The spirit of the ancient Olympic Games

It is often said that the modern Olympic Games have their roots in the athletic competitions of the ancient Greek period: the Olympiaki agones, the Olympic Games. Here, as elsewhere, names are used to bridge unbridgeable gaps. The truth is that our modern Olympics are the direct heir of a 19th century revival movement begun in Ottoman-ruled Greece, and the distant – in fact, very distant – heir of the ancient Agones. The last time the ancient games were celebrated was under the Emperor Theodosius in 393 AD. Our modern Olympics, represent, I’d argue, the most successful revival of a historical particular. Architecture revivals, like the Gothic in England or the Neoclassical in France, were also quite successful, although almost nobody would think of building a Neo-gothic church or a Neoclassical residence building today.

I’d also argue that the modern Olympics, though harking back to the Panhellenic competitions of Ancient Greece, are not quite Olympic in the way an ancient Athenian, for instance, would have understood them. And I’d be provocative enough to say that the Games we have today lack the spirit of their distant ancestors.

The ancient Olympics were closely linked to poetry. The athletes’ victories were honoured in carefully-crafted verse. The Greek poet Pindar’s Olympic Odes stand out as a wonderful example of how the Games were a cause for lyrical celebration. Today, the Olympics have lost this important ancient feature, although literature and the other arts were part of the competitions between 1912 and 1948.

The Greek Games were religious in nature. Set in a mythological past – the first games were understood to have taken place in 776 BC (courtesy of Aristotle) –, they were dedicated to Zeus, whose patronage was an important part of the Olympics’ makeup. A completely secularised version of the Games as we have it today wouldn’t have made much sense to the ancient Greeks. For them, the Games were an opportunity to renew the bond with the gods through ritual and celebration. The opening celebrations of the modern Olympic Games, the ‘ritual’ around the Olympic flame may be the only vestige of a richly religious event.

Finally, the ancient Games were so central to the ancient Greek world that the ancients counted the years from the Olympics using a system called the Olympiads. An Olympiad was the period between two Olympic Games, which, not unlike today, were held every four years. A purely and exclusively athletic competition (though it might often get very political), the modern Olympics populate, rather than structure, our calendar.

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  1. The ancient Olympic Games also had no pretense of amateurism. Ancient athletes were richly rewarded, and not just with poetry. Today’s semi-professional Olympics are more like the Greeks than DeCoubertin’s version in the 19th century.


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