A Brief History on the Olympic Games

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Don’t you find it strangely quiet here, almost hushed during the day (though it admittedly gets raucous at buka puasa time). You may be wondering if this has to do with the coming elections. Whilst it remains true that Malaysians are, if anything, almost obsessed with politics – for once, even this is, for now, completely eclipsed.

And by just one event and that in the UK, not even here! One that renders my colleagues bleary-eyed from watching it half the night on TV. The Olympic Games are the most influential of athletic and cultural traditions going back centuries – to 776 BC to be precise. This year they are hosted by London – and for the third time, which setsa new world record.

The present Games reach a new zenith for the Olympics with a total of 10,570 competitors from 64 cities and 23 countries. London has responded well, with the most exuberant display of innovation and creativity.

The name for the Olympics comes from Mount Olympus, the traditional home of 12 exalted deities of Ancient Greece where the Games were first held between the 8th and 4th centuries BC. Much of the Ancient Games remain shrouded in mystery and legend. From the start, they were also tied to worship of the Gods.

The progenitors of the Ancient Olympics were said to be Heracles, Pelops – the mythical King of Olympia – and later Zeus. The most famous legacy is the great statue of Zeus in ivory and gold, regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Zeus himself had all the requisite heroic stature – one of the deities of the Parthenon. On his accession, 100 oxen were sacrificed in his honor. The temple to Zeus was one of the largest Doric structures. Even his name means “bright.”

These Ancient Olympics lasted 1,000 years to the time of Homer, whose epic The Iliad endorses the Greek values. As first the Games which began as one day were extended to five days – three for competitions and two for religious rituals. They were open only to free men who spoke Greek. Women had only administrative roles like the Priestess who lit the Olympic Torch to signal the opening and closing ceremonies.

Some features of these ancient games gave us some idea of their aura. In 720, they set a tradition of athletic nudity when contesting, partly because of the weather but mainly to celebrate the human body. The Hoplite races were run in full armor. The boxing contest was most brutal in which many were killed. A dead boxer was immediately declared the winner and posthumously honored. The funeral games were identified with Achilles. And although the various City States were forever at war, they accepted a martial truce in order to participate in the Games.

The revival of the Games helped to spread Hellenic culture through the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Laurel wreaths were bestowed on the victors, although in the case of Hercules who won a chariot race against a local king, his reward was the princess, his opponent’s daughter – The renewal for the Games was partly an antidote to the plagues and constant warfare during the intervening period without the Olympics. Their restoration was requested by the Oracle of Delphi who felt the people had strayed from the Gods. The Olympics proved a healthy solution, bringing peace, harmony, and a return to the origins and values of Greek life.

The prizes at these Ancient Games were analogous to the spoils of war with trophies that were symbols of victory like the armor taken from a fallen foe. A 190-metre foot race – called a stadium race – was measured after the feet of Hercules. Later, the word Stadium was adopted for the venue of the Games. The earliest contests were in running, jumping, discus throwing, javelin throwing, foot races, wrestling, boxing, and equestrian events. They let women in for the latter – they were good with horses.

In the Ancient Games, they often gave an olive branch to the victorious which is probably the origin of the contemporary


olive branch, extended to bring peace, to any dispute. It was always as much a religious festival as an athletic one. Homer’s epic poetry perhaps best espouses the Greek goals upon which the Games are predicated:

To ever be the best
To excel in all we do
To enjoy

This is the legacy of the Ancient Games on which the modern Games now playing out in London are modeled. The true spirit of the Games, whether ancient or modern, is the spirit of mens sana in corpore sano – a sound mind in a sound body. Sport is essentially a healthy form of combat as opposed to conflict, and is the opposite of warfare.

Which allows me to end with yet another anecdote (remaining true to “In my anecdotage”)! During each of the two World Wars in Europe, there are stories of soldiers climbing out of their respective trenches on Christmas Day to play a friendly football match against their enemies.

Which will you have? Sports or war? As a woman, I don’t have to think or hesitate. If women, long seen as givers of life, not destroyers, were to run the world, there would be no more wars.

Just more Olympic celebrations.

This article was written by Datuk Paddy Bowie for The Expat magazine.
Source: The Expat September 2012

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