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Among the most potent of popular culture heroes is the athlete. Throughout history, the athlete has frequently been said to symbolize the best of an individual culture, as a uniquely human manifestation of beauty, valor, and physical prowess. Over the course of the last century, the modern Olympics have provided the greatest international stage for the creation of the athlete hero. In two-week competitions featuring men and women from around the world, Olympians come together in a gathering of the best athletes from each country. Hosted every four years by a different country, the world turns its attention not only to the individual competitors but also to the host nation, which invariably puts on a display of its artistic, cultural, and often political puissance. With the advent of television, the Olympics have become a global media event—a conscious stage for the creation of history. Peopled with heroes and villains, royalty and the common man, the Olympics have become one of the world's most anticipated rituals—a drama of victory, defeat, joy, and tragedy that captures the global imagination as perhaps no other event in contemporary society.

The modern Olympic Games, which were first held in Athens in 1896, were inspired by the ancient Olympic Festivals, which took place in the sacred sanctuary of Olympia on the Greek mainland, every four years from 776 B.C. until they were banned in 394 A.D. As both athletic and religious pageants, the Olympics were revered throughout Greece as essential displays of athleticism, beauty, and physical perfection. Attended by poets, writers, and artists, who lauded the athlete-heroes in paintings and in poetry, the ancient Olympic Festival became the most important of all Greek festivities.

The ancient Olympics lasted only five days and included chariot races, horse racing, the pentathlon, foot races, wrestling, and boxing, as well as two days of religious ceremonies and sacrifices. To compete in the ancient Olympics was the highest honor to which a Greek man could aspire. Victors were crowned with a wreath of olive branches and were assured fame and wealth for the rest of their lives and often immortality thereafter for, in the ancient Olympics, there were no second prizes, only winners.

Throughout the city-states of ancient Greece, athletes prepared for the Games in schools and clubs dedicated to training athletes. In order to qualify to compete in the Games themselves, athletes had to undergo strict training and testing, so as to ensure the absolute purity of the competitors. Additionally, the Olympic festival was an all-male domain. Women could neither compete nor observe the competitions on threat of death. So sacred were the Olympics that wars were known to cease during the festival. However, by the third century A.D., the widespread influence of Christianity had begun to undermine the influence of the Olympics, and by 394 A.D. the games were banned. But their legacy, as captured in literature and art would remain alive, and would eventually captivate the imagination of a generation of young athletes almost 1,500 years later.

In the mid-nineteenth century, after hundreds of years of societal indifference to sports, athletic activities once again assumed a place of prominence in Europe and America. Scientists promoted sporting activities for the health and well-being of mankind and sporting clubs became popular gathering places for the upper classes. During the 1880s, a young Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Coubertin undertook a study of the impact of sports on society. As noted in Chronicle of the Olympics, de Coubertin "became convinced that exercise had to be the basis of sensible education. He was convinced that equal opportunity for all participants was a prerequisite for these competitions." De Coubertin's amateur ideal in his new "religion of sport" reached its apotheosis in his dream of reviving the ancient Olympic games. However, his idea initially met with little enthusiasm. But the persistent Frenchman recruited sport enthusiasts from Europe and the Americas and finally succeeded in organizing the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896.

One hundred years later, in 1996, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, wrote, "When Coubertin established the International Olympic Committee in 1894 in Paris, his goal was to encourage a better understanding among nations through the linking of sport, education, art, and culture."However, the first Olympic Games were not particularly well-organized, as amateur athletes from Europe and the Americas gathered in Athens for the first "international sporting competition," most of them having arrived in Greece under their own steam. Approximately 200 men from fourteen countries competed in nine events; however, most of the participants were Greek. Winners were awarded an olive branch, a certificate, and a silver medal while the next two runners-up received a laurel sprig along with a copper medal. Despite the fact that the participants were mostly Greek, the United States won more medals than any other country. The Greeks, however, were triumphant in the most symbolic event of the first Olympiad—the recreation of the ancient Greek run by a messenger following the battle of Marathon. A shepherd named Spyridon Louis won the 26-mile race and was hailed as a national hero.

Greece hoped to host all of the Olympic games, as they had done in the past. But political unrest made that impossible. Thus, in 1900, the Games were brought to de Coubertin's homeland and held in Paris. Public interest in the event, however, was almost non-existent because the Olympiad was merely a part of the World's Fair taking place in Paris. Four years later, the Games traveled to the United States, where they were also subsumed by the World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. In St. Louis, however, for the first time athletes paraded in an opening ceremony and winners were awarded gold, silver, and bronze medals. But it wasn't until 1908, when the Olympics were staged as an event in their own right in London that the public really began to take notice.

Four years later, the Fifth Olympiad would become the model upon which future Games would be based. Held in Stockholm, featuring athletes from all the continents of the world, 2,547 athletes from 28 countries competed in the brilliantly organized two-week event. Women were now competing as well and the opening day parade was a truly international pageant. From the Stockholm Olympics emerged the first global sports hero—Jim Thorpe, a Native American from Oklahoma won both the pentathlon and the decathlon. Another star for the American team was swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, descended from the Hawaiian royal family, who would go on to popularize surfing around the world.

The modern Olympic Games had finally caught on, but World War I prevented the 1916 Olympiad. When they resumed in Antwerp in 1920, the spirit of reconciliation that enveloped Europe transformed the Games into a symbolic spectacle. At the opening ceremony, doves were released and one competitor took the Olympic oath on behalf of all of his fellow athletes, pledging to participate in the Games "in the true spirit of sportsmanship." A new Olympic flag was introduced. The white banner featuring five interlocking colored circles symbolized the unity of the five continents. The star of the Games was Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi, who took home four medals—three gold and one silver.

Throughout the first twenty-four years of the modern Olympics, various sports were added, such as diving, rowing, yachting, and cycling, while others such as tug of war, cricket, and lacrosse were discontinued. Throughout the history of the modern Olympics, various sports would come and go, but the major events would remain track and field, gymnastics, swimming and diving, wrestling, boxing, and weightlifting, sailing and rowing, and equestrian events.

During this first quarter century of the Olympics, athletes who participated in winter sports had largely been excluded. In 1920, ice skating and ice hockey were included in the Antwerp Games, but a movement was afoot to create a separate Winter Olympics. In 1924, an International Winter Sports Week was held in Chamonix, France, but it wasn't until four years later in St. Moritz that the first official Winter Games took place. During the mid-1920s, France seemed to hold the monopoly on the Olympics, as the Summer Games of 1924 once again were held in Paris. There the handsome American swimmer Johnny Weissmuller won four medals and would later parlay his status as Olympic champion into a Hollywood movie career. Because the crux of the Olympics was to promote amateur sports, the 1924 Games would be the last to include tennis, until the sport was reintroduced in Seoul in 1988.

Four years later, the Winter Games would officially capture the public imagination as fifteen-year-old Sonja Henie captured the first of her three gold medals in ice skating. She, too, would eventually find her way to Hollywood through her Olympic fame. The 1928 Amsterdam Summer Games introduced another symbolic Olympic act—the lighting of the Olympic flame brought from Greece. And, finally, women were allowed to compete in track and field events. Four years later, the Games would return to the United States for the first time in twenty-eight years, with the Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, and the Summer Games in Los Angeles, California. One of the stars of the Los Angeles Games was a woman who would go on to become one of the world's first professional female athletes, the inimitable Babe Didrikson.

Four years later, both the Winter and Summer Olympics were held in Germany, where Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party used the Games as a showcase for their new regime. Politics entered the Olympics with a vengeance when German emigrants living in the United States tried to force a boycott of the Games. Although their efforts failed, the IOC felt compelled to step in and demand that Jewish athletes not be excluded from German teams. In the Summer Games, Hitler staged an immense spectacle glorifying the Aryan race. But the star of the Games was an African-American athlete named Jesse Owens who, to Hitler's ire, won four gold medals in track and field.

Although the IOC had done their best to ensure that politics did not interfere with sports, World War II prevented the staging of another Olympics until 1948, when athletes from around the world once again met in St. Moritz for the Winter Games and in London for the Summer Games. Both Germany and Japan were prevented from competing in these first post-war Games.

In the years following World War II, the Olympics gradually grew in size and spectacle. Having lived through the tragedy of a global conflict, athletes and fans alike warmed to the idea of a peacetime gathering of nations. As if to exemplify this desire, a truly international collection of men and women rose to stardom through the ensuing games, from Czechoslovakia's brilliant distance runner, Emil Zápotek, to America's world-class ice skater, Dick Button, and unmatched decathlete, Bob Matthias, to Australian swimming phenomenon, Dawn Fraser. But the biggest change in the makeup of the Olympic Games was the emergence of the powerhouse teams from the Soviet bloc, whose athletes would dominate the Games for almost forty years. Their presence would guarantee the often-unwelcome shadow of politics that would cloud the Games for years to come.

During the 1960s, television brought increasingly global audiences to the Olympics, quickly making stars out of winners, losers, and charismatic participants—even if only for Andy Warhol's proverbial fifteen minutes. Wilma Rudolph, who had overcome polio to become the top woman sprinter in the 1960 Games in Rome, soon became a household name in America, as did boxers Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali), Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. Certain sports seemed to gain in popularity as television allowed them to be viewed to their best effect for the first time. Downhill skiing was one such sport, whose stars, such as Jean-Claude Killy of France, would become internationally famous. But television also created a new arena for political exploitation, and the Mexico City Olympics of 1968 became as famous for the high-altitude record set there by long jumper Bob Beamon as for the black-gloved fists raised on the winners' podium by African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos. But it wasn't until the 1972 Summer Games in Munich that politics would virtually succeed in completely dominating sports.

Although the 1972 Olympics created huge stars, such as swimmer Mark Spitz, winner of seven gold medals, and seventeen-year-old Soviet gymnast, Ludmilla Tourischeva, who virtually single-handedly catapulted women's gymnastics into the Olympic spotlight, the Munich Games will undoubtedly be most remembered for the tragic kidnapping and killing of members of the Israeli team by Arab terrorists. In ensuing Games, politics seemed to creep into public consciousness more and more, particularly as Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed to heighten. The 1980 Winter Games were capped off with the patriotic fervor surrounding the upset of the Soviet ice hockey team by an inexperienced American squad. Six months later, the United States boycotted the Moscow Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviet bloc countries would retaliate by boycotting the Los Angeles Games.

As television audiences for the Olympics swelled around the world, the media latched on to the sports that seemed to garner the best ratings. Women's gymnastics continued to grow in popularity, assuring young stars such as fourteen-year-old Romanian phenom Nadia Comaneci, American Mary Lou Retton, and the brilliant Soviet squads, plenty of air time. Track and field continued in popularity, with Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis, Florence Griffith-Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee garnering fame and fortune from their Olympic wins. In the Winter Games, ice skating continued to be the ratings winner, with winners such as Britain's Torville and Dean, America's Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano, and Kristi Yamaguchi, Germany's Katerina Witt, and Japan's Midori Ito finding that an Olympic gold guaranteed them a lucrative professional career.

But in fact, the line between amateur and professional athletics was becoming blurrier every year and, in 1981, the term "Olympic amateur" was stricken from the Olympic Charter, allowing each individual sports association to decide athletic eligibility for the Games. This new ruling seemed to open to door for a new kind of Olympiad and, in 1992, the American basketball team was dubbed "The Dream Team," when it featured stars from the NBA instead of amateur athletes. Since then, other professional athletes have begun to compete, including tennis and hockey players.

Despite these changes or, as the media would claim, because of them, the Olympics continues to attract ever-larger television audiences, eager to watch the drama of the Games unfold every four years. From the ever-grander spectacle of the Opening of the Games, which provide each host country with the opportunity to show off their cultural contributions to the world, to the dramatic human stories that inevitably unfold at each Olympiad, the Games are ready-made for the media. In fact, the Winter and Summer Games are no longer held during the same year so that television audiences can recover from the Olympic media saturation over a two-year period. Nonetheless, new stars continue to emerge, many of whom parlay their Olympic glory into professional opportunities and endorsements. Although ice skaters such as Tara Lipinski and Ilia Kulik, track stars such as Michael Johnson, and downhill skiers such as Alberto Tomba and Picabo Street remain among the most popular Olympic athletes, the Games inevitably produce heroes in a variety of sports, from diver Greg Louganis to swimmer Janet Evans to freestyle mogul skier Johnny Mosely.

Because the modern Olympics have become an international media event, they are inevitably subject to the pendulum swings of modern politics. From the bombing in Atlanta in 1996 to the scandal of the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Games, the Olympics continue to be rocked by controversy and confusion. Every year, American television audiences complain about the escalating commercialization of the games and the increasingly jingoistic coverage by the networks. But each year, audiences continue to come back for more. In our media-saturated age, when so much of what we view and read is filled with tragedy and despair, sports in general, and particularly the Olympics, which still remain largely free from the money controversies swirling around professional athletics, continue to attract audiences who crave the rare, unscripted moments of heroism, athletic prowess, physical beauty, and acts of bravery that can still be said to exemplify the best of the human condition.

—Victoria Price

Further Reading:

Chronicle of the Olympics. London, Dorling Kindersley, 1998.

"Olympics Through Time." http://www.fhw.gr/projects/olympics/preview/intro.html. January 12, 1999.

Wels, Susan. The Olympic Spirit: 100 Years of the Games. Del Mar, California, Tehabi Books, 1995.