It’s the Summer Olympics 2021! Do you like to watch the Olympics? I LOVE watching gymnastics (and in the winter I love the ice skating.) Most people have their own favorites. It’s so much fun, but do you know the history of the Olympics? Well, believe it or not, the very first recorded Olympics date as far back as 776 B.C. The Greeks started the competitive events that are still enjoyed so much today.
The concept of athletics in Greece was most likely started as a means of keeping soldiers in shape for battle. When not in war, men would train to run fast, throw hard, and wrestle. These training times developed into intense competition.
The first Olympic races were held on the plain of Olympia in Elis, Greece. The Eleans started the games with just foot races in honor of Zeus, the king of their gods. As the event caught on in surrounding city-states, the sports grew to include jumping, discus throwing, javelin throwing, and wrestling. They later added boxing and chariot racing.
Women were not allowed to compete in the games; in fact, they couldn’t even watch them. That may have been for the best since the athletes competed in the nude! Women did have their own running events in a festival called Heraea. It was named after the goddess Hera.
One of the more demanding Olympic games was the pentathlon. It was a combination of five different events—running, wrestling, jumping, discus throwing, and javelin throwing. This concept of multiple events is still used today to find the most well-rounded athletes.
The Olympics lasted only five days and were held every four years. Winners were given olive wreaths, palm branches, and woolen ribbons. Just like today, some of the athletes became favorites, and people would flock to see them. Some men became “professionals” and made their living by representing their city-state. The grounds for the games were quite elaborate. Just like today, huge buildings and stadiums were erected specifically for the Olympics. As many as forty thousand spectators could view a track event at one time.
The ancient Olympics lasted until A.D. 393 when they were probably banned for being “pagan” by a Roman emperor named Theodosius I. Olympia was destroyed by earthquakes in the sixth century. A Frenchman resurrected the tradition of the games in the late 1800s. Many things have remained true to the early Olympic games. The famous lighting of the Olympic flame comes from an ancient relay race in which a flaming torch was passed from runner to runner. The winner lit a fire upon an altar. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Athletics have been a part of most cultures around the world. But we can thank the ancient Greeks for starting the spectacular tradition of the Olympics that fans still clamor over today.
Further activities for learning the history of the Olympics:
Host a Mini-Olympics
Indoors or out, this can be fun if you like competition. One of the Olympic rules was that good sportsmanship be followed. Keep up the tradition!
Materials: Paper, tape, light-colored marker, Frisbee (for outdoors) or coins (for indoors), long stick (for outdoors) or toothpicks (for indoors)
With your family or school group, create a mini-Olympics and hold five events similar to a pentathlon.
1. Running: If you meet outdoors, have a real race, like a 50-yard dash. If you must be indoors, race on your knees and see who can “run” the fastest down a short stretch.
2. Wrestling: Compete in arm wrestling.
3. Jumping: See who can jump the highest by taping a piece of paper on a wall and jumping with a light-colored marker in your hand. Let the highest mark be the winner.
4. Discus throwing: If the weather permits, see who can launch a Frisbee flying disc the farthest. If you are limited to indoors, try flicking coins across a room.
5. Javelin throwing: If you are outdoors, see who can throw a long stick the farthest with a running start. If you are indoors, resort to flicking toothpicks across a table.
Dress up your Olympic winner and give them the wreath described below! Take a picture to remember the early Olympics.
Adult involvement is required (for glue-gun!)
Materials: Two long pipe cleaners, 20–30 bay leaves, hot glue gun, decorative cord
1. Twist two long pipe cleaners together (for strength).
2. Shape the pipe cleaners into a horseshoe shape that will comfortably sit on the student’s head.
3. Parent/teacher: Carefully use a hot glue gun to secure bay leaves to the pipe cleaner. Allow them to overlap.
4. Tie a decorative cord at the base. (Photo 41B-1)
Watch this short documentary on the first olympics from the History Channel.
The History of the Olympics Research
Research more on the history of the Olympics. In modern times, when were the Olympics canceled or boycotted and why?