The Olympic Games of the ancient Greco-Roman world were held every four years without interruption for a thousand years--from 776 B.C. to A.D. 394--until they were disbanded by the Christian emperors of Rome. Those emperors condemned the Olympic festival as an ungodly rite dedicated to pagan gods. The ancient site of the Games--Olympia, Greece--was subsequently destroyed by imperial edict, and in after years its dismantled ruins were buried by natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods. It wasn't until the 19th century that archaeological excavations began to reawaken interest in the Games as long-lost exemplars of "the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome."
The ancient Games were not much like the Olympics of today. Some of the main events--like boxing, wrestling, the long-jump, foot-race, discus throw, and so on--helped inspire the modern program we enjoy; but in other respect they were often brutal, life-and-death affairs that commonly ended in shattered bodies and abundant blood. Perhaps the most ferocious was the "pankration," an "ultimate fighting" type event, which combined boxing and wrestling with almost no holds barred. Often, only the victor survived. Later, when the Romans took over the Games after their conquest of Greece, boxers put iron nails into the leather thongs they wrapped round their hands for gloves. The resulting match was a gory, flesh-ripping spectacle worthy of the gladiatorial ring. Another crowd favorite was the chariot race, with lots of pile-ups and collisions that brought the cheering masses to their feet.
For all that, the Games also served a higher communal purpose, for they brought the peoples of scattered communities together in a common enterprise. That enterprise, however savage, also had its own spirit of fellowship and religious reverence linked to athletic pride. Indeed, it was just those ideals of cooperative endeavor embedded in the Games that some 1500 years later helped inspire the Olympic movement that gave rise to the modern Games.
It is my hope that my new book, A PASSION FOR VICTORY (Alfred A. Knopf, $19.99) --written especially for the young, but fashioned for all--gives a compelling account of Olympic history, in both text and image, from ancient to modern times
In the ancient Olympic Games, there were many superstars who made their names by their dazzling speed, skill, and strength. One of them was a mighty boxer named Theagenes of Thasos, who enjoyed an amazingly long, twenty-two year career. During that career, he went undefeated and battered all of his opponents to a pulp. Still another was Milo of Croton, a wrestler of legendary strength who, it was said, could hold a grown ox over his head. Even as a boy in 540 B.C., he had been an Olympic champ. As a man, he won six Olympic crowns. No one wanted to face him, and on one occasion he triumphed by default when all his potential opponents bowed out.
The Cotswold Olympick Games, so-called, grew out of a mini-Olympic movement that emerged in 17th century England to bring a festival of sporting events each year to the English countryside. It was really "Olympic" in name only because the events had nothing to do with the great sporting contests of the past. Rather, they were designed to bring together the common people with the gentry in the local spirit of a county fair. The main events were sledgehammer throwing, sack jumping, shin kicking (ouch!), cudgel fighting, and competitive dancing, mixed in with horse-racing, wrestling, and other traditional sports. For the most part, the contests were playful in a raucous sort of way, while a good deal of drinking and gambling went on behind the scenes.
More than anyone else, Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) helped bring about the modern revival of the Olympic Games. In his day, archaeological excavations had renewed interest in the classical past, and this coincided with a growing interest in physical fitness and the importance of physical exercise in the making of "balanced" young men. But he also had a romantic idea of the Greco-Roman past. For example, he falsely imagined that the ancient Olympics had been genteel competitions between young men of independent means. His misconception gave rise to the ideal of the amateur sportsman who engaged in sport for the pure love of it and not for pay. Even so, Coubertin's energy, idealism, and dedication helped keep the budding Olympic revival going and he soon attracted like-minded enthusiasts to his cause. At the same time, his imagination was fired by the idea that international Olympic cooperation might help promote peace between states.
The St. Louis Games took place as part of the 1904 World's Fair. Perhaps because of their subordinate place in the Fair as a whole, many of the venues were woefully inadequate. A contaminated pond made some of the swimmers and water polo players ill; the marathon was a chaotic mess, marred, too, by a doping scandal; and the tug-of-war was a disgrace. All the members of the winning team--representing Milwaukee, Wisconsin--were actually members of a Chicago Athletic Club. A vigorous protest was raised but it was unavailing: evidently the judges were too embarrassed (or perhaps indifferent) to admit their mistake.
The Games of 1896, 1900, and 1904 had failed to catch fire. So interim Games were staged in Athens in 1906 to try to reignite the latent yearning for the glories of the past. To almost everyone's surprise, these interim, or "intercalated," games succeeded, in part because of their Athens setting, in part because new ceremonies were introduced to give the Games a more theatrical and spectacular cast. For example, it was at these Games that the opening ceremony made its debut as a separate, staged event at which the athletes marched into the stadium as national teams, each behind its country's flag. The closing ceremony also debuted and featured the raising of national flags for those who garnered gold. Thanks to heightened press coverage, interest was renewed.
At the 1924 Summer Olympics held in Paris, athletes from 44 nations competed in thirty-two events. In the traditional events, American Johnny Weissmuller (later famous as the demi-god-like Tarzan in twelve blockbuster motion picture films) excelled, garnering three gold medals in swimming events. Eventually, Weissmuller went on to win five gold medals, 52 U.S. national championships, and set an astounding number of world records. He retired without ever having lost a race. What makes his achievement so amazing is that he had been stricken by polio as a child. Indeed, he had originally taken up swimming to strengthen his body against the disease.
Despite Hitler's Aryan pretensions, the undoubted star of the 1936 Games was the great black American athlete Jesse Owens, the "Buckeye Bullet" from Ohio State. In Berlin, his great potential rival was the German Carl Ludwig "Luz" Long. Long held the European record in the long jump and couldn't wait to compete against Owens in that event. Yet no sooner had they met than a true friendship between them began. Despite the politically charged atmosphere of the Games, Owens was adored by the German public, which had not yet become completely Nazified. For his own part, Owens found that he could move about Berlin freely and enter restaurants and other public facilities without hindrance. By contrast, he faced segregation, public prejudice, and other dignities back at home in the United States. The irony of this was not lost on him and left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Everyone knows what the Nazi salute looks like. Unfortunately, the so-called Olympic salute--with the right arm held out sideways from the shoulder--closely resembled it. And that put many athletes in a bind. Some, who had no objection to Hitler's policies and theories (like the Bulgarians), were eager enough to give the Nazi-like salute as they passed the reviewing stand. Others, however, made a half-hearted, modified gesture with their elbow bent. Still others, like the British and Americans, refused to salute at all.
By 1936, Norway's Sonje Henie was already an Olympic figure-skating star. She excelled at the Games, and in after years also enjoyed a stellar career. In fact, she won more Olympic and world titles than any other female skater in history. She was much in demand as a performer at exhibitions in both Europe and America, where her short skirts, sparkling manner, and theatrical style helped make figure skating the glamorous sport it remains today But her politics shadowed her career. Hitler adored her; and she admired him. She also met with him socially and used her ties to the Nazi regime to protect her family's assets during the German occupation of her native land. For that she incurred the hatred of many of her compatriots, who had suffered so much at Nazi hands.
In 1936, three years after Adolf Hitler came to power, the Games came to Berlin. Not surprisingly, the occasion was viewed as a bonanza propaganda opportunity by the new Nazi regime. Hitler himself was not all that enthusiastic about the Olympics. After all, he was a nationalist and the Games were a big international event. But he decided to use them to cast himself in a positive light. For example, it was at the Berlin Games that the torch relay--now an Olympic trademark--made its debut. At the time, indeed, it struck a Nazi propaganda theme. The relay, in image and idea, was meant to connect the heroic traditions and athletic prowess of ancient Greece to the Aryan manhood of the Third Reich.
In the interest in preserving the racial purity of their own team, the Germans savaged their own. Gretel Bergmann, for example, who had equaled a national record in the high jump just a month before the Games, was cut because she was Jewish. She was replaced by Dora Ratjen, who was later revealed to be a man. In the end, Dora got nothing from the Nazis for her pains. In later years, she was persecuted by the Third Reich as an anomaly and died in despair.