9/28/16 – The History of the Olympics…or the Olympics as History, Part I

September 28, 2016

With the impressive, theatrical, and culturally provocative closing ceremony of 2016 Rio Summer Olympics behind us, I thought it fitting to compose my thoughts on the history of this global event that brings the world a bit closer together for a few weeks every four years. Undoubtedly, the Olympics inspire feelings of patriotism for one’s country and awe and wonder over the incredible feats of athleticism on display. But what have scholars, bloggers, and new sources said about the history of the Olympics and about the Olympics as history?


The ancient Olympics occurred from 776 BCE to 393 AD. Here is an artistic representation of the games. Image credit.

Although the modern-day Olympics date back to 1896, the historic roots of the games date to 8th C. BCE Greece.[1] Originally part of a religious festival in honor of Zeus, the ancient Olympics were anything but international. Instead, of Greek origin, and all athletes were male and considered freemen. Also, unlike the modern Olympic games where athletes compete in team events, the ancient Olympics only provided for individual athletic events, such as running, wrestling, boxing, equestrian competitions, and the pentathlon, which included running, the long jump, discus, javelin, and wrestling. Yet, despite the limited variety of sporting events, these games developed into a “pivotal force” that influenced and at the same time reflected the Greek philosophical ideal of balance between physical and spiritual/moral development.[2] This influence continued until 146 BCE when Rome conquered Greece and began to implement drastic religious and cultural changes that ultimately resulted in the Emperor Theodosius I abolishing the Olympic Games in 393 AD due to their supposed pagan ties.[3]

The Opening Ceremony at the 1896 Athens Olympics.

The Opening Ceremony at the 1896 Athens Olympics. Photo credit.

Given the legacy of the ancient Olympics, and its impressive millennium-long run, it is rather surprising that the games as we know them today did not resurface until the end of the 19th century, despite some unsuccessful attempts to revive the games beginning in the 17th century.[4] In 1894, under the leadership of French Baron Pierre De Coubertin, a congress of representatives from 34 countries voted to reinstate the games and the group decided that the inaugural event would take place in Athens, Greece in 1896. Although the first modern Olympics included participants from 14 counties, the athletes were primarily Northern European and upper middle-class, and all were male.[5] De Coubertin believed that the modern Olympic Games should include a religious component and display “manly virtue,” essentially celebrating the cult of athletic masculinity – or the idea that sports acted as an instrument for generating the right type of man.[6]


Mildred Didrikson won the inaugural 80-metre women’s hurdles at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Photo credit.

As the modern Olympics developed and grew over the course of the 20th century, it has moved further and further away from this original ideal. Although the Games have become more inclusive with regard to sex, equality nevertheless has been a struggle that women and minorities continue to face, even into the 21st century.[7] In many ways the Olympic Games have magnified the racial and gendered struggles that existed in the 20th century and propelled them onto a global stage. Key moments in history that have had lasting impacts on racial and gender stereotypes have happened during Olympic Games, such as Mildred “Babe” Didrikson winning two gold medals in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and forcing the American sports community to reevaluate the abilities of women athletes. Also of note were the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City when Olympic American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists in protest of racial inequality in America. This act, although criticized by millions as unpatriotic, unified people in support of racial equality and brought the issue to a global audience.[8]


Pictured above, gold medalist Tommie Smith, and bronze medalist John Carlos raise black-gloved fists during the American National anthem at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Click here to listen to a recent interview with John Carlos about his experiences at the 1968 Olympic Games.Photo credit: John Dominis – Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

While many scholars have written about these events and other historically relevant moments from Olympic history, less has been written about these games as history. As a trained public historian whose daily work focuses on many environmental issues, my interest in the Olympics as history is rooted in how the spectacle of the Games, the opening ceremonies in particular, perpetuate historical fact and myth. How has the legacy of that spectacle, over time, competed with historic realities of the environmental, social, and economic impact of the Games. In other words, what his(story) does the host country hope to tell in preparing for the opening ceremony? And what happens to that spectacle once the games have concluded? What historic legacy remains for the host country? And do the physical remnants of the Games —the physical arenas and stadiums – contradict the historic narrative and spectacle that were on display? For my thoughts on these topics, and for a closer look at some of the more recent Olympic games, please check back soon for the second installment of this blog series.

– HannaLore Hein


[1] http://www.penn.museum/sites/olympics/olympicorigins.shtml

[2] “A Brief History of the Ancient Olympic Games,”2003

[3]  “Factsheet: The Olympic Games of Antiquity, Update – May 2012,” International Olympic Committee. May, 2012.

[4] http://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-first-olympics

[5] http://www.penn.museum/sites/olympics/olympicorigins.shtml

[6] http://www.wpr.org/global-history-olympics

[7] http://www.wpr.org/global-history-olympics

[8] “The Black Power Salute That Rocked the 1968 Olympics”