Fit to Play with Jim Johnson: The Olympics Return

Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson

Published: 06-03-2024 3:33 PM

In less than two months, thousands of athletes from around the world will converge on Paris for the Summer Olympics. To me, the Olympics have always been the epitome of sport. Yes, we have the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the World Cup, but nothing matches the 10,500 athletes from around the world who will compete this year in 40 different sports.

To really understand the Olympics, we need to go back to the ancient games that started almost 2,800 years ago in 776 B.C.

Olympia was the setting of the first Games. The ancient Games were only for Greeks but their territory ran from Spain along the Mediterranean to the Baltic Sea. Greek life was oriented around city-states, with each city having its own little government. Since territory was limited, conflict was inevitable. But when runners from Olympia set out across the territory to announce the Games, Ekecheiria (truce) was declared and conflict halted. Fighting stopped and safe travel to the Games was assured.

Some years back my younger son and I traveled to Greece and visited the sites of the early Games. Olympia hosted the Games every four years but we also visited Delphi and Nemea, venues that held games in the off years. Driving to Olympia, I couldn’t help but notice the rugged terrain surrounding this rural town. I imagined scores of people traveling to the game along dirt roads and paths; getting here was not easy.

The origin of the Games remains somewhat in doubt but most agree that religion was certainly part of the ritual. The early Games were a combination of athletics and religion. Oxen were sacrificed to the gods and the remains were cooked for all who attended. There were many buildings and statues but the principal one was the temple of Zeus, one of the ancient wonders of the world and the model for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The Olympics was certainly not the beginning of athletics, but the Olympics were the first organized and regularly scheduled games.

The first and only athletic event at the original Games was the stade (origin of the word stadium), a race of approximately 200 yards. Only one winner was crowned and some were given prizes of value. If you were from Athens, a free lunch for life was provided. For many years the stade was the only race but eventually wrestling, long jumping, boxing, javelin and discus throwing were added. Chariot racing was eventually added and was very popular. Professional riders were hired as drivers and slaves were also used. Various chariot races were created such as using foals and mules. I suspect betting was part of the popularity.

All games have their heroes but my favorite was Milo of Croton. Some say that Milo was the first to use progressive resistance exercise. As legend goes, when Milo was a boy his father gave him a baby bull and told Milo to lift it every day. As the bull grew so did Milo. One popular story reported that one day Milo entered the stadium with a full grown bull on his back, killed it and ate it. Regardless of whether he ate the bull, Milo won six consecutive Olympic crowns in wrestling.

Unlike our modern Games, wars did not cancel the Olympics; instead, fighting was canceled. Not even the Peloponnesian War stopped the games. The original Games lasted for 1,200 years, but eventually, the Romans overwhelmed Greece and stopped the Games because of their pagan rituals.

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Like the Games today, there were flaws in the original Games. Some events were brutal, even resulting in the occasional death. But I marvel at their idealism and their unwillingness not to give up. Undoubtedly, peace was one outcome. Imagine hundreds of people camping together in the grounds surrounding the Games. Bringing people together for a peaceful event is worthy. We should never cancel or boycott our Games for political purposes.

The Greeks held true to their idealism of training their body as well as their mind; one was not more important than the other. The great philosopher, Plato, was a great believer in this culture. He regularly trained in the gymnasium and entered the Isthmian games to wrestle. I wonder what Plato would think if he walked into our schools today, our inattention to the physical, the hours on end where our children simply sit and look at a tiny screen, moving only their thumbs, the reduction in physical play.

Jim Johnson is a retired professor of exercise and sport science after teaching 52 years at Smith College and Washington University in St. Louis. He comments about sport, exercise, and sports medicine. He can be reached at