The Olympic Games are an international sports festival that began in ancient Greece. The original Greek games were staged every fourth year for several hundred years, until they were abolished in the early Christian era. The revival of the Olympic Games took place in 1896, and since then they have been staged every fourth year, except during World War I and World War II.
Perhaps the basic difference between the ancient and modern Olympics is that the former was the ancient Greeks' way of saluting their gods, whereas the modern Games are a manner of saluting the athletic talents of citizens of all nations. The original Olympics featured competition in music, oratory, and theater performances as well. The modern Games have a more expansive athletic agenda, and for two and one-half weeks they are supposed to replace the rancor of international conflict with friendly competition. In recent times, however, that lofty ideal has not always been attained.
The earliest reliable date that recorded history gives for the first Olympics is 776 BC, although virtually all historians presume that the Games began well before then.
It is certain that during the midsummer of 776 BC a festival was held at Olympia on the highly civilized eastern coast of the Peloponnesian peninsula. That festival remained a regularly scheduled event, taking place during the pre-Christian golden age of Greece. As a testimony to the religious nature of the Games, which were held in honor of Zeus, the most important god in the ancient Greek pantheon, all wars would cease during the contests. According to the earliest records, only one athletic event was held in the ancient Olympics--a foot race of about 183 m (200 yd), or the length of the stadium. A cook, Coroibus of Elis, was the first recorded winner. The first few Olympics had only local appeal and were limited to one race on one day; only men were allowed to compete or attend. A second race--twice the length of the stadium--was added in the 14th Olympics, and a still longer race was added to the next competition, four years later.
When the powerful, warlike Spartans began to compete, they influenced the agenda. The 18th Olympics included wrestling and a pentathlon consisting of running, jumping, spear throwing, discus throwing, and wrestling. Boxing was added at the 23rd Olympiad, and the games continued to expand, with the addition of chariot racing and other sports. In the 37th Olympiad the format was extended to five days of competition.
The growth of the Games fostered "professionalism" among the competitors, and the Olympic ideals waned as royalty began to compete for personal gain, particularly in the chariot events. Human beings were being glorified as well as the gods; many winners erected statues to deify themselves. In AD 394 the games were officially ended by the Roman emperor Theodosius, who felt that they had pagan connotations.
The revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, unlike the original Games, has a clear, concise history. Pierre de Coubertin, a young French nobleman, felt that he could institute an educational program in France that approximated the ancient Greek notion of a balanced development of mind and body. The Greeks themselves had tried to revive the Olympics by holding local athletic games in Athens during the 1800s, but without lasting success. It was Baron de Coubertin's determination and organizational genius, however, that gave impetus to the modern Olympic movement. In 1892 he addressed a meeting of the Union des Sports Athletiques in Paris. Despite meager response he persisted, and an international sports congress eventually convened on June 16, 1894. With delegates from Belgium, Britain, France, Greece, Italy, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and the United States in attendance, he advocated the revival of the Olympic Games. He found ready and unanimous support from the nine countries. DeCoubertin had initially planned to hold the Olympic Games in France, but the representatives convinced him that Greece was the appropriate country to host the first modern Olympics. The council did agree that the Olympics would move every four years to other great cities of the world.
Thirteen countries competed at the Athens Games in 1896. Nine sports were on the agenda: cycling, fencing, gymnastics, lawn tennis, shooting, swimming, track and field, weight lifting, and wrestling. The 14-man U. S.