The modern Olympics are our only planetary event. Thousands will compete, millions attend, and billions watch on television as the 2012 games commence in London on July 27 and conclude on August 12. And lest we forget, the 2012 Paralympics will run from August 29 until September 9.
The modern games began in 1896, thanks to the tireless efforts of the French visionary Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Previous attempts at reviving the ancient Greek games had failed. It took Coubertin's enthusiasm, energy, political connections and flamboyant salesmanship, along with the excitement generated around the world by the amazing archaeological discoveries being made at the site of the original games in Olympia, to usher in the modern era of peaceful, international, athletic competitions. Well, maybe not so peaceful after all. The ancient games began in 776 B.C., the first recorded date in western civilization, and continued for over a millennium without interruption. Our games have already been cancelled three times -1916, 1940 and 1941 - due to world wars. So maybe we still have even more to learn from the ancient Greeks.
The first modern games were held, fittingly, in Athens; 13 nations sent 311 athletes, and the U.S. dominated the "athletics," winning nine out of the 12 track and field events. The first Olympics in 776 B.C. were singular, not plural, for only one event was contested, the stadion race, roughly a 200 meter dash, which was won by Koroibos of nearby Elis (his father was the town's baker). The most famous race in 1896 was one that had never been run before, namely, the marathon, named after the battle of Marathon (490 B.C.); Greeks, led by Athenians, defeated the Persians, and Pheidippides supposedly ran the 26 miles or so back to Athens, reported the victory, and died on the spot. In 1896, to the joy of the 50,000 spectators, a Greek won the marathon; it was the first and only race Spyridon Louis ever ran, but it etched his name in the history of sport forever.
Both the ancient and the modern games have their heroes. Leonidas ran with the speed of a god and won all three footraces (200, 400 and a long distance race) in a single morning for four consecutive Olympiads, and Milo, arguably the greatest wrestler of all time, won in seven consecutive Olympics. Our American Olympians are household names: Jim Thorpe, Babe Didrickson (females competed for the first time in 1912), Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, Rafer Johnson (he carried the American flag in Rome in 1960 and lit the Olympic flame in Los Angeles in 1984), Carl Lewis, Mary Lou Retton, Michael Phelps, Lindsey Vonn (winter games began in 1924) and so many others (including, we hope, in the very near future Missy Franklin). Owens and Lewis both won four gold medals in the 100, 200, 400-relay and the long jump; what blows my mind is that they did so in fewer than 60 seconds of actual performance.
The modern games have their downsides, for example, cheating, politics, over-commercialization, nationalism and fat-cat administrators, but exactly the same issues existed in antiquity. The games likewise have their myths: the ancient athletes were definitely not amateurs, and the colors in the Olympic rings are those in the flags of the nations who participated in the first five modern Olympiads (hence the five rings, which have nothing to do with continents), not the nations of the world (we have that in Coubertin's own hand). Nonetheless, the Olympics, ancient and modern, are a tribute to the beauty of sport and its eternal appeal to the human spirit.
Kids, teens, and adults can read all about the Olympics at our Summit County Library, for the shelves are full of fascinating, illustrated volumes on both the summer and winter modern games as well as on the ancient ones.