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The Origins of the Olympic Games

Ancient Olympic Runners

“Ancient Olympic Runners” by History Maps is marked with CC PDM 1.0.

With the arrival of one of the most anticipated events of the summer, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, people from all over the world are anxiously watching the competitions unfold.

A wide variety of sports are being played, from well-known ones like swimming/diving, gymnastics, basketball and cycling, in addition to less familiar events like sailing, shooting, sport climbing, and table tennis. Although the Games were delayed from 2020 to this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are an impressive number of athletes participating. According to NBC Sports, “there are 206 National Olympic Committees with a projected 11,360 athletes at the Tokyo games.” Each athlete is hoping that their training pays off with a medal win in their respective sport.

As in years past, Villanova is well represented in the summer Olympic Games. The sacrifice and dedication of our fellow Wildcats have demonstrated to be able to compete on this worldwide stage is undeniable.

The Olympic Games have long been a staple of our culture, but did you ever wonder where it all began? What is known as the “modern” Olympics began in 1896 in Athens, Greece; however, that is not when this prestigious competition actually originated.

Fast Facts about the Ancient Olympic Games:

  • The first recorded date of the Olympics is 776 BC in Olympia in the district of Elis in Greece.
  • The Games were held in honor of the king of the gods, Zeus.
  • Greek males were permitted to compete; women could not attend or compete.
  • The original competition was a foot race, but the Games evolved over time, with more sporting events added each year.
  • Running, jumping, throwing, boxing, and chariot racing were common games.
  • Pankration (a brutal combination of boxing and wrestling) was also popular. “No biting and no gouging” were the only rules of this game.
  • Competitors were naked.
  • Original prize for winners was an olive wreath.
  • 40,000 spectators attended the Olympics at the height of their popularity.
  • Winning athletes were like modern-day celebrities, earning recognition and other perks.
  • The Games were banned by the Roman emperor Theodosius I in 394 AD.
  • The Olympic Games were resurrected in 1896 by Pierre de Coubertin as a way to bring nations together to celebrate sport and friendship.
  • The first Olympic Winter Games in 1924 in Chamonix (France).

Dig Deeper: 

Be sure to check out some of Falvey’s helpful online resources to learn more about the history of the ancient Olympics!

(The above facts were drawn from these resources.)

Global Olympics: Historical and Sociological Studies of the Modern Games (Kevin Young and Kevin B. Wamsley)

The Olympic Games Explained: A Student Guide to the Evolution of the Modern Olympic Games (Jim Parry, Vassil Girginov, and Craig Reedie)

The Palgrave Handbook of Olympic Studies (Helen Lenskyj and Stephen Wagg)

Historical Dictionary of the Olympic Movement (Bill Mallon and Jeroen Heijmans)

The Olympics,  A Very Peculiar History (David Arscott)

A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics (Neil Faulkner)

Olympia: The Story of the Ancient Olympic Games (Robin Waterfield)

The First Olympics (Betsy Carpenter)

The Modern Olympic Games and their Model in Antiquity (Louis Callebat)

Onward to the Olympics: Historical Perspectives on the Olympic Games (Stephen R. and Gerald P. Schaus)

When were the first Olympics? (Paul Christesen)

First Olympian (Cameron Balbirnie, Alexander Street Video)

The Real Olympics (PBS, Alexander Street Video)

Welcome to the Ancient Olympic Games (International Olympic Committee)

Let the Games Begin: The First Olympics (National Geographic)


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Regina Duffy is a Communication and Marketing Program Manager at Falvey Memorial Library.





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Last Modified: July 28, 2021

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