Postponed from last summer because of the global pandemic, the Olympics, beset by controversy for months now, will march on (for now) and open in Tokyo on July 23 (perhaps, however, without fans in attendance). The Games feel woven into the fabric of modern history, offering signposts that fix memory in much bigger stories—for example, of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics before World War II, the protest by John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and the civil rights movement, or even the 1980 Miracle on Ice and the Cold War. The games at once live in our minds while evoking ancient Greece and conjuring an unbroken connection from now until then.
But the real history of the Olympic Games is a modern invention; its ancient roots heavily mythologized. In this version of the story, the supposed “Dark Ages” disappeared the Games like they supposedly did with so much else. The real history of the Games, and more broadly sports, is much more complicated.
The ancient Olympics likely began sometime in the eighth century B.C.E. but gained prominence in the following century, with participants coming to the ancient Greek religious sanctuary of Olympia on the Peloponnese peninsula from across the Hellenic world. These events eventually became part of a “quadressnial circuit of athletic festivals [including] the Pythia, Nemean and Isthmian games,” in the words of David Goldblatt. Soon, perhaps because of Olympia’s association with the veneration of Zeus, the Olympic Games became the preeminent event in that circuit (a circuit that in fact expanded as other cities created their own athletic competitions) and attracted massive crowds.