Olympics: Historical and Modern

(Olympia, a place in Greece in the western Peloponnese, scene of the Olympic games)

Contests, mostly athletic, were a common feature of religious festivals; especially, in Greece

Even the modern Olympics of 2004 started with an austere mask shattering into pieces, revealing the true focus of this magical night: the human body. Minutes later, a centaur (half human, half horse) launched into the darkness a “javelin”, a shaft of light arching through the air. Then the Greek god Eros descendsed over scantily clad lovers sensually clutching and releasing each other as they froliced in the water.

Finally the procession of Greek history began, with float after float parading the progress of Greek sport, science, mathematics, warfare, theater; and, culminated in the persona of the goddess Athena and a replica of the Parthenon. Over all this, Eros hovered, as though the god of love was guiding the course of human history.

Of course, all this is ancient history now. We moderns have revived the Games without all this mythological nonsense. Or have we? Consider our present-day Olympian anthem:

Immortal spirit of antiquity,
Father of the true, beautiful and good,
Descend, appear, shed over us thy light
Upon this ground and under this sky

Which has first witnessed thy unperishable fame.
Give life and animation to those noble games!
Throw wreaths of fadeless flowers to the victors
In the race and in strife!

Create in our breasts, hearts of steel!
Shine in a roseate hue and form a vast temple
To which all nations throng to adore thee,
Oh immortal spirit of antiquity."

The Olympic anthem is played as the Olympic flag is raised during the opening ceremony

Throughout the years, many different versions were played and sung at the Olympics. Finally, in 1958, the International Olympic Committee adopted one version as the official anthem of the Olympic games.

The loose rendition of Palamas’s poem which appears above is said to be the English version that has been sung at all of the Olympic games since 1958:

The Olympic anthem began as a poem written in 1893 by one of the best known and loved Greek poets of the 20th century, Costas Palamas (1859-1943).

Palamas's poem was set to music in 1896 by the Greek composer Spiros Samaras (1853-1917) and introduced at the first revived Olympics in Athens that same year.

Today, the Olympic anthem is sung in many languages. Because the lyrics have to follow the music, translations vary. The legacy of this Hellenic song now reaches far beyond Greece.

The English version below is a fairly faithful translation of Palamas’s Greek poem:

Ancient Immortal Spirit, chaste Father
of all that is Beauty, Grandeur, and Truth,
Descending, appear with Thy presence
Illuminate Thine Earth and the Heavens.

Shine upon noble endeavors wrought
at the Games on the Track and in the Field.
Crown with Thy eternal evergreen branch
The bodies, making them stronger and worthy.

Dale, Mount, and Ocean, with Thy Light
as a white and purple temple, brighten!
To Thine Temple, to Thy worship, come all.
O Ancient Eternal Spirit!

The Olympic Motto

In 1921, Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, borrowed a Latin phrase from his friend, Father Henri Didon, for the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius; literally meaning "Faster, Higher, Braver"; however, the universally accepted meaning is "Swifter, Higher, Stronger".

—The information above is primarily from the following sources:

Durant, John; Highlights of the Olympics: From Ancient Times to the Present,
Hastings House Publishers, New York, 1973.

Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.;
William Benton, Publisher; Chicago, 1968.

Guttmann, Allen; The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games,
University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1992.

Henry, Bill; An Approved History of the Olympic Games,
G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1948.