The Origins of the Olympics and the First Modern Olympics for Kids

Have you ever been in front of a crowd? If you have, what did it feel like? Can you imagine thousands of people watching you, waiting to see what you do? Also imagine if you were competing in your favorite sport. That sounds really intimidating, doesn’t it? This is what it feels like for someone participating in the Olympics, which will be held again this month! 

Believe it or not, the Olympics are a tradition that have ancient roots, all the way back to 7th century BCE Greece, over 2,500 years ago! They happen every 2 years and switch between the Winter and Summer games. Usually around 200 countries come together to participate. It is an amazing show of worldwide unity and putting aside differences to celebrate sport and achievement.

The Ancient Olympics were part of a festival to honor the Greek god Zeus, who was the father of all the other gods and goddesses in Greek mythology. They were held every 4 years at Olympia, which was named after Mt. Olympus, the home of the Greek gods. The competitors came from everywhere in the Greek world. From Iberia, present day Spain, to the Black Sea, near Turkey.

Although some sources say that it’s possible that the Olympics began in the 9th or 10th century BCE, the agreed upon year the Olympics started is 776 BCE. It is said that the only event for the first 13 festivals was the stadion, a foot race 600 ft long. The first recorded person to win the race was a cook from the city of Elis. I thought it was pretty cool that a cook won the first race. Eventually other sports were added which included running races, jumping, wrestling, boxing, horse-related events, discus, and so on.

The Olympics were held in Ancient Greece for almost 1200 years. The Olympics became less frequent starting in the 2nd century BCE when the Romans invaded Greece. Sometimes they would interfere by trying to declare themselves the winner. Not very fair, right? The Olympics came to an end in 393 CE when Emperor Theodosius I declared an end to all pagan festivals. Pagan began festivals that celebrated the Greek gods.

It was 1,500 years until the Olympics finally returned. A man from France named Pierre de Coubertin was visiting the ancient Olympic site in Greece when he had an idea. He was very interested in physical education and wanted others to be, too. He thought that starting the Olympics games back up would inspire others to be physically fit, too! 

He shared his idea to start the Olympics in November 1892. Two years later he got permission to create the International Olympic Committee, which is the same group in charge of the Olympics even to this day! A Greek man named Demetrius Vikelas was elected to be the first president. Through Coubertin and Vikelas’ hard work, and many people across the world donating, enough money was raised to help Greece host the Olympics. Two years later in 1896 they held the first modern Olympics in Athens, Greece. People from all over the world came to watch the first modern Olympics and over 80,000 people filled the stadium during opening ceremonies! More people attended this event than any sporting event in history. There were 280 people participating from 14 different countries. Some of the different sports were cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, racing, weightlifting, tennis and wrestling. 

During the first modern Olympics winners were awarded silver medals and the runners up were awarded copper medals. As you may know today the medals are gold, silver, and bronze. The United States won 11 silver medals and Greece won the most medals overall, 46. Runners up were Germany, France and Great Britain. A highlight of the Olympics was Greek marathon runner, Spyridion Louis, winning the marathon and the most competitive participant was German wrestler, Carl Schumann, who won 4 events. 

The first winter Olympics were held in 1924. For 70 years, both the Summer and Winter Olympics were held during the same year. It wasn’t until 1994 that they were split and began switching every 2 years.

There are many symbols around the Olympics, like the flag and the motto that have deep meaning.

The Olympic flag was originally created by Coubertin in 1913. It is a white background with five rings: blue, yellow, black, green and red. The five rings were to represent the 5 continents: Europe, Africa, Asia, America and Oceania. Coubertin chose those colors because together they represented the colors of all the countries participating. He took the rings interlocking from the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, interlocking rings symbolized to Jung continuity and the human being. It was a flag created to represent everyone, truly an international symbol.

The Olympic motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, which is Latin for “faster, higher, stronger” It was suggested by Coubertin at the original International Olympic Committee meeting. It was a saying that a friend of his, Henri Didon, who was a priest and a teacher came up with. Coubertin said “These three words represent a programme of moral beauty. The aesthetics of sport are intangible.” It was officially introduced at the 1924 games. 

The Olympic creed was said by the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, Ethelbert Talbot, in a sermon during the 1908 Olympics. He said, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

The Olympic Anthem is played when the Olympic flag is raised and even though it was performed at the first modern Olympics in 1896, it wasn’t made the official anthem until 1958. It was composed by Spyridon Samaras; the words are from a poem by the Greek writer Kostis Palamas. The poem is a celebration of the Olympics, and the sense of a worldwide friendship that comes with Olympics. A small part of it says, “As now we come across the world/To share these Games of old/Let all the flags of every land/In brotherhood unfold   Sing out each nation, voices strong/Rise up in harmony/All hail our brave Olympians/With strains of victory”. The anthem shows just how much the Olympics are meant to unify us.

Anciently, the prize for winning (only first place was recognized anciently) was a kotinos, a wild olive branch intertwined to form a circle. The kotinos was made from a sacred olive tree by the temple of Zeus near Olympia. But of course now first, second and third place are awarded medals. The front of the medal shows an image of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory and the back shows the host country of the games. Olympic diplomas are then given to fourth through eighth places. 

There is a modern Olympic tradition that was introduced at the Berlin Games in 1936. Months before the games are held, a torch is lit at the site of the ancient Olympics in Olympia, Greece. To do this the Sun is used to light the torch using a parabolic reflector (kind of like a giant mirror shaped like a bowl). The torch is then taken out of Greece to the host country and travels around before the games, staying lit the entire time. Sometimes on it’s way to the host country it is taken to really exciting places. The flame has gone underwater, to the North Pole and even to Outer Space! It has been carried by both famous people and ordinary people. The first day of the Olympics is called Opening Ceremonies. The day of Opening Ceremonies it is taken to a cauldron that is used to light the ceremonies. Here all of the participants parade around the stadium carrying flags representing their different countries. It’s an exciting day for the participants and for the world!

Today the Olympics includes many more sports than the first modern Olympics which beyond the traditional sports include basketball, baseball, volleyball, BMX, diving, soccer, hockey, karate, skateboarding, surfing, and trampolines.

The Olympic games come from the desire to be a part of something more, and while no country is perfect, it is incredible to see what we can accomplish when we work together, instead of apart. As we go into this exciting worldwide tradition this month and next, think about what you can do to contribute to unity in your world. Unity or to unify means to come together, to work together, to be one. Think about what this means as a family, friends, in your school and community. Our small efforts always have a bigger effect than we think they will. How can you make a difference?

Also, as you watch the Olympics, think about sports you are interested in, or might be interested in! Physical activity is good for your body and mind. Studies show that exercising makes you happier! When you move about and play and exercise chemicals in your brain are released that make you feel better and feel less stress. Isn’t that cool? I know for me it feels to get out and run or ride my bike or swim with my kids. It clears my mind and it gives me added strength or energy. Spend some time thinking about how you might add more physical activity to your life, and maybe by watching the Olympics you’ll be inspired to try a new sport.