The Olympic Games: history and lore

Reading time: 5 minutes

Are you ready?

Have you put your rugby ball away yet? Are you sad?

Come on, let's think positive and dream of medals now...

Yes, they're coming: the Olympic Games!

From July 26 to August 11, you'll be in Paris to witness a gathering of the world's greatest sportsmen and women.

It's going to be crazy! And it's only been every four years for... well, for a very long time!

By the way, do you know anything about Olympic history or amusing anecdotes?

Come on, let's refresh your memory, so you can shine a little at the party...

Don't thank me, it's a gift!

At the very beginning of the beginning...

As you know, the Olympic Games date back to ancient Greece...

When was this?

In fact, we don't really have a precise date...

Archaeologists point to the year 776 BC, the date of the only known written records.

From this date onwards, the Greeks began to measure time in Olympiads, i.e. the 4 years separating each session.

But the games had probably been around for a very long time.

Why these games?

It's hard to say... As always with antiquity, legend mingles with historical fact.

There's no doubt that the games were created for religious and political reasons.

They only lasted five days during the summer.

The first day was devoted to religious celebrations: processions and prayers were held to obtain the gods' favor.

We know that the sanctuary at Olympia, where the games were held, was a large sanctuary where Zeus was worshipped above all.

Politically, it's easy to understand what was at stake: 40,000 spectators from all corners of the immense Greek territory were expected in the stadium. The games were a great opportunity to negotiate, forge alliances and sign diplomatic treaties.

And the women?

No surprises, alas...

Women couldn't take part in the games... or be spectators!

What about sports?

The sporting events began on the second day with the chariot race on the racecourse. Twelve laps had to be completed to earn the title of winner.

Then it was on to horse racing and pentathlon events.

On the last two days, you could watch the most violent sports: boxing, pancracing or wrestling.

Anecdote: all the athletes, boxers, wrestlers, etc. were often naked... This ensured that no women took part in the games in disguise.

Finally, everything came to an end with a four-hundred-meter run...

And what did we win?


Well, almost nothing: an olive wreath... and almost eternal glory!

For the Greeks, glory was priceless, and some athletes enjoyed a veritable cult following...

Why are ancient games disappearing?

Another story of religion: in 393 AD, the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I banned the Games. For him, the event encouraged pagan worship...

It wasn't until the 19th century that they reappeared...

And a Frenchman resurrected the Olympic Games...

Despite several projects, the idea of reviving international games failed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

It wasn't until 1894 that a 31-year-old Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, succeeded in reviving them at the first Olympic Congress in June 1894.

In April 1896, the first Olympic Games of the 20th century were held in Athens!

We're back in ancient Greece... The adventure begins.

It will continue in Paris in 1900 before touring the globe... and returning to Paris this year!

Why this return?

Pierre de Coubertin, affected by the French military defeat by the Prussians in 1870, hoped to revive his glory days through sport.

He believes that developing the physical and moral values of sport in young people around the world can help build a more peaceful world...

His hope was that the Olympics would help to avoid conflict and bring peace on an international level.

Were all today's sports present in 1896?

No, only nine disciplines are counted:  

- athletics

- cycling

- fencing

- swimming

- artistic gymnastics

- weightlifting

- wrestling

- tennis

- sport shooting.

In the history of the Olympic Games, many disciplines have come and gone...

For example, while karate will be present at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, it should not be at the Paris Games. We could also mention underwater swimming or pigeon shooting, which were present in 1900... Or jeu de paume or pelote basque, etc.

What famous phrase would Pierre de Coubertin have uttered?

In 1908, during a speech, he is said to have uttered the words: "The important thing is to participate."

Wrong! In fact, he's quoted as saying, "The important thing in life is not to triumph, but to fight, the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well."

So where does this phrase come from?

The phrase was inspired by the Bishop of Pennsylvania, Ethelbert Talbot, who was quoted as saying at the IV Olympiad in London in 1908: "The important thing in these Olympiads is not so much to win as to take part.

Why is Coubertin no longer President of the Olympic County?

Pierre de Coubertin was President of the IOC until 1925...

Probably too much a man of the past, he had certain colonialist and misogynist ideas.

His refusal to allow women to take part in the Olympic Games earned him disavowal... He resigned.

In 1900, women were finally here...

In 1900, the International Olympic Committee, at France's instigation, finally accepted women!

Charlotte Cooper, a British tennis champion, wins the first medal ever awarded to a woman: gold in the women's singles event.

There were 22 female athletes out of more than 970 present.

However, their participation is limited to certain "feminine" disciplines:

- Tennis,

- Sailing,

- Croquet,

- Horseback riding

- Golf.

In Amsterdam in 1928, gymnastics and athletics were added.

In 2012... it'll be boxing!

In 2012, the London Games were the first in which women were present in all sports.

The Tokyo 2020 Games were the most gender-balanced edition ever, with 48.9% female participation.

For Paris 2024, parity should be 100%, according to the organizers...

We've come a long way to get here!

We salute the memory of Alice Milliat (1884-1957), a great French sportswoman and women's sports activist who organized the first women's Olympic Games in Paris in 1922 and lobbied for the Olympics to finally accept women in all sports disciplines...

She'd be proud today.

Did you like it? Would you like some more?

More crazy stories about the Olympics... I have!

We've reminded you of the origins, the return of the Olympic Games under Baron Pierre de Coubertin, and the incredible struggle of women to win a place in these games.

There's so much more to say!

But that's for the next episode...

And I can tell you that you won't believe your eyes...

See you soon

By Edmond Kean

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