Cara Andrea here, It’s been HOT where I am—the sort of bright, blistering days that are conducive to curling up in a shady spot with a book and an iced lemonade, rather than moving so much as a muscle. But as the resident Wench Jock, I have to confess that I’m jumping up and down with anticipation over the upcoming Olympic Games in London. Despite all the questions concerning ‘enhanced performance” I still love watching the athletes compete in the various disciplines and strive to be the best they can be. Now, many of the sports you'll see over were popular in Regency London too—fencing, boxing riding. (Though I admit, the men were not swimming in sleek litle Speedos)Be that as it may, as we gear up for the action-packed fortnight, I thought it might be fun to take a short run through the history of the Games, even though it steps a bit outside our usual time periods. So lace up your sneakers . . . (though the first Olympians competed in the nude!)
The first Olympic Games on record took place in 776 BC on the plains of Olympia in the western part of the Peloponnese, and were held every four years (an “olympiad” was a measure of time in ancient Greece, which—you guessed it—was a four year unit. As all the different city states had their own calendars and dating methods, it provided a unified way to record history events.)
The competitions were loosely tied to the cult of Zeus—the main temple of Olympia was and was highlighted by a 42-foot tall, gold and ivory decorated statue of the God by famed sculptor Pheidias, which was considered one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. However, they were also meant to foster friendly relations between the city states and celebrate the pure beauty of physical performance. All free male Greek citizens, regardless of social standing, were permitted to compete, but women were banned from participating. Indeed, married women were forbidden to watch, though for some reason unmarried women were permitted as spectators. (I shall leave it to you to speculate why . . . apparently men seeking to impress chicks with their buffed abs is not a new concept.)
According to Hippias of Elis, the first event ever held was the stadium, a footrace approximately 200 meters long. In 724 BC, a two-stadia race was added, and in 708 the pentathlon, which consisted of running, jumping, javalin-throwing and discus-throwing, became part of the games. Other competitions were added throughout the years, including wrestling and the pankration, a sort-of ancient version of martial arts, which combined wrestling and boxing. It was a brutal sport, and said to have originated from Theseus’s fight in the Labyrinth with the Minotaur (there were no judges to pick the winner as in modern-day competition—the contest went on until one man conceded defeat or was rendered unconscious.
The Games continued for nearly twelve centuries (not even the Persian Wars and the Battle of Thermopylae tripped up the competition) until the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, banned them as pagan rites. They lay dormant until the late 19th century when a movement led by Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France led to their revival. The first modern Olympics took place in Athens in 1896, and the first race was won by an American—college student James Connolly.
London first held the Games in 1908—though they were a last minute substitute for Rome, which, because of the relief effort needed to cope with the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, did not have the money to hold the event. Despite the obstacles, the Britis put on a jolly good show. There were a number of firsts—for the first time a stadium was built specially for the competition, for the first time swimming was held in man-made pool rather than open water, and for the first—and last—time, tug of war was an official event!
The Games of 1948—called the Austerity Games—were also held in London. They had been suspended with the advent of World War II, but it was felt that resuming them in bomb-ravaged London was a good way to rekindle the flame of international friendship through athletic competition (though Germany and Japan were not included.) The event was run on a shoestring (athletes were expected to bring their own towels, and because of rationing, protein was in short supply.)
Things will no doubt be a bit more glitzy when the 2012 Games return to London for a third time, beginning next week. So what about you—do you enjoy watching the Olympics? Do you have a favorite sport? A favorite athlete? I’m really looking forward to the swimming events, which offers some really exciting match-ups between the Americans Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. And I’m pulling for Roger Federer to win a gold in tennis!