“The most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.”
Those are the famous words of the father of modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.
It was the Baron who spearheaded the 1896 return to the ancient games: they were originally held from 776 BC to 393 AD in Greece before being banned as a pagan custom. Coubertin wanted to revive the values inherent in physical education on a worldwide stage — with remarkable determination, he, with the support of many others, was able to realize this vision.
Along the way, Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee, and personally designed the five-ring logo which is one of the most recognizable symbols in the history of the planet.
But not even the farsighted Coubertin could imagine the juggernaut the Olympics have become: NBC shelled out $12 billion dollars to televise them through 2032. Even the current controversial Beijing games still manage to attract millions of viewers.
It is said that success has many fathers: while Coubertin may have been the driving force behind the resurrection of the Olympics, he almost certainly derived inspiration from a German archaeologist and historian who does not receive the recognition he deserves. That man is Ernst Curtius (1814-1896).
On January 10, 1852, Curtius gave a speech in Berlin that ignited a renewed interest in the Olympics: he made an impassioned plea to excavate the ruins in Olympia, the site of the initial games.
“What lies there,” Curtius said, “hidden in the dark depths is the life of our life…Olympia remains for us holy ground.” A number of powerful people heard the speech and began fundraising to support the proposed dig.
It took Curtius more than 20 years to achieve his goal, but the result was worth the wait. Curtius was able to negotiate an agreement with the Greek government to have “exclusive” rights to do the excavation with the proviso that all of the discoveries would remain in Greece. Up to that point, some digs were basically treasure hunts where the valuable artifacts were plundered. Under this arrangement, Curtius could only remove his own photographs, drawings and any materials he generated — plus he could publish his findings.
According to Professor John Hale, Curtius gave birth to a new age in archaeology in Olympia. The contract with the Greek government and Curtius’ meticulous approach to conducting the excavation set a scientific standard for future archaeological study.
The dig began in 1875 and lasted six years. The results were astounding: among the treasures Curtius unearthed was the magnificent Temple of Zeus which once harbored a 41-foot statue of the deity. The ivory and gold sculpture had been destroyed ages before, but remnants indicated the enormous scope of the work.
Zeus’ statue is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The excavation had wider implications beyond archaeological fieldwork. Curtius opened the classical Greek civilization for more than just academia. That culture attracted huge public interest, as it does to this day, even though the ethos of the times and the games has changed mightily.
Judith Swaddling, who wrote the definitive book, The Ancient Olympic Games, told The Washington Post online, “Perhaps the biggest difference between ancient and modern games is that the ancient sports were always held in honor of a deity who bestowed on athletes the power and the skill that enabled them to excel. At Olympia, the deity was Zeus, the chief of the Greek Gods.”
Pioneers like Coubertin and Curtius should be saluted for enhancing our understanding of the roots of the Olympic tradition. Curtius said it well: “It is the noblest work of classical research to preserve the immortal part of that which has been thought and wrought in antiquity and to make it fruitful for the present time.”
Ten facts about the ancient Games in Olympia:
- The first 12 games consisted of only one event: a 600-foot sprint. Eventually, it grew to 12 events and was staged every four years in the months of August and September.
- As many as 45,000 spectators attended, a colossal number considering the transportation modes of the day.
- There were no torch relays or marathon runs.
- The most popular event was the chariot race. These competitions were extremely dangerous: they featured epic crashes and violent deaths. Owners of the chariots were considered Olympic champions, not the charioteers.
- There were animal sacrifices. Up to 100 cows were slaughtered.
- In the first 14 Olympics, the competitors wore shorts or loin cloths. After that, they wore nothing at all. There are two possible explanations: during a race, one of the athletes became tangled up in his shorts, fell, and injured himself, causing clothing to be banned; or, one of two champion runners, either Orsippus or Acanthus, decided to run without garments to increase speed, and soon the rest of the field elected to do the same.
- Rule violators were brutally flogged and sometimes hit with financial fines.
- No gold, silver, or bronze medals were awarded. Winners received wreaths of wild olive leaves from a sacred tree.
- The days of sports events, feasting, and revelry were conducted in highly unsanitary conditions. The water supplies were inadequate and restrooms were open latrines. Professor David Clay Large said “There were outbreaks of various kinds of gastro-intestinal diseases…often fatal.”
- In 1937, Baron Pierre de Coubertin was buried in Switzerland by the headquarters of the IOC. His heart, however, was interred near the ruins of ancient Olympia.