A Walk Through Olympic History 

A Walk Through Olympic History 

by Rashi Kakkar - Aug 2, 2016 09:29 AM +05:30 IST
A Walk Through  Olympic History Photo: EMMANUEL DUNNAND/AFP/Getty Images
  • The growth of the Olympics is traced through three areas: the momentous Opening Ceremony, the establishment of Olympic villages and the inclusion of sportswomen in the events.

The first modern Olympics were held in 1896. Since then, the games have gone through a complete transformation with some aspects of the games being almost unrecognisable from those early days. Let us look at the journey of the Olympics through three critical aspects of the games.

The Opening Ceremony

The opening ceremony of the Olympics is now a critical part of the event. It goes on for hours, attracts eyeballs and could give some of the marquee events a run for their money. However, this was not always the case. The opening ceremony during the first modern Olympics in 1896 was a modest affair which involved a procession of the participants. A bugle was sounded and the games were declared open. That edition of the Games had 311 participants of which 230 were from Greece, where these games were being resurrected.

It was not until the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium that the Olympic oath and Olympic flag were introduced. These games saw the participation of 29 countries and the introduction of the Olympic flag with five interlocking rings of blue, yellow, black, green and red against a white background. The colours of the rings and the background were chosen such that at least one colour from each one of these 29 nation’s flags was represented.

The Olympic motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”) was introduced in the 1924 Games in Paris. It was at this event that the Games finally crossed the “tipping point”, and had 44 participating nations with over 1,000 journalists covering the event. It was also at the 1924 Games that the ritual of the Closing Ceremony was introduced for the first time. It involved the raising of three flags: the International Olympic Committee, the host nation and the next host nation.

The1928 Games in Amsterdam saw the introduction of the Olympic flame. The fire was lit in a cauldron that was placed at the top of a tower in the stadium. The Berlin Olympics of 1936 introduced the torch relay to the world. The idea behind the torch relay came from one of the events held during the ancient games called “lampadedromia”. This event was a relay between six to ten teams who, instead of batons, carried lit torches. The winner was the team that came in first with the torch lit. They received the honour of lighting the scared flame. However, the Nazi party was keen to do this to link the ancient origins of the Olympics with the Nazis’ modern-day ideology. They had runners carry the Olympic torch from Athens to Germany.

While most of these traditions have been kept alive in their true essence, the only tradition which has been altered is the release of the Doves. At the 1920 Olympics, which were held right after the First World War, the lighting of the Olympic Flame was followed by the release of doves, symbolising peace. However this practice was discontinued in 1988 after several doves were burned alive in the Olympic Flame during the opening ceremony. Post the 2000 Sydney Games, LED doves have been used.

This year, the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympics is to be held on 6 August and has one of Brazil’s most celebrated choreographer, Deborah Colker, working closely with 6000 volunteers. The ceremony will be a vision of the country and what they hope it will become.

The Olympic Village

The Olympic Village was something that the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, had envisaged as a way to bring athletes closer. However, it was not until the 1924 Olympic Games at Paris that this aspect of his vision was realised. In 1924, the organisers built cabins near the Stade Olympique de Colombes to allow the athletes to access the Games’ venues easily. In fact, the first Games Village in its present avatar emerged in 1932 during the Los Angeles Olympics.

de Coubertin
Pierre de Coubertin

However, that was only meant for the male athletes. The 127 women athletes who took part in these games were put up at a hotel (Chapman Park Hotel). Post 1932, Games Villages have been in the news mostly for reasons associated with architecture, civil engineering and the environment. It is only in 1952 that the Games Village again received unprecedented attention when the authorities at Helsinki, Finland made two separate Olympic Villages— one for the communist countries and the other for the rest.

This year, unfortunately, the Games Village is back in the news for all the wrong reasons. Even though the event is less than a week away, more than half of the Village buildings still need to pass safety tests.

Women And The Olympics

Sports has always been a great mirror of society. The way the Games treated women, to a large extent, went hand in hand with the popular narrative that was present at that particular time about women’s place in society, in general.

The ancient games did not allow women to enter at all, not even as spectators. The only way they could have entered was as owners of chariots or horses— a highly unlikely situation given that women did not have right to property. In case any woman was discovered at the Games, the law stated that she “should be thrown headlong from the mountain of Typaeum.”

Even though the modern Olympics took place centuries later, when it came to the question of women and the Games— the same view was held. Baron de Coubertin felt that sports were not something that the “fragile” body of a woman could handle. Thus, as a result, not one woman took part in the 1896 games.

Things changed slightly by 1900 with 12 women taking part. However, they were only allowed to compete in two events— tennis and golf. It was in 1928 that women got to compete in athletics for the first time— the 100m, 800m, 4*100m relay, discus and high jump. Patriarchy in the form of Baron de Coubertin caught up with them once again. Post the 800m race, De Coubertin stated that the tired women provided “a very unedifying spectacle for the spectators.” Thus, women were debarred from running more than 200m. This finally changed in 1960.

Mexican hurdler Norma Enriqueta Basilio de Sotelo, the first woman to light the Olympic flame, carries the torch during the Opening Ceremony of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico (Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
Mexican hurdler Norma Enriqueta Basilio de Sotelo, the first woman to light the Olympic flame, carries the torch during the Opening Ceremony of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico (Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

Since 1960, it took nearly four decades (1991) for the International Olympic Committee to declare that any new sport seeking to join the Olympic programme must have women’s competitions. However, it was only in the 2012 Games in London that for the first time women competed in all sports. In fact, at the 2012 Games, 44 percent of the participants were women. Estimates state that the 2016 Olympics should see 45 percent female participation.

Rashi Kakkar is a graduate from The Shri Ram College of Commerce, New Delhi, and a Young India Fellow. Currently she works as a brand consultant and is enjoying this marriage of her two biggest passions – Strategy and Branding. A junior national level tennis player, Rashi is a complete sports buff who enjoys playing and watching any and every sport. She tweets @rashi_kakkar
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