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Myths about the Olympic Games "Ancient Olympics Guide"
April 6, 2004
by David C. Young

Many aspects of our Olympic Games have been justified by specious ancient antecedents. Until recently we believed competitors had to be amateurs because we believed ancient Greek Olympians were amateurs. Nonsense. The ancient Olympics had no such rule, and the Greeks did not even have a word for amateur. Ancient Olympic athletes were professionals. The Olympic Truce, while guaranteeing safe passage to athletes and spectators on their way to the Games, did not, contrary to popular belief, stop all wars in Greece: Sparta was fined for attacking Elean territory in 420 B.C., and Arcadians invaded the sanctuary at Olympia in 364. Modern Olympic officials, citing an ancient inscription from Delphi that had been translated "Wine cannot be taken into the stadium," have assumed that ancient athletes abstained from strong drink, setting an example for today's competitors. It now seems the correct translation is "Wine cannot be taken out of the stadium."

An especially beguiling myth is that the five interlocked Olympic rings--among the world's best-known logos--were an ancient Greek symbol for the games. Several recent books include a photograph of a stone block from Delphi with the five rings inscribed on it. The books identify it as ancient and say that the five rings "later adopted as the symbol of the modern Olympics" create "a link between the ancient and modern Olympics" and are "considered by experts to be 3,000 years old." More nonsense. The five rings were invented in 1913 by Pierre de Coubertin, president of the International Olympic Committee. There had been five modern Olympiads by that time, and Coubertin's writings suggest each ring was intended to represent a completed Olympiad, the first five host countries united in "Olympism" and peace. Apparently he expected to add a sixth ring after Olympiad VI, to be held in Berlin in 1916, and so on, until there was a flagful of rings and "universal peace." But Olympiad VI was preempted by World War I, so Coubertin gave the symbol a different official meaning: each ring represented one of the five continents of the world, united in Olympism (to Europeans, the "continents" number only five). Thus the logo froze at five and stays there today, a fossil of pre-World War I Europe, when hopes of world peace briefly flowered. How did the inscription of the five-ring logo come to be at Delphi? The infamous 1936 Nazi Olympics of Berlin provide the answer. Leni Riefenstahl filmed the 1936 Olympic torch relay as the flame moved from ancient Olympia toward Berlin for her acclaimed movie Olympia. For a scene where a torch runner circles the photogenic stadium at Delphi, a crude stone block was inscribed with the symbol of the five rings, and placed in the stadium. Years later American authors Lynn and Gray Poole observed the old movie prop in the stadium, mistook it for an ancient inscription, and published their error, which soon spread to other books, where it continues to mislead the unwary.

The custom of lighting the flame at ancient Olympia and relaying the torch to the modern Olympic stadium is also a legacy of the Berlin games, although many wrongly think it derives from the ancient Olympics. Carl Diem, organizer of the 1936 Olympics, seeking to glamorize them with an ancient aura, staged the first lighting of the Olympic flame, now a hallowed ritual in which thousands delight. The first Olympic torches were made by the Krupp Company, better known for providing weapons for two world wars. The association of the Olympic torch with peace came later, as the flame arrived at more peaceful venues.

The tradition of lighting the torch at Olympia is a modern one. (©ATHOC) [LARGER IMAGE]


Despite the myths linking modern and ancient games, a similarity of spirit is authentic. Those who revived the Olympics succeeded in making the games live again. Our Olympics are, like those of the ancients, a magnificent sporting and cultural event, a source of national pride, and a showcase for outstanding individual achievement.

David C. Young is a professor of classics at the University of Florida and author of The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival, Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) and A Brief History of the Olympic Games (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004).

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America