Looking back to 2,800 years ago, competitors such as Eddy ‘The Eagle’ Edwards or Sydney’s slowest swimmer ever (from Tonga) would have had little chance of survival, let alone public acclaim. In ancient Greece, only winning mattered – by fair means or foul. For almost 12 centuries, athletes from every corner of the world met every four years to join in combat until AD 393, when the Holy Roman Empire banned all activity in pagan sites.
The first Games in 776 BC featured only one athletic event, the sprint – the male competitors were almost all naked and women were banned. In the following years, more races and the pentathlon, consisting of running, discus, javelin, jumping and wrestling, were introduced. Boxing became a popular discipline, fighters often pounding each other until one of them was knocked out, conceded or died. The most dangerous ‘sport’ at the ancient Games, however, was the chariot race. Slaves were used to steer the death-traps on wheels, which would eventually smash into one another at high speed in the tight stadium bends – at least one ‘pilot’ would be killed at every race. Olympic victors became heroes and the vanquished were quickly forgotten.
The ruins of Olympia, buried by floods and partially destroyed by earthquakes, were re-discovered in the 1870s, leading to the competition’s modern revival in 1896. But contrary to popular belief, there was no Olympic torch relay or Olympic rings carved in stone. Both were Nazi inventions used to promote the 1936 Games – propaganda stunts that have somehow entered into Olympic lore.