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The Original Olympic Games

Report of the lecture given by Ann Birchall
on March 28th 2012

In this Olympic year and on an unusually warm March evening, Dr Ann Birchall entertained us with a fascinating talk on the origins of the Olympic Games. Using photos of the Olympia site and artifacts in the British Museum, she told us how the first Olympic Games were thought to be founded by Heracles, son of Zeus. This predated 776 BC - the date from which we have written records. Primarily a religious festival for the worship of Zeus, they were always held every four years with representatives coming from all the city-states. At the beginning there was only one race, running a track 192 metres (210 yards) long. Men only and running in the nude, a second race there-and-back was not introduced until 724 BC. The emphasis on running in the early years may have reflected the perceived basic requirements for a fit soldier. After this the additions of boxing, wrestling, the 'all power' race, combining all types of physical attack and horse-and chariot racing were slowly added.

Whether women could even watch the festival is disputed, but they had their own Games in honour of Hera where the sole event was a run of five-sixths of the length of the stadium. In male opinion of the time, this would have preserved their inferior status! The Games were eventually abolished by the Roman Emperor Theodosus 1 who was a Christian and felt they had pagan influences. Eventually they were resurrected by Pierre de Coubertin in 1892 and Athens was chosen as the location. The revival had begun.

I loved hearing the little details. No showers, the athletes must have been very hot and smelly, just a jug of water thrown over them and rubbed with olive oil which was then scraped off. Nike was the goddess of Victory. I wonder what she would say if she saw all the sports equipment that bears her name!

The evening ended with the question of who in the audience had managed to get tickets for our Olympics. Not many!!

Sue Harman


Members enjoy a discussion with Dr Ann Birchell
following her fascinating talk on the origins of the Olympics.