An Olympiad Year

The Olympics originally took place, appropriately, in Olympia in ancient Greece starting in the eighth century B.C. As one might expect, the games were a series of athletic competitions, as they are today, but among Greek city states. They were held in honor of Zeus and were given mythological origins. They were held every four years, or Olympiad, which became a unit of time in historical chronologies. Since the Greek city states were frequently at odds with each other, a truce would be declared so that athletes could travel to Olympia safely.

The games frequently had political overtones so one city state could claim superiority over another. The original competition was a short foot race of about 240 meters and was called a “stade” (from which we get the word “stadium”).

Over time, additional distance races were added, some of which included running in armor while carrying a shield. This was called “war training”. Wrestling and boxing were also eventually added. However, some of these sports differed slightly from the sport today. In the case of boxing, there was no ring, no bouts with rest in between, and basically few rules. A fight would go on until one fighter gave up or was too badly injured to continue. Ironically, if a fighter died during the bout, he was declared the winner. Women continued to be restricted to the foot race. However, when chariot racing was added, a woman could be declared a winner, but only if she owned the chariot …not if she drove it.

When Greece was conquered by Rome, the games continued until the end of the fourth century AD, when they were suppressed by emperor Theodosius because Christianity had become the official religion of the Empire. It was not until the Greek war of independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821 that there was an effort to revive the Olympics.

Eventually the games were revived in Athens in 1859 with the financial help of Evangelos Zappas, a wealthy Greek-Romanian philanthropist. After attending the Olympic games in 1890, Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The original intent was to keep the games in Greece. Eventually, the IOC decided to rotate the games to other cities around the world after the 1896 games, which were the first of the Olympic games as we think of them today. The next games were held in Paris in 1900.

The nature of the games has changed over time. We have many more events now, including winter sports which were not part of the original program. There are also events which are no longer part of the Olympics, such as Club Swinging (sort of like twirling bowling pins) which ended in 1924. Nor will we see live Pigeon Shooting, which died out in 1900. The same holds true for Cane Dueling (think walking sticks) which stumbled in 1924. The swimming obstacle course (over and under boats and other objects) was drowned out in 1900.

Over the years we’ve seen some impressive and memorable Olympic moments…who could forget when Shaun White pulled off the world’s first Double McTwist 1260, the most difficult trick in snowboarding history, during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics…or in 1984 during the summer Olympics in Los Angeles, when Mary Lou Retton became the first American, male or female, to win a gold medal in gymnastics. And, if you’ve watched any swimming events during the last several summer Olympic games, you need only mention the name…Michael Phelps…call him “The Phenomenon” or “The Fish,” Michael Phelps gave new meaning to blowing the competition out of the water at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The American swimmer took home eight gold medals, breaking Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in one Olympics.

The Olympics are scheduled to be held this year in Tokyo, Japan. These 2020 Summer Games are set to begin on Friday, July 24th and end on Sunday, August 9th. As scheduled, 206 countries and 11,091 athletes are expected to participate in 33 sports at the games. There are new events being added to the games for the 2020 Olympics, including freestyle BMX racing, karate, surfing and skateboarding, as well as the return of baseball and softball. At the time of this publication, the games are still on as planned, but there may be modifications due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.