Closer Readings Commentary

When the Games Were Held at Olympia

Holding an Olympic Games means evoking history.
Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics

Every two years, a group of people dedicated to a common purpose will solemnly assemble, light a flame, chant a hymn, and swear an oath. If the spectacle just described sounds a little like a religious ritual, it might be because the event—the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games—is in fact intended to evoke an ancient Greek religious festival. And when the games opened in Summer 2004, the ancient roots of the modern Olympics were on full display because the Olympics had come home!

Dora Bakoyiannis was the mayor of Athens when Greece hosted the games of the 28th Olympiad in 2004. In a speech in Washington, D.C., she explained the historic and symbolic significance of the return of the Olympics to Greece:

As you all know, Greece in general, and Athens in particular, has a number of unique historic and cultural advantages in staging the Olympics. After all, the games originated in Greece near[ly] 2,800 years ago, and were then revived again in Athens in 1896. As a result, visitors to Greece can still see the original ancient stadium of ancient Olympia, where the Olympics were first organized in 776 BCE.

As the mayor’s remarks suggest, anybody who followed the 2004 Olympics could not help but become aware of ancient Greek civilization in the process. And the return of the Olympics to Greece to its native land continues to hold great promise for parents and educators looking for a way to interest contemporary students in the culture and history of ancient Greece. Simply tuning in to television coverage of the Olympic games brought students into contact with a wide range of historically significant images. EDSITEment resources can be used to explain these images and to place them within the larger narrative of ancient Greek history.

The 2004 games not only sparked curiosity in the specific history of ancient Greece, but also impressed students more generally with the relevance of history as a discipline. The Athens Olympics presented such a valuable educational moment because they showed students how historical analysis can help us critically re-examine the world we live in today. The juxtaposition of the modern games against an ancient backdrop, the Athens Olympics still encourages us to reflect on the ways in which Greek civilization continues to reverberate (or not) through our contemporary world. Thus, the activities and prompts described in this Feature all revolve around this core question:

How and why does the study of the ancient Greeks have continuing relevance to our ability to better understand ourselves?

Overview of EDSITEment Resources

Students will find a library of textual and visual tools for the study of ancient Greece on the EDSITEment-reviewed Perseus Project website. The Perseus Project site includes a special exhibit designed to immerse students in the lives of ancient Olympic athletes. The exhibit provides details on the events, ethos, cultural context, and physical location of the ancient games. Highlights of the exhibit include a multimedia tour of ancient Olympia and a series of profiles of ancient Olympic athletes. Also, through the EDSITEment resource ArchNet, students have access to Archaeology Online’s Ancient Olympics Guide. The articles on Winning at Olympia and Myths about the Olympic Games presents the latest research on the cultural backdrop of the ancient games.

The EDSITEment lesson plan Live From Ancient Olympia (for grades 68) suggests one strategy for guiding students through the wealth of information available through the Perseus Project ancient Olympics exhibit. The lesson plan’s central activity asks students to write and perform a TV news-style “live interview” with the ancient Olympic heroes profiled in the exhibit. These interviews should clarify students’ understanding of the attitudes and ideals underpinning the significance of the Olympics to the ancient Greek culture. The activities and discussion questions presented below extend the themes of that lesson, while also helping to elucidate the significance of the Olympic games within our own modern context.


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A Closer Look at the Perseus Project Exhibit

The Olympic games remind us that the kinds of sporting events that a society institutionalizes tells us a great deal about the values and cultural assumptions of that particular society. But we must also carefully note the ways in which the worldview reflected in ancient Olympic practice might differ from our own. Thus, the key question raised by the Perseus Project exhibit is this:

Do the modern Olympics represent true continuity with an ancient tradition, or a mostly new phenomenon with an ancient name?

In addressing this question, students can use EDSITEment resources to investigate the following contrasts between the ancient and modern games. But be careful: some contrasts may not be as sharp as they first seem!

  • Perhaps the most striking difference between the ancient and modern Olympics is that the ancient Olympics were held as religious festivals. Students can click here for an explanation of the religious significance of the ancient games. Although no longer intended for the honor of a particular god, the modern Olympics do strive to retain the ritualistic bent of the ancient Olympics. There is an Olympic anthem, an Olympic hymn, and an Olympic oath. Every two years, the Olympic torch is ritually lit at an altar in Olympia by natural rays of the sun reflected off curved mirrors. Discuss:
    To what extent does the success of the modern Olympic movement depend upon particular symbols, rituals, and ceremonies?
  • As much as the modern Olympics strives to create a sense of world unity, the modern games often serve as platforms for governments and individuals to make their own political statements. During the opening ceremonies of the 1908 Olympics in London, the American flag-bearer refused to follow the custom of dipping the flag as he passed King Edward VII’s box. The flag-bearer reportedly said: “This flag dips to no earthly king.” In 1976, 26 African Nations boycotted the Montreal Olympics to protest the fact that New Zealand was allowed to compete after its national rugby team visited apartheid South Africa. The United States and 59 of its allies boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. When the Olympics came to Los Angeles in 1984, the Soviet Union retaliated with its own boycott. Did politics play a similar role at the ancient Olympics? Click here to find out, then discuss:
    To what extent can the ideal of a non-political Olympic games be taken seriously?
  • Men and women both participate in the modern Olympics, competing in separate events. Click here to learn about the status of women at the ancient games in Olympia. Then discuss:
    To what extent has the participation of women in the Olympic games changed since ancient times? To what extent does our own modern culture encourage or discourage female participation in sports?
  • The modern Olympics brings together athletes of all races and nationalities. Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic movement, declared, “The Olympic Games are for the world, and all nations must be admitted to them.” But for most of their history, the ancient Olympics were only for athletes of Greek lineage. The ancient Olympics were “panhellenic,” meaning that they included people from all over the Greek-speaking world. Discuss:
    The participants in the ancient games all shared a common Hellenic culture. To what extent do the modern games presume a shared global culture?
  • Today’s Olympic athletes compete as representatives of national teams, while ancient Olympians competed as individuals. And whereas today’s Olympics include team sports such as basketball, volleyball, and baseball, the ancient games included no team sports. The ancient Greek emphasis on the achievement of individual athletes is best captured in the Greek concept of arete, meaning competitive excellence. Click here to find out more about arete, and then discuss:
    To what extent does arete survive as a core ideal in contemporary society? In our culture, is individual competitiveness seen as more of a vice or a virtue?
  • One feature of the ancient Olympics that may be absent in the modern version is the idea of the ekecheiria, or “sacred truce.” Students can click here to investigate the concept of the sacred truce. Note that the truce did not establish peace among the Greek city-states, but only guaranteed safe passage for athletes and spectators traveling to and participating in the games. And while there are scattered examples of the truce being violated, the ancient Greeks mostly succeeded in ensuring that war would not interfere with the Olympic games. From 776 BCE until 393 CE—the entire period of the ancient games—293 consecutive Olympics were held without once being cancelled due to war. By contrast, since the modern Olympics began in 1896, the games have been cancelled three times because of wars—in 1916, 1940, and 1944. Discuss:
    Why and to what extent do we think that sport has the potential to promote peace among nations?
  • The rules of modern Olympic sports are calculated to provide for the safety and protection of the athletes. This was not the case at ancient Olympia. Click here to learn about the pankration a particularly brutal combat sport that could sometimes turn lethal. It is no coincidence that one of the most popular ancient Olympic sports was combat-oriented. Classics scholar Michael B. Poliakoff, author of a book on ancient athletics noted that violent sports "filled a crucial need as an outlet for highly competitive and individualistic impulses Greece developed during the period from the seventh to the fifth centuries BCE." Discuss:

    Do violent sports channel and moderate aggressive, hyper-competitive behavior, or do they only make us more violent and more competitive?
  • The modern Olympics began as a contest for amateur athletes—competitors who have never taken money to play sports. In fact, the American Olympic hero Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medals when it later came to light that he had played semi-professional baseball. Click here to find out whether the distinction between amateur and professional athletes existed in ancient Greece. Then discuss:
    What do students think of the recent change in the Olympic rules permitting professional athletes to participate in some events (e.g., basketball)?
  • The prize for ancient Olympic champions was a crown made by twisting a wild olive branch, called kotinos, into a circle. Unlike the modern games, the ancient Olympics did not recognize second and third place finishers. The idea of an athlete being rewarded at Olympia for being second best would not have made sense to the ancient Greeks. Discuss:
    Do students think that medals should be awarded to the top three finishers in an Olympic event, or does it make more sense to follow the ancient Greek model and just recognize a single champion?


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Olympic Tidbits

Parents and educators can also lead much shorter interactive activities that use familiar Olympic images as “hooks” to introduce tidbits on ancient Greek history and culture. Examples of two such activities are provided below.

1. Mascot Mythology

The official Athens 2004 mascots were a pair of brother and sister named Phevos and Athena. According to the International Olympic Committee website, “their creation was inspired by an ancient Greek doll and their names are linked to ancient Greece, yet the two siblings are children of modern times … Phevos and Athena represent the link between Greek history and the modern Olympic Games.”

  • Athena and Phevos (known in ancient Greece as Phoebus Apollo) are both names of prominent gods in Greek mythology. But what sorts of gods were they and how were they represented? To find out, direct your students to Odyssey Online’s At Home on Mount Olympos page. There, students will find an image of five Olympian gods, including Athena and Apollo. The two gods are pictured next to one another. They are the second and third gods from the left. Students can click on their individual pictures to learn more about them.
  • Discuss: How do the pictorial representations of Athena and Apollo in the painting reflect their attributes?
  • Discuss: What are some reasons why Athena and Phoebus Apollo may have been chosen as the names for the 2004 Olympic mascots?

2. The Marathon in Legend and History

The marathon was never an ancient Olympic event, but the race was first run as the final event in the inaugural modern Olympics, as a tribute to the popular legend of a Greek soldier named Phidippides (also spelled Pheidippides) who fought at the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. Click here to learn about the origins of the marathon.

Of course, the battle at Marathon remains significant not only in Olympic history, but in the history of warfare and military strategy. It is difficult for us to conceptualize how ancient wars were actually fought—what sort of tactical maneuvers won or lost campaigns. But EDSITEment has created a schematic animation that portrays the design and success of the Athenians’ battle strategy at Marathon. After showing this animation to your students, have them read about the Athenian strategy in a summary of The Histories, a text by the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BCE. If desired, you can explore Herodotus’ text using the following discussion questions:

  • What does the text reveal about the relationship between religion and war in the ancient world?
  • What was the source of the Persians’ advantage at Marathon? What advantages did the Athenians enjoy?
  • What part does Phidippides play in the battle according to Herodotus?
  • What does the commentary on the text say about the legend of the run from Marathon to Athens? What does Herodotus’ text say about the run?

Standards Alignment

National Council for the Social Studies

i – Culture
ii – Time, continuity, and change
iii – Peoples, places, and environments
v – Individuals, groups, and institutions
ix – Global connections

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