Olive-Tinted Spectacles:
Myths in the History of the Ancient
and Modern Olympics

by Dr. Mark Golden

The 2004 Athens Olympics brought new reminders of the links between our modern games and the ancient Olympic festival and of the foundation of the modern games by the French baron, Pierre de Coubertin, in 1896. As it happens, however, many of these links are imaginary or misleading. For example, the modern Olympic motto is in an ancient language, but that language is Latin, not Greek; the torch relay, moving as it is, is a modern invention; Marathon was a famous ancient battle and a Greek won the first marathon race which commemorated it, but a modern Greek, in 1896. In fact, it is as easy to stress differences between the ancient and modern Olympics as similarities. As for the modern games themselves: They were first conceived and celebrated by Greeks before Coubertin's birth and English (and other) revivals were widespread from the middle of the nineteenth century on. The success of Coubertin's games was due to two related factors: his appeal to an international elite and his restriction of the glory of Olympic victory to people like them.

These facts are well known to specialists but still fail to make any impact on contemporary media or popular culture. The reason? We use the past mainly to provide lessons or make arguments about the present. Coubertin did the same when he based his Olympic games on amateurism: he claimed this was the Greek practice when both the word and the idea were inventions of his own time. The result is not only bad history but a limitation on our choices of action today. The movement for an Olympic truce during the modern games provides a pertinent example.