The poster from the 1948 Olympics, the last Olympic Games held in London before this year. Today's Olympic Games are a truly global event: an astonishing 4.7 billion people watched the Beijing Games. The spotlight is now on the London Summer Olympics, opening July 27. The Olympics draw on ancient traditions, on their nineteenth century revival, and on modern elements. Of the many symbols surrounding the Olympics, some have obvious meaning, while others are layered with history, religious significance, and mystery. They tell the story of humankind's high ideals for achievement and attest to the enduring power the Olympic ethical values: excellence, respect, and friendship (Credit: Flickr Commons)
The Ancient Games were a sacred fixture of Greek life from 776 BC until they came to an abrupt end in 394 CE, when Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great suppressed them as part of his mission to impose Christianity as a state religion. The Games were deeply religious in their origins, a tribute to Zeus. Mid-way through the Games, 100 oxen were sacrificed to him and Olympia became a central worship site. This image shows the statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, by the Greek sculptor Phidias, at Olympia. Zeus holds a statue of Nike, goddess of victory. A single glimpse of the statue was said to make a man forget all his earthly troubles. The statue was destroyed; the image is an artist's recreation in the 16th century. Source: ancientworldwonders.com
This shows one of the starting lines of the ancient Olympics, held in Olympia, Greece. The Games took place every four years, and the term Olympiad, meaning a period of four years, is still used. An Olympiad is the period starting January 1 of a year in which the Summer Olympic Games are to occur. The 30th Olympiad (counting from the revival of the Games in 1896) began Jan. 1, 2012. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Integrity was and remains a core Olympic value: when cities or athletes cheated in the ancient Games, they paid a fine. The money was used to build statues of Zeus (Zanes, the plural for Zeus), which were then inscribed with cheaters' names. Athletes passed between memorials to victors and cheaters on their way to compete. This shows the bases of Zanes; there were 16 such statues. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ancient statues of Olympic athletes highlight physical perfection (as in this statue from ancient Greece showing a runner crowned with an olive wreath). Athletes trained naked in gymnasia (the word meant naked). This was one reason given to explain or justify why women were rarely present and still more rarely competed. The practice was said to encourage aesthetic appreciation of the male body and to give tribute to the gods. Gymnasia were under the protection and patronage of Heracles, Hermes, and, in Athens, Theseus. Source: Wikimedia Commons
This mosaic, from the Museum of Olympia, portrays various ancient athletes wearing the wreaths of victory, made from olive and laurel branches. Such wreathes continue to be a symbol of victory and excellence today. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The modern Olympic Games were a conscious revival of the Ancient Greek Games and took on many of their ideals and symbols. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French educator and historian, worked tirelessly and successfully to form the International Olympic Committee (constituted in 1894). He organized the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, and establish many lasting Olympic symbols. De Coubertin's approach was deeply rooted in ethics that owed much to Victorian Christianity. Source: 123rf.com or Beliefnet.com
The five-ring Olympic symbol was first seen at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, where a flag with the symbol was flown. The five rings of this symbol represent the five continents that take part in the Olympics, and the colors represent the colors of national flags at that time. They are perhaps the most recognized symbol of the Olympics today. They seen here on a flag at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Olympic torch and relay were part of the cultural festivals that surrounded the Ancient Olympic Games and they live on to this day as material and spiritual symbols of the interconnected world and hopes for peace. Before each modern Olympics, the torch is lit by a mirror and the sun, to symbolize purity. This ceremony takes place in Olympia, Greece, to cement the connection between the ancient games and the modern ones. The torch travels in a relay through Greece, and is handed to the new host country's torchbearer in Athens. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The opening of each new Games is marked with the lighting of the cauldron, which is extinguished when the games end. The traditions follow the ancient practice where a sacred flame burned through the games on the altar of the goddess Hera. The torch is borne to the Olympic site by a relay of torchbearers. This echoes the ancient tradition in which torchbearers traveled to announce the Games and declare a truce for their duration. The Torch relay continues to this day but troubled times have curtailed its path. The furor around the relay for the Beijing Games in 2008 explains why in 2012 the torch travelled from Athens to the UK and the relay has been confined to England and Ireland. Source: Guardian.com
The tradition of the Olympic Truce or Ekecheiria embodies the peace-building mission of sport. From the ninth century BC, in Ancient Greece, during the Truce period, the athletes, artists, and their families, as well as ordinary pilgrims, could travel in total safety to participate in or attend the Olympic Games and return home. As the opening of the Games approached, the sacred truce was proclaimed and announced by citizens of Elis who travelled throughout Greece to pass on the message. During this period, armies were forbidden from entering Olympia, wars were suspended, and legal disputes and the use of the death penalty were forbidden. The truce was revived in 1992 and has been an honored, if little known, tradition ever since. In October 2011 the United Nations General Assembly voted with 193 nations supporting for the 2012 Olympic Truce. Source: goc2012.culture.gov.uk
"Faster, higher, stronger" is an Olympic motto, and comes from the Latin Citius, altius, fortius. It symbolizes the search for excellence and achievement. Source: pl.wikipedia.org
Since 1904, winners in Olympic competitions are awarded gold, silver, and bronze medals. This is British athlete David Hemery's gold medal from the Mexico Olympics in 1968. He broke the world record for the 400m hurdles, in 48.12 seconds. Photo source: Katherine Marshall
(RNS) A 600-foot footrace was the only athletic event at the first Olympics, a festival held in 776 B.C. and dedicated to Zeus, the chief Greek god.
For the next millennium, Greeks gathered every four years in Olympia to honor Zeus through sports, sacrifices and hymns. The five-day festival brought the Greek world together in devotion to one deity.
What began in ancient Greece as a festival to honor a single god, Zeus, has now become an almost Olympian task, as organizers of the games navigate dozens of sacred fasts, religious rituals and holy days.
The London Olympics will try to accommodate religious athletes with 193 chaplains, a prayer room in every venue and a multifaith center in the Olympic Village.
Athletes at the ancient Olympics believed their training honored the gods, and victory was a sign of favor from a deity. As contests like wrestling, boxing, and horse racing were added to the Olympic roster, they supplemented devotional sacrifices, hymns, and ceremonies.
"The idea was that you were training to please Zeus. But part of the festival would be to visit the temple, visit the cult statues, making offerings, celebrating and seeing your family," said David Gilman Romano, a professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona.
The combination of Greek sport and worship led the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, to ban the Olympics in 393 A.D.
The Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 after excavations at Olympia renewed public interest in the athletics and pageantry of the Olympics.
Though not sectarian, the modern games began to take on their own quasi-religious rituals.
Coubertin borrowed ceremonies, hymns, and rituals from the ancient festival to shape a transcendent "Olympism," uniting all athletes. Some scholars today refer to his creation as a "civil religion."
"The civil religion was not so much the worship or devotion to the state, as it is often now understood," explained Joseph Price, a professor of religion at Whittier College in California who researches sport and religion. Devotion "was to the civitas, the human group that transcended a particular religion."
Over the years, the International Olympic Committee and host states introduced "new" symbols to bolster Olympism, said Stephen Mosher, professor of sport management and media at Ithaca College in New York.
Still, the modern games have touches from the ancient past.
Gold medals since 1928 have been imprinted with the image of Nike, goddess of victory. And though the torch relay existed in antiquity, it was not part of the ancient Olympics. "It was'invented' by the Nazis for the 1936 Berlin Games in an obvious attempt to connect the modern German state with the ancient Greek state," Mosher said.
Today, the IOC and host countries must tread lightly to accommodate modern religious expression in an often-hostile political climate.
Some situations present special challenges.
In 2008, Israeli President Shimon Peres received special housing accommodations at the Beijing opening ceremony so that he would not have to drive in a car on the Jewish Sabbath.
Peres will miss the opening this year, as the London Organizing Committee refused to make special accommodations.
Modern religious athletes also struggle with religious devotion and the Olympic schedule. Devout Jews and Christians must choose whether to compete on the Sabbath.
Muslim athletes face a particularly difficult choice as the Olympics fall during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims refrain from eating and drinking during the day.
Clerics in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates extended an exemption to their athletes, allowing them to make up their fast at a later time. Some athletes will take the exemption, while others will fast.
This Olympics marks a milestone for Muslim women as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei will send female athletes to the games for the first time. They are the last Muslim countries to allow women to compete.
In this respect, the Olympics have advanced greatly since ancient times, when only male Greek citizens could watch and compete.
But Romano urges caution in comparing the ancient and modern games.
"There are many similarities, but there are also differences. And one of the biggest differences is religion."
Thanks to Katherine Marshall for the slideshow at top.