Holding an Olympic Games means evoking history.
—Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics
Every two years, a group of people dedicated to a common purpose will solemnly assemble, light a flame, chant a hymn, and swear an oath. If the spectacle just described sounds a little like a religious ritual, it might be because the event—the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games—is in fact intended to evoke an ancient Greek religious festival. And when the games opened in Summer 2004, the ancient roots of the modern Olympics were on full display because the Olympics had come home!
Dora Bakoyiannis was the mayor of Athens when Greece hosted the games of the 28th Olympiad in 2004. In a speech in Washington, D.C., she explained the historic and symbolic significance of the return of the Olympics to Greece:
As you all know, Greece in general, and Athens in particular, has a number of unique historic and cultural advantages in staging the Olympics. After all, the games originated in Greece near[ly] 2,800 years ago, and were then revived again in Athens in 1896. As a result, visitors to Greece can still see the original ancient stadium of ancient Olympia, where the Olympics were first organized in 776 BCE.
As the mayor’s remarks suggest, anybody who followed the 2004 Olympics could not help but become aware of ancient Greek civilization in the process. And the return of the Olympics to Greece to its native land continues to hold great promise for parents and educators looking for a way to interest contemporary students in the culture and history of ancient Greece. Simply tuning in to television coverage of the Olympic games brought students into contact with a wide range of historically significant images. EDSITEment resources can be used to explain these images and to place them within the larger narrative of ancient Greek history.
The 2004 games not only sparked curiosity in the specific history of ancient Greece, but also impressed students more generally with the relevance of history as a discipline. The Athens Olympics presented such a valuable educational moment because they showed students how historical analysis can help us critically re-examine the world we live in today. The juxtaposition of the modern games against an ancient backdrop, the Athens Olympics still encourages us to reflect on the ways in which Greek civilization continues to reverberate (or not) through our contemporary world. Thus, the activities and prompts described in this Feature all revolve around this core question:
How and why does the study of the ancient Greeks have continuing relevance to our ability to better understand ourselves?
Students will find a library of textual and visual tools for the study of ancient Greece on the EDSITEment-reviewed Perseus Project website. The Perseus Project site includes a special exhibit designed to immerse students in the lives of ancient Olympic athletes. The exhibit provides details on the events, ethos, cultural context, and physical location of the ancient games. Highlights of the exhibit include a multimedia tour of ancient Olympia and a series of profiles of ancient Olympic athletes. Also, through the EDSITEment resource ArchNet, students have access to Archaeology Online’s Ancient Olympics Guide. The articles on Winning at Olympia and Myths about the Olympic Games presents the latest research on the cultural backdrop of the ancient games.
The EDSITEment lesson plan Live From Ancient Olympia (for grades 6–8) suggests one strategy for guiding students through the wealth of information available through the Perseus Project ancient Olympics exhibit. The lesson plan’s central activity asks students to write and perform a TV news-style “live interview” with the ancient Olympic heroes profiled in the exhibit. These interviews should clarify students’ understanding of the attitudes and ideals underpinning the significance of the Olympics to the ancient Greek culture. The activities and discussion questions presented below extend the themes of that lesson, while also helping to elucidate the significance of the Olympic games within our own modern context.
The Olympic games remind us that the kinds of sporting events that a society institutionalizes tells us a great deal about the values and cultural assumptions of that particular society. But we must also carefully note the ways in which the worldview reflected in ancient Olympic practice might differ from our own. Thus, the key question raised by the Perseus Project exhibit is this:
Do the modern Olympics represent true continuity with an ancient tradition, or a mostly new phenomenon with an ancient name?
In addressing this question, students can use EDSITEment resources to investigate the following contrasts between the ancient and modern games. But be careful: some contrasts may not be as sharp as they first seem!
To what extent does the success of the modern Olympic movement depend upon particular symbols, rituals, and ceremonies?
To what extent can the ideal of a non-political Olympic games be taken seriously?
To what extent has the participation of women in the Olympic games changed since ancient times? To what extent does our own modern culture encourage or discourage female participation in sports?
The participants in the ancient games all shared a common Hellenic culture. To what extent do the modern games presume a shared global culture?
To what extent does arete survive as a core ideal in contemporary society? In our culture, is individual competitiveness seen as more of a vice or a virtue?
Why and to what extent do we think that sport has the potential to promote peace among nations?
The rules of modern Olympic sports are calculated to provide for the safety and protection of the athletes. This was not the case at ancient Olympia. Click here to learn about the pankration a particularly brutal combat sport that could sometimes turn lethal. It is no coincidence that one of the most popular ancient Olympic sports was combat-oriented. Classics scholar Michael B. Poliakoff, author of a book on ancient athletics noted that violent sports "filled a crucial need as an outlet for highly competitive and individualistic impulses Greece developed during the period from the seventh to the fifth centuries BCE." Discuss:
Do violent sports channel and moderate aggressive, hyper-competitive behavior, or do they only make us more violent and more competitive?
What do students think of the recent change in the Olympic rules permitting professional athletes to participate in some events (e.g., basketball)?
Do students think that medals should be awarded to the top three finishers in an Olympic event, or does it make more sense to follow the ancient Greek model and just recognize a single champion?
Parents and educators can also lead much shorter interactive activities that use familiar Olympic images as “hooks” to introduce tidbits on ancient Greek history and culture. Examples of two such activities are provided below.
The official Athens 2004 mascots were a pair of brother and sister named Phevos and Athena. According to the International Olympic Committee website, “their creation was inspired by an ancient Greek doll and their names are linked to ancient Greece, yet the two siblings are children of modern times … Phevos and Athena represent the link between Greek history and the modern Olympic Games.”
The marathon was never an ancient Olympic event, but the race was first run as the final event in the inaugural modern Olympics, as a tribute to the popular legend of a Greek soldier named Phidippides (also spelled Pheidippides) who fought at the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. Click here to learn about the origins of the marathon.
Of course, the battle at Marathon remains significant not only in Olympic history, but in the history of warfare and military strategy. It is difficult for us to conceptualize how ancient wars were actually fought—what sort of tactical maneuvers won or lost campaigns. But EDSITEment has created a schematic animation that portrays the design and success of the Athenians’ battle strategy at Marathon. After showing this animation to your students, have them read about the Athenian strategy in a summary of The Histories, a text by the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BCE. If desired, you can explore Herodotus’ text using the following discussion questions:
i – Culture
ii – Time, continuity, and change
iii – Peoples, places, and environments
v – Individuals, groups, and institutions
ix – Global connections
Depicting Myron's Discobolus, this U.S. Postal stamp was issued to commemorate the centennial of the modern-era Olympic Games.