Now that the fanfare is over, and the frenzy of the medals tally, and the usual grubby IOC scandals; now that the Rio Olympics have been declared, by IOC president Thomas Bach, “the people’s Games, the most happy Games ever, the beautiful Games, the passion Games” (how do they think up this rubbish? but of course London and Sydney had already been voted the “best ever Games”, so he was obviously running out of superlatives); now that the green diving pool and the sewage floating in the sea have been conveniently forgotten and the Brazilians left to deal with the aftermath and the cost; I thought it would be fun to post some random facts about the greatest sporting show on earth. Not so much facts, actually, as human stories, which is what I always find the most fascinating.
The ancient Olympic Games, primarily part of a religious festival in honor of Zeus, were a series of athletic competitions among representatives of city-states. The games were staged every four years, starting in 776 BC, in Olympia, a sanctuary site for the Greek deities in the Peloponese. They reached their zenith in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, but then gradually declined in importance as the Romans gained power and influence in Greece. It is believed they ended in the 4th century AD, when emperor Theodosius I decreed that all pagan cults and practices be eliminated.
During the celebration of the games, an Olympic Truce was enacted between warring cities so that athletes could travel to the games in safety through hostile territory.
Athletes competed naked, and victors were rewarded by a kotinus, or olive branch wreath, and a large number of amphorae full of olive oil, which they most probably sold.
Only Greeks could compete. Greek men. No women, slaves or foreigners were allowed.
The Olympics were revived in 1896 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which had been created by Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, and were held in Athens, Greece, from 6 to 15 April. Women were still not allowed to compete, because de Coubertin felt that their inclusion would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect”.
However, one woman, Stamata Revithi, ran the marathon course on 11 April, the day after the men had run the official race. Although she was not allowed to enter the stadium at the end of her race, Revithi finished the marathon in about five hours and 30 minutes, and found witnesses to sign their names and verify the starting and finishing times. Revithi intended to present this documentation to the Hellenic Olympic Committee, hoping that they would recognise her achievement. It is not known what happened in the end – nor, sadly, could I find any photos of her.
The undisputed star of the swimming events at these Games was Hungarian architecture student Alfréd Hajós. Battling the elements on a cold April day – with 4m waves crashing around him – the 18-year-old Hajós served up majestic victories in both the 100m and the 1,200m freestyle events, to become the youngest champion of the inaugural Olympic Games.
While attending a dinner honouring the Olympic champions, the Crown Prince of Greece asked Hajós – who had been dubbed “the Hungarian Dolphin” by the Athenian press – where he had learned to swim so well. “In the water,” was his laconic response!
Hajós later showed himself to be an extremely versatile athlete, winning Hungary’s 100m sprint, 400m hurdles and discus titles. He also played as a centre forward in the Hungarian national football championship and was a member of the Hungarian team for its first ever international. He became a prominent architect specialising in sport facilities.
Because of its close connection with Greek history, the public desperately yearned for the marathon to be won by one of their countrymen. Spiridon Louis, a Greek water-carrier, rewarded their expectations, thereby becoming a national hero. When Louis arrived in the stadium, which erupted with joy, two Greek princes – Crown Prince Constantine and Prince George – rushed to meet him and accompanied him on his final lap for a finishing time of 2:58:50.
Louis’s victory set off wild celebrations, and the king offered him any gift he would care to ask of him; but all Louis could think of was a donkey-drawn carriage to help him in his water-carrying business!
Louis lived a quiet life thereafter, but his legacy includes an expression in Greek: “yinomai Louis” (γίνομαι Λούης – “I becοme Louis,”) which means to flee, or “disappear by running fast.”
The silver cup given to Louis at the Olympic Games was sold for 541,250 pounds ($860,000) in London on 18 April 2012, breaking the auction record for Olympic memorabilia. Breal’s Silver Cup stands just six inches tall and was offered for sale at Christie’s by the grandson of the victor, and bought by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
Over the years, there are many of these stories to be told, showing the resilience of the human spirit, the will to overcome difficulties and deal with failure as well as success. Driven by the megalomania prevalent in the IOC, and the political and financial interests present in any such endeavor, the Olympic Games have turned into an overblown media circus, bankrupting most countries brave enough to stage them. But still, time after time, these stories surface, and we get to witness amazing feats and riveting drama.