How were the Olympic games held in ancient times? How were they revived in the modern age? What is the role of science in the biggest sporting event in the world?

The Olympic games, held (almost) every four years since 1896, are a long and glorious tradition that receives worldwide attention. But how did the Games begin in the modern age? Where did the Olympic idea come from, and how did they become such a central event in modern culture? 

The Games were born as a part of sporting competitions that were held in honor of the gods in ancient Greece. The multiple gods worshiped by the Greek were accredited with influence over all spheres of life - from natural phenomena to the deeds of human beings themselves, such as love, war and art. Humans were always trying to please the gods: they built lavish temples; offered sacrifices in the form of festivities that included meat roasting, in which the meat was eventually consumed by the humans and not by the gods. An additional way of honoring the gods in Greek culture constituted the organization of sporting competitions.

Some of these competitions were local, held only within a village or a town. Others were competitions that encompassed all parts of the Greek speaking world. These were called the Panhellenic games - encompassing the entire Hellenistic world. 

Four separate Panhellenic games were held in ancient Greece: the Nemean Games, held every other year in Nemea in honor of Zeus, king of the gods; The Isthmian Games, held every other year in honor of Poseidon, god of the sea, named after Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow natural land bridge connecting the Peloponnese peninsula with the rest of Greece; The Pythian Games, that took place in the city of Delphi every four years in honor of the god Apollo - and were so named because Delphi was considered, according to legend, to be the place where Apollo slayed the dreadful serpent Python; and the most important and prestigious of all - the Olympic Games, which took place once every four years and were also held in honor of Zeus.  

The Olympic Games took place in Olympia, which is, in fact, not close to Mount Olympus, where, according to Greek mythology, resided the twelve major deities of the Greek pantheon, commonly known as the Olympians. Olympia was also the location of the magnificent Temple of Zeus, which was considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Olympia: the cradle of the games | Photo: Sahara Prince, Shutterstock
Olympia: the cradle of the games | Photo: Sahara Prince, Shutterstock

Glory and an olive leaf wreath 

The tradition of the Olympic Games likely began around 776 B.C. They initially included only one competition: the ‘stadion’ - a race a little under 200 meters. The word ‘stadion’ was later used to describe the location where running competitions take place, which later evolved into the word ‘stadium’ to generally describe a venue in which sporting events and competitions are held. The Greek scholar Eratosthenes of Cyrene, the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria, who was the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth more than 2,000 years ago, found that its circumference is 252,00 stadia, not very far from the true number. It is Eratosthenes’ records of the winners of the stadion running races (in his work entitled Olympic Victors) that provide us with the estimate that the Olympic Games in ancient times have been held since 776 BC. 

Several additional running distances were later added to the Olympic games, alongside a race in which the competitors were armed with shields and weapons. Further additions were boxing and wrestling, chariot races and eventually, the Pentathlon, which, in addition to running and wrestling, also included the long jump, the javelin throw and the discus throw. 

Only men were allowed to participate in the Games, and they also had to be freeborn Greeks, that is, not slaves. Many times the events were performed in the nude. However, history books contain details of several women who won Olympic competitions, such as in the chariot race, where the winner was not the person to drive the chariot, but the chariot owner. 

The prizes for the victors were not medals, but olive leaf wreaths made of branches of the sacred wild-olive tree growing near the temple of Zeus in Olympia. There were no prizes for second and third place - only for the winners. In the Pythian Games, held in honor of Apollo, the winners received wreaths of bay laurel, the tree sacred to Apollo, and hence the origin of the phrase “to rest on one’s laurels”, to describe a person complacent with his past achievements and considering further effort unnecessary.

 A model of ancient Olympia from the British museum | Image: Wikipedia
Olympic Truce in the Greek world during the games. A model of ancient Olympia from the British museum | Image: Wikipedia

Another interesting subject related to the ancient Olympic games was the general agreement to suspend all wars within the Greek world to allow athletes to reach Olympia and return from it safely. Several months prior to the games emissaries from Olympia set out to all the cities and villages, to announce the timing of the games, as well as the beginning of the truce. The dream of an Olympic peace did not survive in the modern era, and the Games were canceled three times during the World Wars (1916, 1940, 1944).

The Romans, who established world hegemony following the decline of Greece, kept many of the Greek traditions, including the Olympic games, which were open to free citizens of Rome from all over the Empire. In the fourth century AD, Christians gradually seized the positions of power in the  Roman Empire, and nearing the turn of the century emperor Theodosius I decided to outlaw the Hellenic religion, and with it the “promiscuous” customs that accompanied it, such as sporting competitions (In the nude!), putting an end to the Olympic Games. Thus came to an end a long and glorious tradition that lasted nearly 1,200 years. 

An ancient culture is revived

Thus passed nearly a thousand years of drifting away from Greek traditions under the wings of European Christianity. One of the first signs of change was the invention of the printing press, or more accurately, the refinement and development of the invention by Johannes Gutenberg. In a relatively short time, books became a fairly cheap and common commodity, reading became prevalent and, with time, many translated books also appeared. Thus, more and more people were exposed to the writings of the glorious Greek culture, including the idea of the Olympic games, to unite the world for a short period of time. 

One of the people who were particularly influenced by the stories of ancient Greece was the Greek journalist and poet Panagiotis Soutsos, born in 1806. Nineteenth century Greece was a poor and war riddled country, and Soutsos hoped that renewal of the games would be an excellent way to restore the greatness of the Greek culture. Soutsos initially published the idea in a song he wrote, followed by an article in which he proposed to renew the games and finally, in a letter to king Otto, or Othon, (1815-1867), the first ruler of independent Greece. However, the king, who was in fact a Bavarian prince appointed by agreement of the Great Powers, was both engrossed in wars and conflicts, and feared the high cost that such a renewal would entail from his poor country, and therefore did nothing in this regard.

This is where the real estate mogul Evangelos Zappas, a Greek who made his fortune in Romania, came into view. When Zappas heard Soutsos’s idea to renew the Olympic Games, he financed the construction of a new stadium in Athens, which hosted in 1859 the first Olympic Games of the modern era, over 1,400 years after being discontinued by Roman emperor Theodosius I.

A ticket to the 1859 Olympic Games, and adventure with no sequel | Image: Wikipedia, public domain
A ticket to the 1859 Olympic Games, and adventure with no sequel | Image: Wikipedia, public domain

At the same time, another fan of ancient Greek culture, Dr. William Penny Brookes, the doctor of the small town of Much Wenlock in the east of England, lived on the other side of Europe. Brookes was also a magistrate, a pharmacist, an amature botanist and an educator. He established in Wenlock a youth movement of sorts, which also included a sports team, naming it “The Olympian Class”. In 1850 he organized a sport competition for the local youth, naming the event the “The Wenlock Olympian Games”. Having read in the newspaper about the renewed Olympic games in Greece, Brookes was thrilled and started corresponding with the organizers. And so it was that alongside the traditional wreath, the winners of the 1859 games received a prize of ten ‍pounds sterling, a gift from the Wenlock Olympian Class committee in England.

A statue in honor of Pierre de Coubertin. The vision of one man | Image: J Jonah Jackalope, Wikipedia
A statue in honor of Pierre de Coubertin. The vision of one man | Image: J Jonah Jackalope, Wikipedia

The French Baron

The Olympic games of 1859 were not a great success. The audience did not arrive en masse and there was no one to carry on the tradition: Zappas passed away in 1865 and Soutsos passed three years later. Even Brookes’ relentless efforts to make the Wenlock games a national, or international event, came up short. One of the reasons was his insistence to keep the games open for all, without differences of class, a demand that was not well received in the England of his time.   

Four years following these games, in 1863, Pierre de Frédy, also known by his noble name: Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was born in Paris, the capital of France. As suggested by his title, he came from a wealthy and privileged family. He was also an outstanding student, able to choose any occupation he favored: military, politics, business etc. But he was drawn to education, and especially to sports education.

De Coubertin thought that educating kids to be physically active is highly important both to them and to society, and was very impressed by the multiple sporting activities practiced in schools in neighbouring England. During a visit there, in 1890, he met with Dr. Brookes, who was already 81 years old, and was highly impressed with the Wenlock Games and the shelved plan to convert them into an international event, in the spirit of the ancient Olympic Games. Upon his return to Paris, de Coubertin used his family’s wealth and connections to found an association which included representatives all around the world. It was called the International Olympic Committee, and took on the task of restoring the games.  

Six years later, in 1896, the renewed Olympic Games opened in Athens. They were attended by athletes from 14 nations, who competed in nine different sports. The conditions were very different from the ones customary today. Gymnastics competitions, for example, were held in an open stadium, and swimming competitions were held at sea, between boats. The athletes were all men, as de Coubertin believed that sports were unhealthy for young girls. 

In contrast to the first attempt, this time the Olympic Games were continued.  They were held again four years later, this time in Paris, and consisted of many additional sports. Some, such as sailing and rowing, have remained in the Olympic programme to this day, and some, such as the tug of war, cricket and rugby, have not. Progress could not be stopped, and some of the sports were opened for women competitors. At first, their participation was limited to only a few sports, having expanded more and more over the years. 

The organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Games made it their motto to carry out gender-equal games: about 49 percent of the athletes are women, and the  visibility of the men's and women's competitions was made equal, with the number of mixed-gender events in which men and women compete together, having doubled from nine in Rio 2016 to eighteen in Tokyo 2020. Among others, mixed-gender swim relays and track relays have debuted in the 2020 Olympics, in addition to competitions for joint mixed-team groups in judo, shooting and archery.

Opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, big money and a show | Image: Agência Brasil, Wikipedia
Opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, big money and a show | Image: Agência Brasil, Wikipedia

Here Come the Pros

Over the years the Olympic Games have evolved, reaching their current status as the biggest competitive event in the world. They adopted fixed symbols such as the Olympic torch and the five-ring flag, a motto (Faster, Higher, Stronger) and a fixed schedule that lasts for exactly 16 days. Gradually, the original amateur spirit of the Games was replaced with sporting professionalism and with tremendous influence.   

During the early 50’s, and especially since Helsinki 1952, the Olympic Games became a highly organized and institutionalized event and mainly - a major financial event. The reason for the change lies in two major factors. First, during the first few decades, the Olympic Games were only open to amateurs, who did not make a living out of practicing sports. Throughout the years the event has become increasingly professional, and it is currently very rare to see on the podium athletes who do not devote their lives to sports. The other factor in the progressive change of the games was television, which was introduced to the Olympics as early as 1936, but only in the 1950’s was it widespread enough to bring the Games to every household, initially in the West and then in the entire world. 

Over the years, and owing to the significant public interest in them, the Olympic Games have become a multibillion dollar business, due to broadcasting rights, commercials, sponsors and infrastructure investments in the host cities. Everyone wants to succeed at a place where money, glory, national pride and influence meet, and to that end science is also harnessed.

Science at the Olympic games

The Tokyo 2020 games are the first in modern history to be postponed due to a global pandemic. Since the COVID-19 epidemic broke into our lives about a year and a half ago, there were those who called to call off the event altogether. After it was decided to postpone them for a year, some possible outlines were raised regarding the audience attendance at the Games, and it was eventually decided that, for the first time in history, the games would be held without an audience. 

But this is, however, not the first time that a plague has disrupted the Games. Just five years ago, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games were threatened by the Zika vírus, a disease caused by a mosquito-borne virus. Transmission of this disease is not airborne (although it can be transmitted sexually) nor does it cause any symptoms in the vast majority of those infected. The main threat it poses is fetal birth defects: when a pregnant woman contracts the virus, her fetus may suffer from impaired of brain development, which in some cases leads to severe malformations and even fetal death. Ahead of the 2016 Olympics, some experts called on postponing the Games, and some athletes canceled their participation due to virus related concerns. 

The Rio games were not the first to be threatened by the shadow of a plague either. The Olympic games in Antwerp 1920, were held following World War I, and at the end of the Spanish flu pandemic, that took the lives of tens of millions. Although the plague did not seemingly disturb the games directly, it delayed the restoration of the city following the war, as well as the construction of the Olympic facilities. As a result, the swimming pool, for example, was an improvised extension of foxholes left over from the war. 

Performance enhancement

The use of scientific principles can lead athletes to higher achievements. An example of this are the jumping sports: sometimes the best technique for a jump is very intuitive. For example at the end of a long jump it is better to stretch your legs forward as far as you can, and also your arms, in order to pull the body’s center of mass forward. When comparing a modern athlete with the painting on an ancient Greek vase, one can notice that the technique is similar. Not only did the ancient Greeks understand this principle, but they also used it to improve performance: the jumpers held metal weights in their hands in order to increase the forward pull of their body.

​The long jump technique has hardly changed | Photo: Denis Kuvaev, Image: Shutterstok; from an ancient Greek vase
The long jump technique has hardly changed | Photo: Denis Kuvaev, Image: Shutterstok; from an ancient Greek vase

In other cases however, the best technique for jumping is much less obvious. Up until about fifty years ago the common technique for the high jump was the Western roll technique and the basic scissors technique, where the jumper jumps facing the bar and passes one leg first and then the other. However, in the 1960’s, the American jumper Dick Fosbury revolutionized the high jump with a “back-first” technique - backward jumping that enabled to make better use of muscle power and jump high while having to lift the body’s center of gravity over the bar. This odd jumping style helped him win the gold medal in the 1968 Mexico City Games and was quickly adopted by the entire world. In fact, for many years this has been the sole jumping technique in high jump competitions.

A jump forward by jumping backwards: the science behind the Fosbury jump:

In another sport - pole vaulting, science is being used extensively to accurately calculate the exact place where the jumper should hold the pole, the angle at which he should hold it, where to stick it in the ground, and more. Jumping sports are only one such example: athletes in a variety of sports disciplines, including running, swimming, gymnastics etc., use computerized models to plan and practice each movement, in order and to produce the most out of their muscle power, using the optimal style. 

Engineering and materials

In addition to polishing athletes’ techniques, many scientific and technological efforts are invested into improving their equipment and attire in order to help improve their performance. One famous example is the polyurethane swimsuits that were introduced at the 2008 Beijing Games and helped swimmers to break no less than 25 world records in the Olympic pool. The suits were developed by several companies, led by Speedo, and were inspired by the skin structure of sharks and developed using devices such as a wind tunnel. 

They are made out of a highly hydrophobic (i.e. water-repellent) material that reduces friction, improving swimming performance. They are also relatively stiff and very smooth, with no seams or wrinkles, and are mainly made out nof foam materials, which contain numerous tiny gas bubbles that make it slightly easier for swimmers to float. The new suit reduced friction, drag and other forces that influence swimmers in the water, by several percent, and brought to an impressive improvement of results. In fact, the improvement was so impressive that the International Swimming Federation (FINA) soon decided to ban the use of such suits in competitions.

Shark skin-inspired designs. The debate regarding the new suits ahead of the Beijing Games:

The design and layout of the pool itself are also very significant. Amongst other things, it was found that a depth of three meters ensures that most of the waves created by the swimmers will not ricochet from the bottom of the pool. In addition, the wave-absorbing walls in sports pools are designed to reduce turbulence and currents that could disturb swimmers.

Rio 2016 Olympic Swimming Pool | Image: Leonard Zhukovsky, Shutterstock
You swim faster in still water. The design of the pool is planned to ensure optimal performance, Rio 2016 Olympic Swimming Pool | Image: Leonard Zhukovsky, Shutterstock

Swimming is only one example out of many. Materials engineering and advanced technologies play a major role in many sports. They contribute to nearly everything, from sweat-wicking clothing to boats and surfing boards, from efficient and comfortable running tracks to sturdy jump poles, from light and strong bicycles to sun glasses. 

A special place in technological advancement is reserved for shoes, especially running shoes, intended for various distances. A heated debate arose in previous years over Nike’s new running shoes, equipped with unique extra springy soles, meant to reduce energy loss when the shoe hits the ground. Opponents of the use of these shoes claimed that they confer an unfair advantage to the runners wearing them, and that the competition thereby shifts to one between different shoe manufacturers rather than between athletes. Some even refer to such technologies as ‘mechanical doping’, claiming that the implications of their usage are similar to those of performance-enhancing drugs.

Legitimate performance enhancement? A Wall Street Journal report regarding the conflict around performance-enhancing shoes:

Banned Substances

The big money, the strife for glory and the strong desire to win at the Olympics entice quite a few athletes to make illicit use of substances or performance-enhancing treatments. Such substances are divided into several general groups: stimulants, that affect the nervous system and reduce the feelings of fatigue and pain; growth-promoting substances, such as anabolic steroids, that emulate the activity of natural hormones and help athletes to increase their muscle mass and bone mass; and blood-enhancing substances, that allow the body to transport more oxygen to the muscles and improve their performance.  

One of the substances that allow blood-enhancement is the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), which promotes production of red blood cells. One of the most famous athletes caught in the EPO trap was the American athlete Marion Jones, who won three gold medals and two bronze medals in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Jones has never failed a drug test, but people who worked with her admitted a few years later to have provided her with EPO. Jones was questioned, and initially denied everything, but eventually, in 2007, admitted having lied to the investigators under oath. She was stripped of all her medals and sentenced to six months imprisonment -  not for the use of banned substances but for making false statements during a federal investigation.

Lost all of her medals due to banned substances. Marion Jones confesses in tears of having used EPO

Most performance enhancing substances are relatively easy to detect, as they break down into substances that remain in the blood or are excreted through urine. A banned method that is much more difficult to trace is self-blood transfusion: the athlete “donates blood”, and receives, prior to the competition, a transfusion of his own blood, with a high concentration of red blood cells, thereby artificially improving blood supply to the muscle, without using banned substances. Such cheating can also be discovered with certain tests, such as measuring the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide in exhaled air. 

As far as we know, the most famous athlete who used this method was the cyclist Lance Armstrong, who rose to fame mainly for winning the Tour de France seven times, but who also won an Olympic bronze medal in Sydney 2000. Eventually, as in the case with Jones, he too was caught after his accomplices reported the deed, and stripped of all his titles.

Lance Armstrong (in the Yellow shirt) winning the Tour de France in 2004 | Photo: Marc-Pagani Photography, Shutterstock
Self-blood donations contributed to a glorious career, and also finished it. Lance Armstrong (in the Yellow shirt) winning the Tour de France in 2004 | Photo: Marc-Pagani Photography, Shutterstock

Sometimes the initiative to use banned substances is not a private decision of a single athlete, but a deliberate policy of a country interested in attaining  national achievements in the prestigious sports arena. This was the case in 2019 when the World Anti-Doping Agency decided to ban all Russian athletes from international competitions for four years, following an investigation that uncovered the intended concealment of test results for banned substances by the authorities. A compromise was eventually reached that allowed some 300 Russian athletes who did not fail their drug tests to compete under the flag of the Russian Olympic Committee, instead of the Russian flag itself .     

In the field of banned substances, a constant arms race between scientists who develop increasingly efficient and elusive performance-enhancing substances and the authorities, who search for the new substances in order to ban their use and find ways to detect. The next challenge in the field is what is known as Gene doping, i.e. a genetic treatment intended to improve certain physiological traits, such as red blood cell production, muscle growth or formation of new blood vessels. Such treatments are highly difficult to detect, and they raise controversial ethical and philosophical questions, regarding what is right and what is wrong, and what equality in sports is all about. 

Imaging and Measurement

Technological advances help to improve not only athletes’ performance, but also the fairness of the Olympic Games, and naturally, of other sporting events. Ultrafast cameras make it possible to determine in the ‘photo-finish’ who reached the finish line first, with a precision of a hundredth of a second. The measuring tapes within the jumping pit used for the long jump have been replaced in recent years with advanced and precise optic equipment. Combining imaging technology with computer processing allows judges to verify decisions, and sometimes even to correct them, as in the case of VAR technology in soccer games, or Hawk-Eye technology on tennis courts as well as in other sports. 

High quality photography also helps to improve the broadcasting and coverage of the Games. Home viewers who own high-definition television sets can now see every drop of sweat on the athletes’ bodies, and marvel at the performance as though they were sitting much closer to the athletes than the spectators in the stadium or hall. Thanks to the advanced technology of smartphones, viewers do not have to be at home in order to watch the Olympic broadcasts and can do so from nearly anywhere.

Was the ball out, or not? : a short explanation of the technology behind the Hawk-Eye system:

A Field for Research

Finally, science is, of course, based on research, and the Olympic games themselves provide ample fruitful ground for scientific research. For example, a study published earlier this year, which tested the aforementioned carbon fibre plate (CFP) advanced shoes, found that they reduce the energy cost of running and thus contribute significantly to performance improvement in long-distance runs

An Israeli study published in 2017 looked into fights for the bronze medal in professional judo competitions. In these matches the loser in the semi-finals faces the winner in the House of Consolation, intended for the judokas who lost in early matches. The researchers sought to examine whether a difference can be seen in the success rate of those who enter the match following a loss compared to those who enter it following a victory. They found that with men, two thirds of the matches for the bronze medal were won by the opponent who arrived after a victory, while with women no significant difference could be found in the rate of victories. They speculated that the reason for this is the difference in levels of the male hormone testosterone after a victory or a loss.  

Prior to the 2016 RIo de Janeiro Games, the Nature journal published a review on scientific research of Olympic sport, which showed that scientific interest in the Games has been rising steadily over the years. Nevertheless, even at the peak of scientific interest in Olympic sports, research into the matter constitutes only 2 hundredths of a percent of all worldwide scientific research. It is possible that this figure will rise a little, following the current Tokyo Games, due to expected research that will examine the effect of the postponement of the games, of competing in front of empty seats, of  quarantine between competitions and, naturally, of contracting COVID-19 in sports competitions. 


Thanks to Prof. Andrea Rothstein from the Department of Classical Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for her helpful comments on the article.