Sports help us tell time. Games give us heroes, distracting entertainments, and opportunities for gambling. We enact statues to the winners and turn games into myths with exaggeration and tropes–GOAT, threepeat, the favorite, the Cinderella story. Sports are full of pageantry, like religious ceremonies.
No wonder we miss them so much. It’s not just about the contest.
We Would Be In the Fourth Year of the 31st Olympiad
The Greeks knew this, which is why the Olympic Games were rooted in a religious festival that spawned athletic contests, which in turn created a way to count the years. An olympiad was a four-year interval, and the Greeks would refer to the third year in the 113th Olympiad, and so on.
The city of Olympia, located in northwestern Greece, was the site of a cult of Zeus. Originally, a complex of temples, stadia, and markets stretched across this woody set of hills near the Ionian Sea. The Temples for Zeus and Hera came first, then some small athletic venues for running and jumping. Things really got architecturally involved when they brought in the chariot races, somewhere along in 17 AD (the 198th Olympiad?). By then, the Altis (sacred site) had sprawled to a dozen acres. Kind of like Las Vegas.
Giant Statues Will Also Bring the Tourists
One of the biggest attractions was the Big Tuna: Zeus. Greek sculptor Pheidias created a 40-ft high statue of gold and ivory that became one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World.
For comparison, the Statue of Liberty is about 7 times as tall and the Washington Monument 13 times, but neither of those were made out of gold and ivory. One of my favorite depictions of the statue-viewing experience is in See Delphi and Die, a detective novel set in 76 AD. The hardboiled Roman shamus, Marcus Didius Falco, takes a trip to Olympia to investigate the missing daughter of a friend. He covers his sleuthing as a family tourist trip. As they go in to Zeus, it’s a bit like the Grand Canyon. The statue is impressive, but so are the long lines to get in. Meanwhile, souvenir vendors hawk wares under the dimly-lit glowering Zeus much as they do everywhere, and our indignant veteran detective narrator takes a seen-it-all tone:
…[We found] ourselves standing in the very place where one of the world’s greatest artists had produced his masterpiece. To prove it, we were shown surviving moulds…and minuscule bits of marble, gold sheet and ivory. Funnily enough, they were for sale…We were even offered a blackened cup that said I BELONG TO PHIDIAS…I bought it, even though the sculptor’s name was spelled the Roman way…I would give it to my father as a souvenir. It did not matter if the cup was a fake; so was my father.From See Delphi and Die, by Lindsey Davis.
The statue of Zeus was added some three hundred years after the first footrace took place across a simple stadium track. The original pilgrims visited Olympic for the religious festival, but over time spectators gravitated for the worship and for the Games. Still, artists made sure to create statues and monuments to the gods and the athletic participants, much as they do today. Over time, the two merged into one. Much as they do today.
Jump with Weights, Wrestle to a Fall or to the Death
The earliest Games included a handful of events: a 200m race, the javelin, the long jump, and the discus. What they did and how they did them is known because of the artists: the sculptors and urn-makers who showed the details of the mechanics.
In the long jump, for example, flute music was played–as athletes wear headphones today–to help concentrate over the noise of the crowd. Contestants held wedge-shaped weights in their hand. They would swing the weights back and forth over a very short runway, then jump, swinging the weights forward to elongate the landing, measured by judges with stick-lengths.
Eventually, multiple types of sparring contests were added: boxing, wrestling, and the pankration. Contestants were naked and covered in oil. Wrestling had rules against naughty tactics like sand in the eyes, twisting fingers, or grabbing nether regions. In contrast, the pankration was pretty much anything goes except for biting and eye-gouging. Contests not infrequently ended in death. Like the distinction today between Olympic wrestling and Mixed Martial Arts, the pankration was a lot more popular.
The Torch as the Ultimate Symbol
De Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics, was fascinated by the archaeological excavations, initiated by the French, at Olympia. He requested that his heart be buried on the Altar of Hera at the site. De Coubertin saturated his Games with pomp and pageant, from the Olympic flag to the Olympic hymn. The German addition of the torch for Berlin 1936 was a perfect augmentation for him. Today, when the flame is lit, every four years, the first runner pays homage to what is now de Coubertin’s altar as well.
The Germans built out the imagery around the torch in full. They created technology to have it lit by the sun, using a mirror not unlike the parabolic mirror used today. They devised a relay to display the torch through the streets from Greece to Berlin. In the next few Games, the torch lighting ceremony took place, not at Olympia, but at the host city, from St. Moritz until Rome 1960. It wasn’t until 1964 that the initial lighting was moved permanently to Olympia, where it still occurs today.
The lighting had already occurred for Tokyo 2020, with the flame brought to Japan. Since the postponement, there’s been discussion about what to do with the flame, but at the moment, the flame is on display in Fukushima until April 30. Whatever the IOC and Japanese decide, they know that in this uncertain spring, the flame is a symbol of something beyond sport. As Olympia has always been.
We Need the Seasons, Pageantry, and Legends
Without ceremonies and pageantry for our sporting events, it’s hard to remember what day it is. It’s no accident that the Olympics sweep across sixteen days. They start on Saturday and end on Sunday as weekends, markers of time. For some, those days are faith-based markers, but for many of us, the weekends mean non-work=sport days, like Football Sunday or Hockey Night. Christmas tells us when it’s the end of the year, but the rest of the year’s religious calendar has been replaced by a sports calendar.
Without the sports, other markers are insufficient. Easter is no use to tell when spring comes, since it can happen in March or April. Spring Breaks were extended and lasted forever–are they finally over? We can’t tell. Graduations have either been cancelled or quietly moved into virtual settings, so we have no idea when summer might start. If there were an All-Star Break, we’d have some clue.
We miss March Madness, the First Pitch of the Opening, the Masters. The interminable rounds of the basketball season merge one sport into another to great frustration for those who would like to watch both and their family members who prefer a little less yelling at the TV. At the moment, both fans and non-fans might wish to have a little more yelling. At least we would know what month it is.
I propose we create an All-Star Break, a universal online affair in mid-July. So what if we break Zoom? We can all join and take a turn telling our favorite sports stories. Not some talking head’s choice of the Top Ten, but our own memories. How we saw so-and-sos first game. How my mother, who hated baseball, took me to see Mark Fidrych break a strike-out record. How we can prove we really saw The Play in person. Why Michael Johnson’s 200m world record in 1996 is still one of the greatest Olympic moments. The memory of Cathy Freeman lighting the torch in Sydney 2000. You know, mythology!
That’s what Olympia was originally for.
This post continues the A to Z Challenge using the Olympic theme: