“Faster, Higher, Stronger”: The Origins of The Modern Olympic Games

The winner of the marathon, Spiridon Louis, on arrival at the stadium at the 1896 Athens Olympics. Credit: DEA Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images

The precise origins of the very first Olympic Games are difficult to pinpoint. Experts know that the first Olympics were held in the Greek city of Olympia (hence the name), sometime in 776 B.C. The Ancient Greeks hosted this event as a way to celebrate the Gods and Goddesses of Mount Olympus. This is the leading reason why Roman Emperor Theodosius I, a devout follower of Christianity, banned the Olympics in 393 AD.

For more than 1,500 years, the Olympic Games were taboo. Then, on April 6, 1896, they made a comeback in Athens, Greece; athletes from 13 nations competed in various sporting events while 60,000 spectators cheered them on. It’s hard to imagine the world without the Olympics now, but the story behind its origins may give a deeper appreciation for the Games.

The Ancient Olympic Games

The first recorded Olympic Games took place in the ancient Greek sanctuary of Olympia in 776 B.C. Although Greece had many different sporting festivals at the time, the Olympic Games were the most popular.

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No one seems to know how the Games officially began. According to one legend, they were started by Heracles (dubbed “Heracles” by the Romans), who held the Games to honor his father, the god Zeus. Another theory suggests that the Games were held to commemorate Zeus’ defeat of his own father, the Titan Cronus. And yet another origin story suggests that the Games were tied to the House of Atreus and commemorated the time “Pelops won the hand of his bride, Hippodamia, by competing in a chariot race against her father, King Oinomaos (Oenomaus) of Pisa.”

The very first Olympics focused on one single event: racing. After a few years, the number of events increased, as did the number of days included in the festival. Over time, old-school Olympic Games included horse races, boxing and pankration, a sort of old-school MMA fighting event that had very little in the way of rules.

Like other festivals, the Games included animal sacrifices and altars. And, on the final day of the festival, folks celebrated and devoted themselves to Zeus. This specific element of the Olympics would cause friction in the years to come.

Banned, Revisited & Reborn

When Rome conquered Greece in the second century A.D., everything changed. The Games continued for a little while, but the Romans never participated. However, the Games remained a very popular event, regardless of the sacrifices to Zeus. But, in 393 A.D., Emperor Theodosius I officially banned the Games, noting that the pagan celebration didn’t align with his Christian values.

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Fast-forward a few centuries. Throughout Europe, and much of the Western world, artists, historians and the general public continued to find ancient Greek culture and customs fascinating. In fact, many of these fans created their own festivals to emulate the Olympics. Finally, in 1894, the idea of resurrecting the Games was proposed more formally by Pierre de Coubertin, a French baron, at an international sporting conference. All 79 delegates who listened to the pitch agreed to revive the Games, forming the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The first Summer Games took place from April 6–15, 1896, in Athens, Greece. The first gold medal awarded at the modern Olympics was won by a Greek water carrier, Spyridon Louis, who successfully completed a 25-mile marathon. In true fandom fashion, organizers honored the sporting event’s namesake: The marathon route traced the path Pheidippides (or Philippides) ran to deliver the news of the Athenian victory over the Persian army at the Battle of Marathon back in 490 B.C.

Four years later, the Games expanded to include women athletes for the first time. And, by 1924, the Olympics had become a real global sensation. In fact, that was the same year the IOC introduced the Winter Games, allowing athletes of even more sports to go for the gold.

Since 1896, the Summer Games have only been disrupted three times — all due to ongoing wars. That is, the 1916 Summer Olympics were canceled due to World War I, and, in 1940 and 1944, the Games that were to be held in Tokyo and London, respectively, were both canceled due to World War II.

As a longstanding symbol of international cooperation and unity, the Games have the opportunity to bring competitors and spectators together – even in the wake of global disasters and cultural differences.