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A thousand year old competition

Parthenon Temple in Athens: Greece was the birthplace of the ancient Olympics and also where the first edition of the Modern Era Games was staged
From its first Modern Era edition, in Athens 1896, through to London 2012, the Olympic Games have grown to the point of becoming the biggest event on the planet. It is the only event able to bring together delegations from over 200 countries in the same city. Not even the United Nations Organization (UN) manages to bring so many nations together. Currently, the UN has 193 member countries, Brazil is among them. At the English capital, the 30th edition of the Olympics had athletes from 204 countries, the same number as the Beijing 2008 Games.

The Olympic tradition goes back around 2,500 years and has its origins in Ancient Greece. At that time, almost 300 editions of the Games were held. Indeed, the Games only stopped being held much after the Roman invasion of Greece.

The Brazil 2016 Portal tells a little of this story, from the origin of the Games in Ancient Greece to the Modern Era Olympics, which had its first edition held in 1896 in Athens. It is a trip into the past that reinforces human beings' capability of staging big events. In addition, the Olympic Games are another piece of evidence of the great appeal sport has at the world level.


Western culture owes a lot to the ancient Greeks. The legacy left behind by this civilisation can still be seen today, influencing distinguished sectors such as medicine, geometry, physics, architecture, theatre, among others.

When the subject is Olympic sport, their influence becomes even more evident. Since the end of the 19th century, every four years, the biggest sporting event of humankind is celebrated. This is only possible because over 2,500 years ago, the Greeks sowed the seed that would grow into the Olympics.

According to mythology, the Games were born out of Hercules' hands, still in the Ancient Era, around 2,500 BC, to pay homage to his father Zeus. Hercules supposedly planted an olive tree, from which the leaves used on the crown to be worn by the competition's winners were picked. However, the term "Olympic" would only come about a thousand years later.

The first Olympic historic records date back to 776 BC, time when the winners started to have their names recorded. It was in this period that the term "Olympics" came about, after Iphitos, King of Ilia allied himself with the King of Sparta Licurgo and Cleisthenes, the King of Pisa. The alliance was sealed at the Temple of Hera, located in the sanctuary of Olympia. That is where the name "Olympics" comes from.

Through this agreement, a truce was established during the period the Games took place, which was considered sacred in all Greece. The agreement was taken so seriously that during the Peloponnesian War (armed conflict between Athens and Sparta fought between 431 and 404 BC) rivals would leave their differences aside to compete in the Games.

However, a weather related aspect did not allow for the Games to be fully held in 776 BC. A storm fell upon Olympia and stopped most of the events from taking place. The only competition that indeed took place was a race around the stadium, won by cook Coroebus of Elis. He ran the distance of 192.27 metres and became the first Olympic champion in history.

After the 776 BC Games, it was agreed that the Olympics would be held every four years, always during the months of July or August, for a period of five days and any free Greek citizen who had never committed a crime, was allowed to compete. For the following decades, the competition gained force and the number of sports increased to 10 at around the 5th century BC, with running events, as well as the discus, pentathlon, chariot racing, horse racing, long jump, javelin, boxing, wrestling and pankration (ancient martial art that uses boxing and Olympic wrestling techniques).

Women were not allowed to compete, in fact, they were not allowed to watch the competitions even, with the exception of Demeter's priestesses. However, women had their own tournament, held a little before the Olympics, in the same Olympia Stadium, which was called Heraea, in honour of Hera, Zeus' wife.

Nevertheless, the tradition of the Olympics would suffer a blow with the Roman invasion of Greece in 456 BC. The Olympic spirit subdued as time went by and the competitions started being seen as simple combat. Thus, the last Ancient Era Olympics was held in 393 BC. Emperor Theodosius I cancelled the Games, after prohibiting the worship of Gods. This was when a period of noteworthy competitions came to an end in Greek history, with 293 editions of the Ancient Olympic Games.

Coubertin's dream


One thousand and five hundred years went past before anyone had the idea of putting on a competition in the format of the Ancient Greek Olympics. The task of fulfilling the dream that the world could get together from time to time in a great sporting event, fell to a French historian and teacher.

ShutterstockBorn on 1 January 1863, Pierre de Frédy, who was known as the Baron of Coubertin, had ancestors who had had noble titles bestowed upon them by King Louis XI. In 1567, one of his ancestors purchased the Coubertin Estate, close to Paris and from that moment onwards, the family adopted the location's name to refer to itself.

A political science graduate and not keen on a military career, the Baron of Coubertin started dedicating himself to reforms in the French educational system. In 1892, at the renowned Sorbonne University in Paris, he submitted a study entitled "Physical exercise of the modern world", which showed his engagement with the area of sport. On the occasion, he presented his project of recreating the Olympics, but the idea ended up not convincing many people.

Two years later, on 24 June 1894, at a new convention staged at the Sorbonne, with the attendance of delegates from 13 countries, the Baron of Coubertin managed to get Greece to make a promise that would revolutionise sports in the following century: the Greeks agreed to host the first Modern Era Olympics in Athens. Since then, as in ancient times, the competition has been held every four years.

ShutterstockAt that convention, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was set up, entity which had as its first secretary-general the Baron of Coubertin, who also became its second president, after Dimitrios Vikelas from Greece.

The first Modern Era Olympics was staged between 6 and 15 April 1896, with delegations from 14 countries taking part and 241 athletes in total. They competed in 43 events, in nine different sports.

Since then, the Olympic Games have only been interrupted during the First (1914-1918) and Second (1939-1945) World Wars. The competition grew from decade to decade and has become the biggest event in the world, not only in sport, but at all levels, bringing together delegations from over 200 countries since the Games in Athens, in 2004.

Despite being quoted as his sentence - in fact, the sentence was supposedly said by a bishop from London before the Games in 1908 -, the Baron of Coubertin adopted a motto that became famous world over: "It's not the winning, but the taking part that counts."

Pierre de Frédy died on 2 September 1937, age 74, in Geneva and was buried in Lausanne, also in Switzerland, headquarters of the International Olympic Committee. However, his heart was buried somewhere else, the symbolism of which sums up what he strived to achieve and make real.

Baron Coubertin's heart rests in Athens, the capital of Greece, at a monument built in his honour, located near the ruins of the Temple of Olympia.