Greek Athletics

The ancient Olympics

Abedraggled group of joggers from a local running club splashes though the puddles on a gloomy afternoon in some small town.

   What gives special significance to this commonplace scene? Look closely at the leading runner. He is carrying something. It's a gas-powered torch, although the flame is invisible even in this dull light. The wet, deserted streets are in Sparta, in southern Greece. The date is March 31st 1996 - the Olympic Flame, kindled by the sun's rays a few days earlier at the site of ancient Olympia, is still near the start of its journey to Atlanta for the Centennial Olympic Games.


   The ancient Olympics had no "sacred flame" - this was a brainchild of Goebbels' propaganda machine, first seen at the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics. Ironically, what seems to be the most potent symbol of the Games' links with ancient Greece is actually the most bogus.

   What did the ancient Games have in common with the modern Olympics? Not the flame, to be sure, but professionalism, money, political pressure, corruption, cheating ... to cheer yourself up, find out about the modern Nemean Games, where all these vices are avoided.

The Olympic Torch in Sparta 1996

Footnote 1998:

The Olympic Torch

The dropping of the sacred Olympic Torch by a cyclist and its consequent extinction has led to a questioning of the whole absurd ritual. The torch was apparently immediately relit with an alternative flame also kindled by the sun's rays in the Temple of Zeus Olympios on the morning of March 30th. Memories were recalled of the Tokyo Olympics, where a similar incident was avoided by prompt use of a cigarette lighter. Many Classicists (even) assume the ritual is ancient. There were of course torch races (like the one Socrates had been to at the beginning of Republic) - but they were never part of the Olympics. The Olympic Flame goes back only to Hitler's Games in 1936 - and was possibly one of Leni Riefenstahl's concepts (she also wanted the runners naked : the Greek boys involved said no!). The opening of Olympiad, her amazing film, is available on YouTube:

Olympics are coming home! (not)

Athenians were dancing in the streets following the announcement that the 2004 Olympics will be held in Athens. Perhaps it would be churlish to point out that Athens had nothing whatever to do with the running and organisation of the ancient Games - which were held in Elis in the north west Peloponnese. The Pan-Athenian Games were not particularly highly regarded - and unlike the "stephanotic" Games at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea and Isthmia - where the prize was a simple garland of vegetation - the Athenians had to offer tempting prizes of olive-oil to attract top competitiors. See Panathenaic Vases. [September 8th 1997]

London Olympics 2012

Please visit Ancient and Modern Olympics - the superb blog by Dr Jason Konig of University of St Andrew's , Scotland:



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