Hey there friends, thanks for joining me, Yvonne Page Illustrates, here for another episode of Facts to Relax, the show where I research topics I find interesting and want to learn more about and then share what I learn with you in a nice relaxing voice while completing a meditative picture on the screen so we can chill out, fall asleep, reduce stress and anxiety, and learn something new together. With the upcoming Olympic Games starting soon, I decided that this week I really wanted to learn more about the Olympics. Where do they come from? Who invented them and when? What do the rings on the Olympic flag stand for? How do new events get chosen to be part of the games? We’ll answer these questions and more on this episode. So, let’s get started by taking a deep, relaxing breath in and letting it out slowly again while we imagine ourselves as the Olympic champions we really are inside. Whether you picture yourself flipping and twirling on a balance beam, setting a new record in the 200-meter sprint, speeding through the ice on your bobsled, or, even becoming an Olympic skateboarder, let’s settle down with that athletic fantasy while we get to know more about the most famous sporting event in history.
When it comes to the Olympics, you can think of them in a few ways. First there’s the Olympics themselves, filled with pageantry, national pride, and of course, the emblematic intertwining rings. Then there’s the summer Olympics and the winter Olympics, part of the same games but held are on different years and with completely different events. Finally, there’s the modern Olympics which we watch now, and the “ancient” Olympics, which were really quite a different beast. Let’s start our journey with them- by traveling back several thousand years to learn all about when, where, and how the Olympics were started.
One legend behind the ancient Olympics, which were first held roughly 3,000 years ago in Greece was that the demigod Heracles founded them after his father Zeus helped him conquer Elis and they were held every four years, in the summer, during a religious festival that honored Zeus. An Olympiad was an amount of time that measured four years, which is why the games were only held every four years.
The first recorded Olympic Games took place in 776 BCE on the first full moon after the summer solstice, around mid-July, though future Olympics would usually fall between early August and mid-September. The event took place in Olympia, a sacred site near the western coast of the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece. It’s commonly believed that the Olympics had been going on for many years before this but there are no written records to prove that. This year, there was only one event: the 192-Meter Footrace. Called the “stade” or “stadion” the event was named after a Greek unit of measurement, called a “stade.” Eventually the word “stade” also became the base for “stadium,” the word we use in English to describe an arena with tiered seating for spectators, where many large sporting events still take place. A cook named Coroebus won the event and became the first recorded Olympic champion, and if rumors are correct, he and his competitors all ran the race completely naked. By the end of the 6th century BCE, the Olympics was the most famous sporting event in Greece, eventually including 18 events that spanned over 5 days. These events included several foot, horse, and chariot races, wrestling, boxing, a pentathlon which included jumping, discus, and javelin throwing along with racing and wrestling, and even competitions for trumpeters and heralds- whoever’s sound carried the farthest was given the honor of announcing the victors at the final awards ceremony. The times and statistics of event winners were never recorded as it was only important that they beat everyone else and no one was worried about breaking records, but unfortunately, that also means we’ll never know how fast and skilled those competitors really were. The victors were given crowns called kotinos made from wild olive leaves and an olive branch cut from the sacred tree, the Kallistephanos. The olive trees of Olympia were believed to have been originally planted by Heracles himself so these crowns were a significant honor. Even more importantly though, the victors were welcomed back to their hometowns riding in four-horse chariots, now considered heroes, and celebrated with huge banquets and had other benefits like tax exemptions, monetary prizes, invitations to join the political elite, lifelong fame, and often even statues erected and victory odes written in their honor. The towns themselves also received prestige for producing Olympic champions.
The ancient Olympic Games, which continued to be held with naked competitors, probably to allow for the best range of motion when performing, was open only to free Greek males with no criminal record and women weren’t even allowed to watch the games. One time however, a woman named Kallipateira, who was the mother and trainer of an Olympian named Peisirodos, joined him in disguise at the games but when he won his race, she accidentally revealed her sex while celebrating. She would have been sentenced to death for her crime normally but was pardoned only because she came from a family of Olympic victors. However, after that, all trainers were required to be naked as well as the competitors in order to keep this kind of deception from occurring again. Speaking of trainers, like today, most ancient Olympic athletes also had them. Called gymastes or paidotribes, these professional trainers helped athletes develop their muscles, maintain the best diets for success, and practice the optimal exercises. Olympians would often show appreciation for their trainers by having statues of them erected at the site. Along with trainers, “aleiptes” were people that rubbed oil on and massaged athletes before and after exercise.
Competitors came from around Greece, though later games relaxed the “Greek Only” rule a bit, allowing some foreigners to compete as well. Athletes were required to arrive at Olympia a month before the games and had to declare that they’d been in training for at least 10 months prior. Heralds were sent from Elis to advertise the upcoming games across the Greek mainland and islands. A sacred truce called an ekicheiria was declared for the three months before the games, meaning that no wars were permitted, no weapons could enter the territory of Elis, and no hindrance could be made to any athlete or spectator traveling to the games. Trained judges from Elis oversaw the events wearing purple cloaks and had the power to fine, penalize, or disqualify athletes for any infractions of the rules of the games. The ruling of these judges could never be revoked unless a counsel of elders ruled otherwise on an appeal, in which case, the judge himself could be fined. Now, that’s not to say there was no cheating or corruption during the ancient Olympics, a notable occurrence being in the 67 AD games in which Emperor Nero entered the chariot race. Not only did he use ten horses when his competitors only had four each, he also declared himself the winner of the event even after he fell off the chariot during competition because he “would have won if he’d finished the race.” Those are his words, not anyone else’s. Can you feel me rolling my eyes right now? Because I am. Apparently the Olympic officials were also quite outraged by this obvious breach on the rules and integrity of the games but they didn’t dare question him as he was the emperor of Rome. Not long after the games, however, he forced one of his advisors to kill him rather than risk being killed publicly by the unhappy citizens under his rule who were planning his assassination, and after his death, his name was removed from the list of Olympic champions.
Around 45,000 spectators came to watch these games, setting up campsites in the area. Vendors, selling food, crafts and more took advantage of the crowds to sell their wares. Spectators cheered in support of athletes and showered each victor with flowers and laurel leaves after each event. At the start of the games, a procession from the town of Elis to Olympia was held, led by the judges and upon arrival at Olympia, all athletes and officials swore an oath to follow the rules and compete with honor and respect. At the conclusion of the games, a religious ceremony known as the hecatomb took place, sacrificing one hundred oxen at the altar of Zeus.
These ancient Olympic Games were held regularly until the 4th century AD, for 293 consecutive Olympiads, even after Greece was dominated by the Roman Empire, though the quality of the games did decline under Roman rule, until it was finally decreed by Emperor Theodosios that all cult practices and pagan festivals, including the Olympics, be stopped.
And stop it did, for about 1,500 years, until the first modern Olympics was held on April 6, 1896. Though informal “Olympic Games” were held throughout Europe during the 18th and 19th century as homages to the ancient Olympics, they were never official. However, in November 1892, at a meeting of the Union des Sports Athletiques, French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who was inspired after visiting the site of ancient Olympia, proposed the idea of reviving the Olympics as an international competition to be held every four years. Two years later, he was able to found the International Olympic Committee or IOC, which would govern the modern Olympic Games and just two years after that, the first modern Olympics took place in Athens Greece, about 300 km or 186 miles from Olympia, with a crowd of 60,000 spectators and 280 all-male participants from thirteen different nations, some of whom just happened to be tourists in the area who found out about the games and were allowed to sign up. There were 43 events including swimming, gymnastics, track and field, cycling, tennis, fencing, and more. They only really started to become accepted and popular in 1924 however, when more than 3,000 athletes, including 100 women, from 44 nations competed in Paris. That same year, the Winter Olympics were introduced.
The modern Olympics continued to grow in size and popularity, held every four years as the ancient Olympics had been, with events being held both in the summer and in the winter of the same year, until 1992 when they decided to split the summer Olympics and winter Olympics and stagger them two years apart in an attempt to relieve some of the costs and complications of holding such an extensive, around-the year spectacle. Though each season’s games are still only held every four years, viewers now get to experience the excitement of the games every two years.
There have been a few years, such as during world wars when the Olympics had to be cancelled but those years were still counted as if they had been held. Additionally, the 2020 Summer Olympics had to be postponed until 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic which means that for the first time ever the modern Olympics will be held on an odd-numbered year and the Olympic games will be held in consecutive years-2021 for summer games and 2022 for winter games.
Most of the modern Olympic games have been held in European countries or in the Americas, but several have also been held in Asia and Oceania. So far, none have been held on the continent of Africa. Host cities are picked by the IOC after they submit applications, about 7 years in advance, giving the city time to build stadiums and otherwise prepare. Cities compete to become host cities as it can boost tourism both during the games and after, increase the country’s global trade and stature, provide jobs during the building of stadiums and during the events, and to create a sense of local and national pride. However, the financial drain on the city and country and burden on the local residents may not always be worth the trouble. Expensive infrastructure and buildings have to be erected to accommodate the games which may never be used again, wasting time and money. In fact, no Olympic Games since 1960 has actually come in under budget. The Tokyo summer Olympics is at least 200% over budget, costing close to $16 billion to host and overruns are the responsibility of the host city to cover.
No matter where the games may be held throughout the world, the Olympic flame is still lit from the light of a parabolic mirror in Olympia, Greece prior to the start of the games and is then transported to the Olympic site, mainly by relay runners, but it’s also been carried on boats, airplanes, horseback, on camels, underwater, and even by canoe- whatever it takes to get the torch there! At the time of this recording, the summer Olympics are comprised of 339 events, with over 11,000 athletes, both male and female competing, with billions of spectators attending the games live and tuning in from their homes. The winter Olympics have around 109 events. 203 countries and territories compete in the Olympics. Events are held separately for men and women which can help with fairness in judging but can also cause problems, such as in a few recent cases where natural-born females have tested with higher levels of naturally-occurring testosterone than is allowed, causing them to be disqualified from the games unless they lower their testosterone levels with medication, possibly affecting their performance levels.
Some of the most popular events in the summer Olympics include swimming, diving, gymnastics, archery, rowing, volleyball, cycling, and track and field and some lesser-known events include judo, BMX, trampoline, equestrian dressage, canoeing, kumite karate, sailing, skateboarding, surfing, and sport climbing.
Some of the events in the winter Olympics include figure skating, speed skating, several varieties of skiing, luging, ice hockey, curling, bobsledding, and a biathlon which combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. Uh, what? What a weird combination. Okay, fine, cool. I can’t do either of those things so who am I to know whether combining them makes sense or not?
In 2004, the Olympics notably returned to Athens, Greece, both as an homage to the ancient Olympics being held in Greece but also as it being the site of the first modern Olympics 108 years earlier. Not only that, but that year the shotput competition was held at the site of the ancient Olympics, in Olympia.
The Olympic flag is a white background with five colored rings interlocking, three on top and two on the bottom. It’s claimed that the flag is based on the design of five ancient interlocking rings that Pierre de Coubertin saw on an ancient altar in Delphi, Greece during the trip that inspired him to start the modern Olympics. The five rings are meant to symbolize the five parts of the world in which the Olympic movement was active at the founding of the modern games. The colors on the flag, blue, yellow, black, green, red, and white were chosen because they incorporated colors from all the national flags in existence at the time of the modern Olympic’s creation. However, none of the rings’ colors represent individual countries or continents. During the opening ceremonies an Olympic flag is raised at the main venue and the Olympic oath is taken by specially chosen participants while holding the flag in their left hand and raising their right hand. At the end of the games, the flag is symbolically lowered at the closing ceremony and presented to the president of the IOC who delivers it to the next Game’s organizers.
Over the years, new sports are sometimes added to the games after being recognized by the IOC and then receiving International Federation status. Then they must apply for admittance to the games by filing a petition establishing its criteria of eligibility. The IOC may then admit an activity into the Olympic program as a sport, a discipline, which is a branch of a sport, or as an event which is a competition within a discipline. Criteria must be met in order to be accepted into the games- including that a sport must increase the value and appeal of the Olympics, that it must be practiced by men in at least 75 countries and females in at least 40. Sometimes a sport may be recognized by the IOC but not admitted into the Olympics such as is the case with bowling, chess, and auto racing based on rules that ban both mind sports and sports using mechanical propulsion. Now-a-days there are so many sports, disciplines, and events that in order to maintain some sort of control over the games, new sports are only permitted to be added when others are discontinued. Tug-of-war, baseball, lacrosse, water skiing, and cricket all were once sports played at the Olympics but have been discontinued to make room for other, more popular attractions.
Within each event, there may be many different categories for competition and prizes. For instance, in women’s artistic gymnastics, my personal favorite Olympic sport, gold, silver, and bronze metals are awarded to individuals in all of the following categories: balance beam, vault, floor, uneven bars, and all-around, as well as a team all-around which gives awards to the highest scoring country’s team. Though dreams of earning an Olympic gold medal may cross all of our minds at some point in our lives, it might interest you to know that a gold metal isn’t actually made of pure gold as one might assume. Ever since the 1912 Olympics, gold medals have been made from mostly silver with only 6 grams of gold coating the medal. That’s okay though because Olympic champions are often offered brand deals and other opportunities to exploit their fame and athletic prowess for financial gain that are worth way more financially than any gold medal may be.
Now to close out this episode, let’s go through 10 interesting Olympic facts that I found in my research.
- Though the Olympics are an international competition, only five countries- Australia, France, Great Britain, Greece, and Switzerland have participated in every modern summer Olympic games.
- As hard as it is to believe, there are four athletes who have won medals in both the summer AND the winter Olympics. I can’t even imagine competing in one sport, let alone mastering two!
- The official languages of the Olympic games are English and French plus the official language of each Game’s host country.
- Both the ancient and modern Olympics have seen their fair share of scandals and corruption. Members of the IOC have been expelled for accepting bribes. Racial and sexual discrimination, political frustrations between countries, drug use, boycotts, and athletes stripped of their medals have all played roles almost as big and titillating as the games themselves pretty regularly throughout the years.
- From 1912-1948, painting, sculpting, writing, and music were all apparently Olympic sports.
- If the Olympic flame goes out during any point of the Olympic games, it can only be relit by a backup flame which has also been lit in Greece but never by a regular lighter from any other place.
- Speaking of the Olympic torch, in between games, it’s even been taken up into space a few times, unlit of course.
- In the first modern Olympics in 1896, 10-year-old Greek athlete, Dimitirios Loundras competed on the parallel bars. He remains to this day the youngest Olympic athlete to compete in the modern games.
- In the 2012 Summer Olympic games, women were for the first time represented from every competing nation and they were allowed to compete in every single sport. And finally…
- Remember how I said that the athletes in the ancient Olympics competed nude? Well, the Greek word for nude was “gymnos,” which is the root of the English word “gymnasium”…by translation, apparently we should all be exercising naked…or at least be playing basketball in the buff.
Okay, that’s it for this episode of Facts to Relax. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about the Olympics with me. If so, please hit the thumbs up button on this video to let me know that this is the sort of topic you enjoy learning about. And just for fun, if you’ve made it this far, leave a comment below, sharing what Olympic event you’d like to compete in if you could. As always, thank you so much for spending some time with me today and please come back soon so we can color and chill together again. Bye!
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