I am not much of a sports fan, but the 2012 Olympic Games are of great interest to me, especially when I think about their connection to the ancient Greek games.
But in researching about this topic and listening to historian Diana Uribe, I learned just how important they are for us as western civilization and as guardians of our heritage.
The 2012 Olympic Games are not just about sports. We must remember that they also mean peace and the exaltation of the human spirit!
Ancient Greek religion
In Antiquity the Olympic Games were not really a sporting event. They were a religious ceremony to offer the best humans could offer to the gods.
And the best was measured in excellence, the maximum effort in order to achieve eternal glory, immortality.
The prize was excellence itself, represented by a wreath of laurel leaves. You became immortal because you would always be in the memory of the Greek people.
They officially started in 776 BC and went on for roughly one thousand years, always in honor of Zeus.
The Sacred Olympic Truce
Even though they held the same religious beliefs and the same intellectual values, they didn’t unite to become a single unit.
The Olympic Games were held for seven days, every four years, always in the city of Olympia, and during this time the Olympic Truce was imposed.
Wars were interrupted and attacks during those seven days were prohibited; that way the athletes could travel to Olympia safely.
The truce also meant that during the Olympic Games, Greece was united as one in the pursuit of excellence and glory.
A messenger from Olympia carried the invitation for the different athletes in a ceramic disc and he could not be touched.
Athletes became heroes and in this way they paid tribute to their gods.
In actuality the games didn’t unite the Greeks as they don’t really unite people today.
But they are a space for coming together under the concept of excellence. And they did create a concept of civilization for ancient Greece.
The ancient Olympic Games
In ancient times there were less sporting disciplines as there are today.
His mission was to announce that the Greeks had defeated the Persians, after which he collapsed and died, having run the entire way without stopping.
That’s right; running could be a life and death matter in Antiquity.
Women were not allowed to participate in the games; only men who spoke greek.
The Olympic Games were not only an athletic event; there were also art, dance and poetry competitions.
Among the sporting disciplines were the javelin, discus, long jump, 5000 m race and chariot races.
Violating the rules was punished by death because the events were sacred, they were offered to Zeus and the immortality of the athletes in the eyes of their people.
Between Greece and Rome
After the fall of Greek civilization with the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, it was Alexander III of Macedon (“The Great”) who took all the Greek heritage with him into what’s called the Hellenism.
When Greece fell to the Roman Republic in 146 BC, the Romans, who admired and respected Greek culture, asked if they were allowed to participate in the games.
The Greeks accepted and this is how they recognized Rome as part of their history.
Rome embraced the Greek gods, giving them Roman names and hence the sacred character of the games remained.
The end of the ancient Olympic Games
In the eyes of Christian Romans the ancient cult of the body and its beauty was unacceptable. Christianism is about the soul, not the body.
While for ancient Greeks the body and its beauty were a gift from the gods and it had to be exalted.
With the death of the Greek gods, the ancient Olympic Games died too.
The 19th century
It was with the Romanticism movement during the 19th century that the idea of excellence and human spirit began to surface against the rationalization of life brought about by the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
There was a need to find a new way to relate to the world.
It was after several attempts to different sporting events when Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin travels to Greece, learns about the ancient games and rescues their spirit.
He thought of the games as superior to countries, religions, heroes and cities and he established a connection between Antiquity and modernity.
It is said that a catholic priest came up with the Olympic motto, “Citius, Altius, Fortius“, “Faster, Higher, Stronger“.
2012 Olympic Games
The spirit of Ancient Greece is very much still alive today. The ritualistic nature of the games was revived from the very beginning by Baron de Coubertin.
High Priestess Ino Menegaki presided the beautiful awe-inspiring ceremony of the lighting of the torch, invoking the god Apollo (god of the sun) to lend its sun rays inside the parabolic mirror.
Here’s the complete video of the ceremony. You may want to fast forward until 1:30 hours where the actual lighting begins at the Temple of Hera.
Then the Torch Relay started from May 19th to July 17th traveling from Greece to the UK for 70 days.
You can watch the handover ceremony in this video, but you may want to fast forward 25 minutes for the flame to arrive to the stadium.
The torch for the 2012 Olympic Games is triangular in shape, which is a symbol for:
- The three values of the Olympics: Respect, excellence and friendship.
- The motto of the Olympics: Faster, higher, stronger.
- The vision for the 2012 games: Sports, education and culture.
- The number of Olympic Games held in London: 1908, 1948 and 2012.
The thought of being able to watch the Olympic Games today as if we were some of those ancient Greeks really lifts my spirit.
What would ancient Greeks say if they saw what their games are now? With the technology and infrastructure created for them, would ancient Greeks think we’re honoring their religious tradition?
Would they be in awe of us as we are of them? Would they recognize us?
I think I would’ve loved to be in Olympia in May for the lighting of the torch more than I’d like to be in London.
But still, let’s all remember why our athletes are competing and why this is an event that links us back to our ancient ancestors.
Eternal glory and excellence are still reached today.
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