“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” This is what Baron Pierre de Coubertin had to say regarding the revival of the Olympic Games in 1894 and the ethos that he wished the athletes would abide by whilst competing. 118 years on, this motto is still at the heart of the competition- certainly, performance enhancing drugs and dirty tactics have tainted the legacy of the Games, but hard work and dedication have always prevailed. The desire to feel gold around your neck has inspired cheating and bad sportsmanship, although it’s also inspired great performances on an international stage and the fair play that the French Baron had visualised so long ago. No matter how terrible the lengths some take to win, they shouldn’t cancel out the glory and triumph that others achieve. It is these moments that ought to epitomise the Olympic Games and these are the ones that do.
The Olympic Games began in Ancient Greece and although their origins are shrouded in mystery and legend, a popular opinion is that the whole notion of the Games were conceived by Zeus, Greek king of the gods and that his son, Hercules, was the one who established the custom of holding them every four years. Another reference to Greek mythology in the Games is the tradition of the torch (which began in 1928 and the relay began in 1936) as a reminder of how Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to the mortals. The reason it is a part of the tradition surrounding the Olympics is that it was meant to represent that the ability that the athletes possessed was not short of god-like and this was why those who competed were idolised. Originally, women were not allowed to compete or even watch as the men competed fully nude and this is possibly why the Greek word for ‘to exercise’ means ‘to be stark naked.’ Based on inscriptions found in Olympia, the widely accepted inception date of the Olympics is 776 BC and gradually they died out in 393 AD, although there is very little proof to support this.
The Olympic Games took a while to be revived although the first official Games since the demise of the Ancient Olympics were held in Athens in 1896 under the auspices of the IOC (International Olympic Committee). It was the aforementioned Baron Pierre de Coubertin who founded the IOC, who organised and sponsored the Games every four years, following the custom started in Ancient Greece. Today, the Olympic Games program consists of 35 sports, 30 disciplines and nearly 400 events.
Since their revival, the Games have been commercialised in many forms, although the IOC originally refused funding from corporate sponsors. However, especially since it began to be internationally televised in 1956, producers of products and merchandise have leaped at the chance to bear the Olympic rings that appear on the flag adopted in 1914, symbolizing the continents that compete in the Games (Africa, America, Asia, Australia and Europe). Mascots and the Olympic motto, “Citius, Altius, Fortius” have also become a staple of the Modern Games.
As well as being a stage for incredible sporting performance, the Olympic Games have also been an ideal opportunity to promote political and often controversial ideologies and beliefs on an international scale. Examples include the attempts by Adolf Hitler during the 1936 Berlin Olympics to display how the Germans (i.e. the National Socialist Party) were superior to everyone else, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute on the podium as well as the devastating kidnapping and subsequent massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by the terrorist organisation ‘Black September’ during the Munich Olympics in 1972. Although men wore clothes as opposed to the nakedness of the Ancient Greeks, women were not allowed to compete until the 1900 Games in Paris and the London 2012 Olympics will go down in history as the first time every country has included female athletes. The first instance of an athlete taking performance enhancing drugs was in 1904, when the winner of the marathon, Thomas Hicks, was given strychnine and brandy by his coach. Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen even fell off his bike and died during the road race in the 1960 Olympics, due to the amphetamines that were coursing through his body.
The Olympic Games have undergone vast change over the years, growing and developing into the massive event that manages to captivate the world even now, inspiring young athletes to strive for brilliance and maybe one day feel the coveted gold medal hanging round their necks. Despite the excitement and celebrations, it’s important to remember what the true message of the Games really is- although the Olympics used to be a way to train young men for war, it’s imperative that we remember that we now live in peace and as we acknowledge this, the words of Baron Pierre de Coubertin echo. “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”