance. The brilliance of the ancient civilizations -- the study of history, philosophy, law, mathematics -- all ceased. Education ceased. Learning was centered in the Byzantine church where the ancient Roman language of Latin survived. Christianity became the overwhelming power throughout Europe. And to the East -- Islam rose and gained power, and learning resumed in the East. In the 900's there was an effort made to translate ancient Greek writings into Arabic. It was not until the Renaissance in the 1400's that learning resumed in the West. This issue of "education" can also be a topic of debate. What exactly is "education?" How does one become "educated?" Or asked another way -- how does a society educate its youth? One can argue that youth were educated in the thousand years of feudal times (the middle ages) when a knight trained his page to ride a horse and wield a sword -- that the youth was being "educated." But overall -- scholars argue that during the middle ages there was a sharp decline in education and writing, other than in the religious context of the Catholic church.

But conflict still raged as empires collided. The Crusades -- battles between Christian Europe and the Islamic East -- raged on and off from 1095 to 1204 -- a period of 109 years. Then the Mongol invasions ravaged the Middle East and the Far East from 1221 to 1258. During this period of time the Mongols created the largest empire in world history. In 1260 the Mongols themselves were crushed by the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, the most powerful Islamic empire of the middle ages. In the 1400's three great Islamic empires arose -- and in time, each fell. These were the Ottoman Empire in Asia Minor (today's Turkey), the Safavid Empire in Persia (today's Iran), and the Mughal Empire (today's India, which was absorbed into the British Empire). It was the Ottoman Empire that conquered and controlled Greece from the 1400's to the 1800's. The Ottoman Empire was formally dismantled after World War I because it was on the losing side. From its remnants the nation of Turkey was created in the 1920's. During this period of time (1915-1923) a war was fought within the Ottoman Empire between Turks and Armenians, generally referred to as the "Armenian genocide." This issue is a hot topic and today Turkey refuses to admit that any genocide took place. So as you study history remember that sources will reflect the bias of its writer - so know where the writer came from.
Read more about Islamic empires in history here.

As an occupied country during the 1800's Greece was Orthodox Christian and the Ottoman Turks were Muslim. In 1821 the Greeks began to revolt and after many battles and massacres on both sides, with foreign powers intervening (British, French, Bavarians [not all Germans - just Bavarians], Russians, the Greeks finally gained independence from the Turks in 1832. But the European powers maintained their influence and created a monarchy, naming the seventeen-year-old son of Ludwig I of Bavaria (the largest of the Germanic states), Otto of Wittlesbach, as the King, known as King Otto of Greece. His reign was rough, to say the least, partly because he was a Catholic and most Greeks considered that to be heresy. (There was a philosophic conflict between the Roman Catholic Church headed by the Pope in Rome and the Byzantine Church headquartered in the city we know today as Istanbul. Do you remember the end of the Roman Empire? The Western Empire was headquartered in Rome and the Eastern Empire was headquartered in Constantinople. Well - ancient Constantinople is known today as "Istanbul" and Rome is still Rome. Otto fled with his wife in 1862 and returned to Germany where he died in 1867. He was replaced by another German, Prince Christian Wilhelm Ferdinand Adolf Georg von Holstein-Gluecksburg, who is better known as King George I, who reigned from 1864 to 1913. You can find this King's portrait on some early Olympic memorabilia.

SO - ancient Greece was conquered by Rome who was conquered by Goths, Vandals, Huns and Visigoths who were conquered by the Turks who lost a civil war to the Greeks who chose a German to be their king. Do you understand now?

From this very brief historical review it can be seen that conflict has existed between nations and religions for many centuries. It is easily overlooked when the issue of sport comes up. After all sport is just a game, with a score, a winner and a loser. But sport is part of the human experience and often it includes emotion and passion. So -- nationalism can rise to the surface and tension can influence events.

As different nations conquered, controlled or enjoyed influence over Greece and it's 1.5 million inhabitants, Greek history soon became a focus of study with a new subject -- archeology. The French started excavations at Olympia in 1829 and immediately removed their finds to the Louvre Museum in Paris. When the Greek government learned that the ancient artifacts (statues, reliefs, vases, etc) were leaving Greece -- the French were kicked out and excavations ended for 45 years. That's when the Germans began excavating under the direction of Ernst Curtius, who led the excavations from 1875-1881. The Germans have continued to work this archeological site (ancient Olympia) to this day -- with the exception of the World War II era when all excavations stopped. Once again -- it was French versus Germans -- this time they were competing to dig up the ancient sites in Greece.

Read more at the Hellenic Ministry of Culture website. Also, look for information about archeology expeditions to ancient Greek sites.

Today there is still lingering conflict. Greece wants all the treasures that were looted from Olympia over the past 175 years to be returned. Many of the greatest statues from ancient Greece are in museums in London, Paris and Rome. Museums such as the Louvre and the British Museum refuse. This issue rages in the field of museum development and ethics.

In 1896 the Greeks wanted to host the Olympic Games in Athens permanently. Pierre de Coubertin refused but that did not stop the Greeks. They went ahead and held a tenth anniversary celebration in 1906 which is not recognized today by the International Olympic Committee as an "official" Olympic celebration. Today Greece still wants the Olympic Games in Athens permanently. The International Olympic Committee still refuses.

Greeks and Turks still fight periodically over the islands between their neighboring nations, especially over the island of Cyprus. Yet both countries are members of NATO and are allied militarily to the United States. Even so -- getting the two countries to cooperate on any venture is a diplomatic miracle. History has a long memory in these nations. Turkey refuses to consider its 1915 war with Armenians as "genocide" and it is a crime in Turkey to say or write that there was an "Armenian genocide." Turkey has reacted with considerable anger in October 2007 when the United States House of Representatives considered a resolution to condemn the 1915 "massacre" of Armenians by Turks. Why the US would even consider such an issue 92 years later would make an intersting research paper for you. Keep in mind that in 2007 the US was fighting a war in Iraq where Turkey is an important ally and that the United States maintains a strategic military base in Turkey at Incirlik. In 2007 Turkey had withdrawn its ambassador from the United States in protest and was massing troops on the northern border of Turkey and Iraq, in what appeared to be an imminent invasion of the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. This entire region is a hotbed of instability and has been this way for hundreds of years. The ancient Islamic empires from a thousand years ago are today's nations of Iran, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and all the little kingdoms in the Middle East that have most of the world's most cherished possession -- oil.

Modern Greece is one of the poorest nations in Europe. It has joined the European Union and adopted the Euro as its currency, so it is no longer using it former currency, the Drachma. It is an ancient land that has suffered for centuries under the control of foreign powers. It is a land of unimaginable beauty. It is the land of the ancient Greeks, the great city-states of Athens, Thebes, Sparta, home to some of the greatest archeological sites in the world -- the spectacular Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, the ancient stadium at Olympia, the sites at Delphi -- all breathtaking and full of architectural beauty. It was the home of the ancient Olympic Games and the first modern Olympic Games.

And the Modern Olympic Games -- well, they were revived by a Frenchman.

5. The Ancient Olympic Games

The Olympic Games come from the ancient Greeks ("Hellenes" in Greek). The Olympic Games (sometimes simply referred to as "the Games" or "the Olympics") were a religious celebration in honor of the Greek God ZEUS. The Olympic Games were celebrated at the beginning of an OLYMPIAD, a period of time that lasted four years. It was the basis of the Greek calender. Every four years there would be the "Games of the XYZ Olympiad" and athletes, musicians, artists and religious faithful would travel through Greece to attend the Games to honor Zeus. It was the biggest and most important religious festival in ancient Greece. But there were many other religious festivals in Greece that included athletic Games as part of the celebration, known as the Pythian Games, Nemean Games and Isthmean Games. For a longer discussion on the calender known as the Olympiad go to my page at Host Cities of the Olympic Games.

The site of the Olympic Games was a religious precinct called OLYMPIA in the district of Elis in western Greece. As a religious site it was sacred territory. Why this site? Nobody knows. Historians believe that it was a religious sanctuary for at least 300 years prior to the first recorded Olympic Games (776 BCE or, Before the Common Era, also known as "BC" or, Before Christ). That means that this site was a religious sanctuary from around 1200 or 1100 BCE.

The Eleans were responsible for organizing this quadrennial (every 4 years) religious festival and they were protected by a Pan-Hellenic "truce" that barred warfare in this sacred precinct. The meaning of the OLYMPIC TRUCE is misunderstood by most modern historians, journalists and writers who commonly re-write the mistakes from history books.

6. The Olympic Truce

(See my article entitled THE OLYMPIC TRUCE - MYTH AND REALITY published in 2000 and online at the Classics Technology Center.

The OLYMPIC TRUCE protected traveling athletes and visitors to Olympia. These travelers were protected by the "truce" because they were going to Olympia to honor Zeus. They were on a religious journey and were not to be molested or harmed along the way, or on their way home. All Greeks honored this sacred truce -- at least most of the time -- because they all worshiped the same God and feared the wrath of Zeus.

Modern historians and journalists, even presidents of the United States have often referred to this "OLYMPIC TRUCE" in order to promote the modern idea of world peace. They misunderstood the meaning of the ancient Greek truce, thinking that the Greeks used it to end wars. This is not true - it is a modern myth. It never happened. There is no evidence to support such a war-ending truce in the ancient era. The ancient Greeks fought wars all the time, their tactics and wars are well documented in their own literature that has survived through the years. They were brutal in combat and whole cities of people were slaughtered, the buildings pillaged and destroyed. No truce stopped them in fighting these wars. Nor did it stop invading Persians, Romans or "barbarians". (Barbarians comes from the Greek word "barbar" which meant "non-Greek speaking people."

However, all Greeks worshiped Zeus. For most of the 1,100 years of Olympic history the Greeks honored this OLYMPIC TRUCE by not molesting the travelers to the Olympic Games. This a big difference from ending all warfare! There is one recorded instance of a Spartan army attacking the sacred site at Olympia and the Eleans during the Olympic Games, but the Spartans were stopped just outside the sanctuary and were punished for this act of warfare. They were prohibited from taking part in the Olympic Games.

This raises an important point. How do we know what happened in the ancient Olympic Games? The study of history (from the Greek word Istoria)is like putting together a puzzle after the pieces are retrieved from a camp fire. There is very little to sift through. We can study the epigraphical evidence (carvings in stone such as reliefs from monuments or grave stones), archeological evidence (sites where buildings existed and the fragments of vases, statues and weapons are found), and literary evidence (writings that survived).

7. Historical Research and the Evidence from the Ancient Olympics

The literature (books) on the Olympic Games, both ancient and modern, comes from historians, travelers, journalists, participants who wrote their memoirs, observers who watched the events, amateur historians who simply love the Games as a hobby, and writers who use all these sources to re-write new books on the Olympic Games. The quality of the work varies from outstanding academic research to some real, well, "garbage" is a polite word.

There are two types of sources of information in historical research: PRIMARY sources and SECONDARY sources. PRIMARY resources are original sources, the best sources, such as eyewitness accounts, films or videotapes of an event, sound recordings, personal memoirs of the participants or the observers. In the legal terminology - the witnesses. But there were no cameras in ancient Greece. There were no newspapers or television stations.Witnesses may have recorded their stories on papyrus but these records vanished 2500 years ago. Today we have approximately ten percent (10%) of the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans -- the rest have been destroyed over time.

Left: The vase is a terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora circa 530 BCE, and would have been filled with oil and given to the victor in the Panathenaic Games -
not the Olympic Games. This is the kind of evidence that survives today for us to study. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York collection).

Right: This funeral stele (grave marker) is another type of art that has survived two thousand years for us to study.
This scholarly description comes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art web page;

"The inscription at the top of the stele informs us that it commemorates Sostratos, the son of Teisandros,
of the deme of Paiania (an administrative precinct of Athens). Sostratos is presented as an athlete.
In his right hand, he holds a strigil, the metal scraper used to cleanse the skin after it had been rubbed with oil.
The slave boy beside him holds the aryballos (oil flask) and carries a garment over [his] left shoulder.
The youth's hand touching his head suggests that he may be crowning himself after a victory.
The placement of the fingers offers the alternative that the gesture is one of mourning.
This theme is continued in the siren just above: she tears her hair and beats her breast - traditional expressions of grief.
The sphinxes at each end of the superstructure are guardians of the tomb." (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York collection).

There were great libraries in the ancient world but, unfortunately for us, they were destroyed in fires. The most famous collection was at the library of Alexandria in Egypt. It was created to collect all the knowledge of the world -- and in fact -- the ancient Hebrew bible is known today because it was at this library that the ancient Hebrew text was translated into Greek. From the Greek it was later translated into Latin. From the Latin it was translated into English. Very much the same as all the knowledge we have of the ancient world -- multiple translations from the original text into our languages today.
To read more about the library of Alexandria try this web site: Ancient Library of Alexandria.

But even with cameras problems can arise. A photograph from a camera showing two wrestlers in the 1996 Olympic Games becomes a primary source of information about those two wrestlers. But what we see is only part of the story, and we will never know the whole story unless we talk to the wrestlers themselves or watch an entire film of the event, or talk to witnesses who were there. We cannot determine the rules by which they wrestled by looking at the picture. We don't know who won. We don't know what happened moments before the picture was taken, nor what came after the picture. It is a simple moment in time - and we may try to create a full story from it. If I use that photograph of the two wrestlers in publishing a book, it becomes a secondary source of information because it is duplicated - it's not original. The book tells me what the picture is, but the book (it's author, editor, publisher, printer) could have made a mistake. This is actually very common in Olympic literature. The books on the Olympic Games today are full of such mistakes.

Secondary sources are books, magazine articles, newspaper articles written by people who do research and write about the subject, but were not witnesses to the actual event. E. Norman Gardiner was a British classical scholar and author of a book in 1930 about the ancient Olympic Games. He is famous today as a great classical Greek historian. He used many primary sources to write his book (including ancient inscriptions on stone, vase paintings, etc.). If I use his book for my research today - his book is a secondary source for me - and if he made any mistakes, or the printer mis-typed a paragraph - I will repeat that mistake without knowing it. I need to go back to use all the same primary sources that he used if I want to improve upon his work. This can be a problem - the primary sources that he used in 1930 may no longer exist. Or, I may not have a complete list of his sources because it is possible that he did not list them all in his bibliography.

Imagine that at Olympia, today, we find a magnificent marble relief (see the image of the two wrestlers below) that is over 2,000 years old. It is solid, beautiful and authentic. It depicts two wrestlers grasping each other.

An ancient artist carved this wrestling scene. We know nothing about it! We don't know if the artist was Greek, Roman, Persian, or Martian. We don't know if the scene he (or she) carved was the artist's brother, father, son, cousin, friend or purely the artist's imagination. We don't know the rules of wrestling from the scene, nor do we know who won. However, because this relief was actually found in the Themistoclean wall in Athens, we can draw some conclusions, but we are only guessing. We are trying to put pieces of a puzzle together. This relief was one of three found inside a wall that was built in the fifth century BCE to defend Athens from an invading army. The two other reliefs also show athletic scenes. Experts in ancient Greek art have determined that these three pieces were the base of a statue that honored a famous athlete. From this information we try to draw a conclusion - the wrestlers on the relief were from the Olympic Games between 500 BCE and 400 BCE and came from Athens. At least that is our best guess. But we could be wrong - perhaps the scene is an advertisement for a wrestling school down the road. Or perhaps an ancient advertisement for a popular drink -- you know -- "drink Athenian Stinky water and become a famous wrestler..." Who knows what it really means? The artist has been dead for over 2400 years.

Here is another example of the difficulty in studying history. Read any book on the ancient Olympic Games in the English language. The author of that book used other sources of information, perhaps books in English, perhaps German or French (if they can translate those languages). Try to follow this language route: today's material in English comes from writers who translated books that originally were written in German or French (because the Germans and French were the archeologists who excavated the ancient sites in Greece first). The German and French translations come from ancient Greek inscriptions on stones, which is different than modern Greek. That is the easy part - to translate Greek inscriptions on stone. You can do that yourself - just learn ancient Greek.

The more difficult language route is from the ancient Greek writers themselves. We know that Pindar (Pindarus in Latin) as well as many other ancient writers, wrote about the ancient Olympic Games. It's a shame that his original Greek works do not exist. Over the past 2,000 years his stuff (papyrus scrolls) ended up in a monastery in Europe or Asia where the monks translated his "book" from ancient Greek into Latin. These Latin books were then translated into German, French and British English in the 1700's. In the early 1900's these were translated into American English.

The problem is that Pindar -- remember him -- the ancient Greek guy who started this linguistic route, relied on ancient Greek material that was already several hundred years old. The original records that existed at ancient Olympia were destroyed before Pindar ever saw them. Even Pindar was using secondary sources. The only primary source of information we could actually rely upon is the original archives of papyrus scrolls at Olympia - and we would need a time machine for that.

So keep in mind that the history of the ancient Olympic Games is fragmentary. We only know a few bits and pieces of the whole story. Finding the truth is difficult, but not impossible. Many ancient sites in the Middle East have yet to be explored and it is possible that some day a treasure will be found - not gold or silver, but the missing records from ancient Olympia that disappeared in the fifth century BCE. It is always possible that somewhere underground or perhaps buried in clay pots deep inside caves there are hundreds or thousands of papyrus scrolls rolled up, waiting for us to read them after 2,000+ years. That would be exciting!!

This is a papyrus fragment that was found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in an ancient dump that yielded the largest find of ancient papyrus ever found - millions of pieces. This piece is a partial Olympic victor list. The names of Olympic victors are from the 75th to the 78th Olympiads (480-468 BCE) and the 81st to the 83rd Olympiads (456-448 BCE). Thirteen events are listed including the stadion run, wrestling, and boxing for both men and boys. Also listed are victors in the two stadia run (diaulos), the long footrace race called dolichos with an unknown distance but believed to be 20-24 stadia, the pentathlon, pankration, hoplite race in armour, four horse chariot race, and horse-riding. This original papyrus is from the 3rd century CE and is in the British Museum Department of Manuscripts collection in London.

See this papyrus up close at Wikipedia: Olympic Victors on Papyrus 1185

See the British Museum page at 27 July 2012: An Ancient List of Olympic Victors
See if you can identify three errors on their page!

8. Other Pan-Hellenic Games

The Olympic Games at Olympia was not the only religious festival in ancient Greece that had athletic "Games." There were many other religious festivals that celebrated "Games" and these included the Pythian Games, Nemean Games and Isthmian Games. They are merely not as famous, but many of the same athletes competed in all of these ancient religious festivals. There are many other celebrations all over the ancient Greek world that had "Games" that are even less well known.

9. The Ancient Olympic Games and the Greek Calendar: 776 BCE to 393 CE

The ancient Olympic Games lasted for over one thousand (1,000) years while the Modern Olympic Games have lasted just over one hundred (100) years. We modern people have a long way to go!

The ancient Olympic Games started so long ago that nobody knows when they actually started. Even the ancient Greeks didn't know. They did not keep written records when the Games began, and of course they did not have a sports section to a newspaper either. The records that did exist were on papyrus scrolls and they were lost over 2,500 years ago.

The ancient Greeks used to record their important events on stones, called "inscriptions." They eventually developed art works on stones called "reliefs." Today we use these surviving items as evidence to study what happened so long ago.

Later the Greeks developed skill in casting metal and artists created bronze statues. Almost all of the bronze statues made by the ancient Greeks were destroyed by the Romans over 2000 years ago, because the metal was needed for weapons -- not art. But Roman artists were very talented and made marble copies of the Greek bronzes before destroying the original bronze statue. Today these Roman artworks fill museums such as the Vatican, British Museum and Roman National Museum. The famous statue of the DISCUS THROWER by the Greek artist Myron was originally made in bronze but the only statues that we have today are the Roman copies -- all of which are in marble. If you look this statue up in your research it is also called by the Greek name discobolos or the Latin name discobolus.

At Olympia -- where the Olympic Games were held -- artists painted beautiful scenes of athletes on different shaped ceramic pots and vases. Buildings were constructed and filled with statues and treasures to honor Zeus. Almost all of the treasures that were piled up in the "treasury" buildings have been stolen over the past 2000 years. Today the remnants of these buildings are studied by archeologists, and the broken pieces of statues and vases are in museums.

The ancient Olympic Games did NOT begin in 776 BCE. The ancient Olympic Games began much earlier than 776 BCE but there is no record that has been found to describe what happened. There are no records of winners for the first 200 years of the ancient Olympic Games. Even the ancient Greeks did not know when the Olympic Games actually began, but several ancient Greek writers tried to write about the history of these athletic festivals.

Two hundred years of Olympic history had already passed before an enterprising person, Hippias of Elis at the end of the 5th century BCE, tried to write the history of the winners of the Olympic Games. Note that he did not have any interest in the losers. He created a record of the winners by using the existing records at Olympia and speaking with living judges from those Games. He made a calender based upon the numbers of the Olympiads -- a four year period of time. Thus -- he dated the 1st OLYMPIAD from the victory of Coreobus of Elis (also spelled "Koroibos"). Olympiads were then identified by each year within that Olympiad so, for example, you would refer to your birthday as: "I was born in Ol. 176,2 on the tenth day of Poseidon." (You read this as: "I was born in the second year of the 176th Olympiad, on the tenth day in the month of Poseidon").

Keep in mind that all ancient civilizations, not just the Greeks, used different calenders. There was no such thing as "B.C.E." of course. Some ancient civilizations based their calender on the cycles of the moon and some on the seasons of the year -- for planting purposes. The Greeks themselves did not use the same calendar -- each individual city-state had its own version (Athens, Thebes, Sparta, Elis, etc). But the calendar of Athens is best known to today's scholars. That the Greeks used the Olympiad as a calendar is interesting -- it may have been the only way to determine accurate time among all the seperate city-states. There was still a need to send a herald across Greece to announce the date of the Olympic festival, so that the various Greek city-states had to have some familiarity of a common calender system in order to make sense of the upcoming religious festival. Read more about the ancient Greek calendar here: The Ancient Greek Calendar

It is the ancient Roman calendar that is the basis for our modern calendar. Originally created in the Roman Republic era, it was refined by Julius Caesar in what we now refer to as the year 47 BCE. You probably can recognize these Latin monthly names -- Januarius, Februarius, Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quinctilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, December. In 44 BCE the Roman Senate renamed the month Quinctilis to Julius in honor of Julius Caesar. The next emperor was Augustus, and he renamed the month of Sextilis to Augustus in his own honor. SO -- please understand that dating events in ancient history is difficult. All dating is debatable because all events prior to 45 BCE have to be translated into the fixed Roman Julian calendar that we know today -- and that is how we determine the year 776 BCE for the first Olympic Games. Read more here: Roman Republican Calendar.

The ancient Roman calendar was good but Julius Caesar corrected a deficiency that existed -- and added leap years. This worked very well for over 1000 years -- until the 13th century. Then it gets really complicated so you can read about it here: History of Easter. The Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas needed accurate dates. Because they were based upon the ancient Hebrew calendar, a thirteen month calender based upon the cycles of the moon, they needed to be re-examined. Pope Gregory finally refined the Julian calendar in 1582, and it became known as the Gregorian calender. But Gregory was a Catholic Pope and this period of time was during the Protestant Reformation -- so some European countries refused to change their calender until the 1700's (Great Britain and the American colonies changed to the Gregorian calnder in 1752). Read more here: Gregorian Calendar Conversion.

So why are we getting all fussy about the dates and the calendar? Who cares you ask? Well -- we need to know these things because if you are memorizing dates -- you must understand that they are not always accurate. AND -- in 1896 when the first Modern Olympic Games were held in Greece -- the Greek calendar was in use in Greece and the dates were different than the rest of the world. The American athletes who traveled from the East coast almost missed the Athens Games because of the difference in dates. So if this interests you - then you need to study the history of calenders for more details.

Using our modern version of the calender, we can now say that Hippias found that the first recorded winner of the ancient Olympic Games was from the year 776 BCE (before the common era, also written as "BC" before Christ).

One century later the records compiled by Hippias were revised and corrected by Aristotle. After Aristotle, other ancient writers, both Greeks and Romans, attempted to write histories of the Olympic Games. Much of this material, written on papyrus scrolls, was destroyed when the ancient library at Alexandria (Egypt) was burned during a battle between Julius Caesar's Roman army and the defending Egyptian army of Queen Cleopatra. In fact much of the knowledge about the ancient world was lost at that time. The library was rebuilt -- and destroyed by fire -- two more times over the next centuries.

The ancient Olympic Games were held every four years for almost 1,100 years. The last known Olympic celebration was held in the year 261 CE (Common Era, also known as "AD" from the Latin Anno Domini which means In the Year of the Lord in English). There are no surviving records after this date. There are no records of any winners over the next 132 years -- but there must have been something happening that seriously angered Roman emperors. Several times decrees were issued that banned ancient Greek pagan festivals. But it seems that they continued because the pagan activities of the Greeks, including the Olympic Games, ended forcefully in the year 393 CE. In this year the Roman emperor Theodosius I decreed an end to all pagan festivals in the Roman empire, including the Olympic Games, and to enforce his decree he sent an army to Olympia to destroy the sanctuary of Zeus. Statuary was either taken or knocked down, the noses of faces being chopped off (a serious ancient insult). Buildings were burned if they were wood, knocked down if they were stone. This was done because the Romans did not want the Greeks to have any religious ceremonies to pagan gods such as Zeus. Apparently the Greeks did not take to Christianity too kindly - thus the Roman empire forced it upon them. In spite of several decrees by different Roman emperors, it took a Roman army to bring Greek festivals to a dramatic and final end.

Over the next three hundred years more damage eroded the site of Olympia. There was total destruction of the sanctuary by 600 CE due to invading armies which eventually crushed Rome itself, several earthquakes and the dramatic shifting of the river Alpheus, which changed course and flooded the entire area for centuries. Silt covered the ruins and eventually, with the growth of grass, plants and vegetation, the entire area was out of sight and forgotten.

The influence of the Greeks had come to an end in the ancient world, and the religion of Zeus and the various Greek Gods ceased to exist. The Romans had their own pagan gods which replaced those of the Greeks. In turn, Christianity replaced the ancient Roman religion and their gods. Sadly for us today zealous Christians destroyed much of the ancient Greek and Roman civilization they replaced. Both Greek and Roman cultural sites and literature were destroyed. Christians burned the texts and scrolls of ancient Greek and Roman writers and they destroyed the temples and religious shrines or turned them into Christian churches. Over the next few centuries of invasion by many different armies, the artworks and statues that once adorned buildings and temples, almost four thousand known bronze statues, were stolen, buried, destroyed or burned. Metal artworks were taken and melted for other use. Marble statues were frequently burned to make lime which was used for new buildings. Today only a fraction (approximately ten percent) of ancient artwork and writings survive for our scrutiny.

The fall of Roman civilization led to a thousand years of ignorance in Europe and the western world, education ceased to exist, turmoil and feudal life was the rule. We call this period the Dark Ages and it is referred to by historians as the Medieval Period.

The Rennaisance began in the 1400's as education and interest in the ancient era was renewed. Ancient writings attracted new attention and "humanism" became a subject of interest once again, breaking away from the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Ancient Greek and Roman art focussed on the human form, even for their gods. Medieval artwork focussed on religion, saints and Christ. During the Renaissance artists once again used the human form in paintings and sculpture. Michaelangelo even painted nude figures within the Church itself, and today the Sistine Chapel ceiling is revered as a masterpiece. From the late 1600's onward widespread interest in ancient Greek and Roman civilizations led to the discovery of thousands of statues, reliefs, vases and other artworks buried in the earth all over Greece, Italy, Turkey and other parts of Europe once occupied by these civilizations. Wealthy individuals collected these artworks and they built their own private museums in their mansions and castles to show this stuff off to friends. These private museums eventually became the property of cities or governments, and today include the British Museum (London), the National Gallery (Rome), the Uffizzi Palace (Florence), the Vatican Museums (Vatican) and dozens of others in Europe and North America.

The ruins of ancient Olympia were only rediscovered by French archeologists in the 1700's after more than a thousandyears of physical decay and the ignorance of the Dark Ages. The French excavators were kicked out of Greece by the Greek government and they were followed by German archeologists. The Germans uncovered major portions of ancient Olympia and wrote excellent accounts of their excavations and most of this material has never been translated into English. The German excavations continued up until World War II (1939-1945). Their excavations resumed after the war and continue to this day.

So, to sum it up for you --

in the 1870's ancient Olympia had been uncovered by the German archeological expeditions and this helped to fuel a revival of interest in studying ancient Greek history - especially about the ancient Olympic Games. Within Greece there were "Olympic Games" in the 1850's and 1870's that were only for Greeks and held in Athens. In the 1880's Pierre de Coubertin was studying sports in England and America in an effort to develop a better physical education system for French school students, because the French were humiliated by the Germans in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. He was strongly influenced by the newly re-discovered ancient Greek Olympic Games and the ideas of William Penny Brookes of England. (See: Pierre de Coubertin and the Wenlock Olympian Games).
His ideas of promoting sport for his beloved French schools quickly grew into a larger, more comprehensive idea -- an international version of the ancient Olympic Games. His modern version of the ancient Olympic Games was promoted at two conferences on Physical Education that he held at the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1892 and 1894. The 1892 conference garnered no support for his idea and he considered it a failure. The 1894 conference garnered total support and de Coubertin created the International Olympic Committee. Two years later, in 1896, the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece. Thus -- with the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin as the "founder" -- the Olympic Games were reborn.

Latest updates and revisions on June 12, 2018

Copyright © 2000, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2018 Harvey Abrams. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the expressed written permission of the author. Or the wrath of Zeus will be upon you.

Mr. Harvey Abrams
Olympic Games & Sport Historian
President, IISOH Library & Museum
P.O. Box 175
State College, PA, USA 16804


International Institute for Sport History

hab 096
Updated February 20, 2008
Updated March 16, 2012
Updated September 30, 2012
Updated September 7, 2013
Updated June 12, 2018