If you think the Olympic torch tradition is a legacy of the ancient Greeks, then you’ve fallen for one of the more persistent Olympic myths; it’s actually a Nazi invention. Intrigued? Read on!
Whether you believe the demigod Herakles or the Lydian prince Pelops founded the ancient Olympics (there are Olympic myths claiming both), it’s a fact that the Games are shrouded in their own special brand of mythology. It goes without saying that most of those myths are a far cry from fact — but we’ll say it anyway.
So grab your torch and follow along as we take a closer look at a trio of interesting and tenacious myths about the Olympic Games, ancient and modern, and offer up the fascinating truth behind all three.
Myth 1: Those enduring symbols of Olympic brotherhood, the rings and torch, date back to ancient Greece.
Nope. Despite some earnest attempts to prove otherwise, the idea that these are Grecian traditions is pure Olympic myth. Both are modern inventions, and they’re not that old, either. The rings, for example, were invented in 1913 by Pierre de Coubertin, the president of the International Olympic Committee.
Initially, the rings were intended as a logo, representing the five modern Olympiads held up until then; later, they came to represent the five inhabited continents of the world. As for that Olympic torch? That was an invention of Carl Diem, the organizer of the 1936 Berlin Olympics — and one of Hitler’s pals.
Diem was looking for a way to glamorize his country’s Olympiad, so he came up with a ritual in which a torch was lit in Greece and relayed to the site of the Games. The torch was admittedly a stroke of genius, and was thereafter integrated into the standard set of Olympic rituals — and thus into Olympic myth.
Myth 2: In ancient Greece, the participating athletes were always amateurs.
Not at all. This myth has caused a lot of grief over the years, with more than one athlete losing their medals or otherwise being stripped of their amateur status due to hardnosed modern Olympic rules. And it’s all because of a persistently wrongheaded interpretation of history that’s only recently been redressed.
The truth is, the original Olympians were professional athletes supported by their cities and paid for their efforts. Ironically, the very word “athlete” derives from an ancient Greek term denoting one who competes for a prize. There wasn’t even a word in their language for “amateur.” One more Olympic myth out the window.
Myth 3: In ancient times, the Olympics were an occasion for peace and good will.
Not really, especially if you were female; women weren’t allowed to either compete or attend in the entire thousand-year history of the ancient Olympiad. Those who tried were taken to a sheer mountaintop and thrown off (!). This is one reason athletes were required to compete in the nude.
Nor were the events themselves particularly peaceful, despite Olympic myth to the contrary. In events like boxing and wrestling, for example, participants were allowed considerable leeway in their performance — to the point of breaking fingers and hitting their opponents in the genitals if they wanted.
The fact that there was no prize awarded for second or third places encouraged such unsportsmanlike conduct, though obvious cheating was frowned upon and was, in fact, quite rare — for good reason. Runners who made false starts, for example, were viciously whipped.
Finally, though it’s widely held that the so-called “Olympic Truce” halted all wars among the competing nations during the course of the events, that was no more true in ancient times than it is today. While the Truce itself is no Olympic myth, its purpose was only to allow athletes and spectators safe passage to the Games.