Olympic Myths, Yarns, Tall Tales, and Half-truths Revealed...
by Charles Downey
Q. When, in ancient Greece, did Pheidippides run 26 miles to announce a Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, thereby starting the tradition of the Marathon run?
A. Probably never. The distance from Marathon to Athens is not 26 miles. Actually, the course that marathoners cover today is the distance from the now-demolished Shepherd's Bush Stadium in London to just outside the queen's bedroom at Windsor Castle. The 26-mile, 385-yard course for the Marathon run was standardized in the 1908 Olympic Games in London. The longest race in the ancient games was about three miles.
Q. When did the ancient Greeks come up with the concept of lighting a torch with the rays of the sun and then relaying it to the games' location?
A. It never happened. The tradition of the torch traveling overland from Greece to wherever the games are being held was conceived in 1936 by Lenni Reifensthal, a talented German filmmaker who became famous that same year for her propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. The first Greek torch lighting was basically a publicity stunt to publicize the 1936 Berlin Games.
Q. Were the ancient games only athletic events that were held only in Olympia, Greece?
A. In ancient times, the games were part of religious ceremonies that included animal sacrifices, dramatic and poetic readings, singing and incense burning. Athletics were only one segment. The four main sites for the ancient Olympics were Delphi, Corinth, Olympia and Aegina.
Q. Why did the ancients insist on purely amateur athletics?
A. They didn't. The idea of purely amateur athletics came about in the 18th century when upper-class Europeans were thinking about starting the games of the modern era. The idea of amateur participation only was important then because only the rich had time for sports. Everybody else was too busy working 12-hour days, seven days a week.
Q. Why did ancient winners receive only token prizes like Olive wreaths?
A. The Greek city-states Elis and Corinth supported athletes year round. They lived at the expense of the state and trained in specially built gymnasiums. Many reaped financial bonanzas because winners brought prestige and status to their city-states. Many were given pensions, homes and earned the same type of wealth and fame as today's top pro athletes.
Q. Weren't the ancient Olympics a time of peace in the name of sports?
A. Actually, the games played in the ancient Olympics sprung mostly from the practice and arts of war. Games back then included Greco-Roman wrestling and fist fighting wherein the participants wrapped their hands with leather thongs. One of the most popular events on the ancient card was the Pankration, a violent and bloody free-for-all that resulted in eyes gouged from sockets and ears torn from heads. Other popular games included foot races, the javelin throw and the long jump.
Q. Did the ancients really stop wars to hold the Olympics?
A. Because the ancient Games were part of religious ceremonies, the four main sites were off-limits to those who bore the tools of war. Thus, one had to surrender one's shield, spear, sling, dagger, sword, bow and arrows and the like while there. Ancient wars did not cease for the Games although warrior-participants could obtain a safe conduct pass that allowed them to traverse battlefields at night when the day's fighting was done.
Q. Did the Olympic Games ever include horse races?
A. In ancient times, popular horse race events were divided into about every classification possible. In addition to two-, four- and ten-team chariot races, there were filly-only chariot, mule-only chariot and other similar divisions. When Nero of Rome introduced horse racing to his version of the Olympic Games, there was also massive betting—and cheating.
Q. Did the ancient Greeks really tear down the walls of their cities on occasion to honor an Olympic winner?
A. Never. That would have been the equivalent of the U.S. dismantling its nuclear submarine fleet to honor the winners of the Super Bowl.
Q. Did the ancients take part in any Games we moderns no longer observe?
A. Nero of Rome during the Olympic games of 66 A.D. introduced popular Roman singing, poetry reciting and more horse racing. It was widely suspected at the time Nero did not have both oars in the water. But all doubt was removed when he crassly declared himself winner of the poetry and singing contests. Historians also note that Nero entered a ten-horse team in the four-horse chariot race, fell from his vehicle and was almost killed. Nonetheless, he declared himself winner in that event, too.
Q. Why did the ancient Greeks quit holding the Games?
A. The Games never really died out; the world just became a much more dangerous and less organized place when Huns, Vandals and Visigoths started raiding Rome and the cities of Greece. There were also major earthquakes that changed the course of rivers and flooded the Game sites at Delphi and Olympia. Moreover, Christianity spread to Greece by the 4th Century and the religious nature of the Games became less important.
Q. When did the ancient Olympic Games end?
A. The ruler Theodosius I declared an end to pagan rituals in 394 AD and that included—in his mind, at least—Olympic Games. However, historians note the same decree was issued about every 50 years which hints the Games went on, decrees and proclamations notwithstanding.
Q. In ancient times, weren't the Games only held in Greece?
A. The Games of the ancient era were also held in Syria in 1456. In 1621, Robert Dover organized Olympic competition at Cotswold Hills in England. The Games were also held sporadically among Northern Europeans and the English for the next 250 years. The Greeks staged their own Olympic revivals in 1859, 1870, 1875 and again in 1877.
Q. When did the Games of modern era begin?
A. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French nobleman, founded the Olympics of the modern era in 1896 and served as International Olympic committee president until 1925. The Baron knew about the ancients but he was probably really inspired by watching the English play some of the ancient Games.
Q. Do the five interconnected rings of the Olympic logo symbolize the continents of the world?
A. The Olympic rings don't symbolize the world's continents because there are seven continents—although no native population lives in Antarctica. Actually, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French nobleman who founded the Olympics of the modern era in 1896, borrowed the interconnected rings as the symbol for the International Olympics from a French rugby club.
Q. Have the Games always been held every four years since 1896?
A. The Games were suspended during World War II in 1940 and 1944. They were resumed in 1948 but excluded Germany and Japan.
Q. Why are politics never supposed to be mixed with the games?
A. Founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin wanted to bring the peoples of the world together in sport and friendship. Nonetheless, nearly every session of the Games since 1936 has been marred by some form of protest, unrest or boycott.
Q. Were live animals ever harmed in the Olympics?
A. The 1900 Olympics in Paris featured a pigeon shooting event. The birds were released in front of a participant with a shotgun; the winner was he who knocked the most birds from the sky. But the event turned out to be too messy with maimed birds on the ground and blood and feathers swirling in the air. The live pigeon shoot was dropped and replaced with trap shooting which uses clay pigeons.
Q. Aren't most Olympic winners in their 20s and 30s?
A. The oldest medal winner ever was 72-year-old Oscar Swahn who took a silver medal in the 1912 Olympics for the deer shoot (which uses moving targets on a rail, not live deer).
Q. Haven't the modern Olympics always been track and field events?
A. Not really. Olympic Games have included many now-forgotten events. Some examples were: tug-of-war, rope climbing, cricket, lacrosse, golf, croquet, polo, club swinging, motorboat racing, the 3000-meter walk, kayak slalom singles and dueling pistols.
Andrew Strenk, PhD, a former University of Southern California (USC) history professor, competed as a swimmer on the 1968 U.S. Olympic 4x200 freestyle relay team. While studying for his Master's degree in Germany, then his doctorate at USC, Dr. Strenk covered the '72 Munich Olympic Games; the '76 Montreal games and the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980. Later, in 1983 and 1984, he worked for the L.A. Olympics Organizing Committee as official historian and dug from the archives much unpublicized material. Moreover, Dr. Strenk later taught a college course, "History and Politics of the Olympic Games." He reveals much of what we commonly believe about the International Olympic Games are really myths, yarns, tall tales, half-truths and rumors.
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