Is it true that the marathon is 26 miles and 385 yards long because that’s roughly the distance a young Greek named Pheidippides ran in 490 B.C. to announce the Greeks’ victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon? Did Adolf Hitler deliberately snub Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic Games because of his color? Is the Olympic torch relay a centuries-old tradition?
In all cases, the answer is no, according to Olympic historian Andrew Strenk, 39, a member of the U.S. freestyle 4×200 relay swimming team at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. Raised in San Diego, Strenk studied at the University of Southern California and wrote his doctoral dissertation there on the politicization of international sports. Later he taught Olympic history at USC and was hired by the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee as an in-house historian for the 1984 Games. “The history books of the Olympic Games are filled with fiction,” claims Strenk. “So many Olympic myths make such good telling, people are loath to stop repeating them.”
As the 24th Summer Games get under way this week in Seoul, various Olympic myths will be retold once more. In the interest of setting the record straight, Strenk spoke with correspondent Maria Wilhelm.
When were the first Olympics held?
The myth is that the Greek Games began in 776 B.C., but their actual beginnings are lost in the mists of antiquity. Some 300 years after the Games began in Olympia, Greece, a group of mathematicians came along, did some calculations and said, ‘Aha, the first Games were held in 776 B.C.’ But we don’t know precisely when the first Games were held because since the Greeks didn’t have an alphabet until around 700 B.C., there were no records. So you can pick a date, almost any date within reason, and be just as accurate as those historians who have studied this problem for years.
Which sporting events did the athletes compete in?
Those that we traditionally associate with the Olympics today, such as track and field, wrestling and boxing, as well as a huge variety of horse races. The pentathlon was the centerpiece of the Games, combining the discus, javelin, long jump, wrestling and a sprint. Then there was the pankration, a no-holds-barred combination of boxing and wrestling during which athletes lost ears, fingers, toes and other bodily parts best not detailed. When the athletes separated, the judges might discover that the winner, the guy who had his opponent in a hammerlock, was dead.
What about the marathon?
A lot of people are convinced the marathon was an event in the ancient Games. But it is a modern invention. Three and a half miles was about as far as any Greek in his right mind would ever think of running, except in time of war, when messengers would sprint from one battlefield to another.
So how did the myth about the marathon develop?
It started with Pheidippides, who ran from Athens to Sparta—a distance of about 150 miles—to ask the Spartans to help fight the invading Persians. They turned him down, so he ran to Attica, fought in the battle on the plains of Marathon, then ran the 20 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce to the assembled council that the Greeks had won. He then keeled over and died.
So when was the first marathon held?
There was a marathon of some undetermined distance at the first modern Olympics, which was held in Athens in 1896. There was one in 1900, 1904 and 1906 [the quadrennial schedule has been adhered to since 1908], and each time the organizers measured out some distance that happened to suit their fancy. In the 1908 Olympics, the distance for the race was measured from under the Queen of England’s window at Windsor Castle to the stadium at Shepherd’s Bush—26 miles, 385 yards—and that is now the standard for the modern marathon.
Did the athletes perform nude in the ancient Games?
People like to believe that women weren’t even allowed to attend as spectators because in many of the events, the men were nude. That’s a myth. Women packed the stadiums. And as for Olympic nudity, it turns out there was a foot race and one of the runners lost his costume. He won, and after that it became, ‘Wow, the way to win is to run nude.’ So there was an era when wrestling and running were done in the nude.
Were the ancient athletes amateur sportsmen?
Hardly. You had to be a professional to compete, which meant that you had to prove you were a full-time athlete and that you had been doing nothing but training for three months prior to the Games. The athletes were also well paid. By today’s standards, the average Olympic champion received the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars for his athletic victories.
When did the modern Games begin?
The myth is that the Games ended in 393 A.D., but the reality is that they were held well into the sixth century. The story is that after 1,500 years of darkness, Baron Pierre de Coubertin refounded the Games. Actually, distressed by the lack of physical fitness among the French, he cast about for a model to toughen up his compatriots. A Reverend Brooke was holding Olympic Games in England. So Coubertin basically plagiarized old Reverend Brooke and copied a lot from the ancient Games.
How did the modern concept of amateur athletes develop?
Victorian England set the standard here. The old idea of an amateur was a gentleman, obviously white, obviously upper-class, obviously college-educated. A set of rules and regulations grew up stating that if an athlete did any kind of manual labor—if he was from the wrong side of the tracks—he was a professional. Several Americans were thrown off the 1932 Olympic team because they were lifeguards.
When were the Olympic Games racially integrated?
There were no actual rules against blacks competing in the Games. However, for a long time blacks didn’t meet the standard set for amateurs. There was a black runner from USC on the American team in 1912, but the first notable participation was in 1932, when Americans Eddie Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe won medals in the sprints. In 1936, Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Games in Berlin, and Owens’ teammate Cornelius Johnson won the high jump.
Did Hitler discriminate against Owens?
The myth that Hitler snubbed Jesse Owens during the 1936 Berlin Games has become part of Olympic lore, but it didn’t really happen. The afternoon the high jump was held, it became clear that the Germans were out of the running in that event. It was late, and Hitler, who had already stayed longer than he had planned, didn’t wait around to congratulate the winner, although he had congratulated the athletes who had won earlier in the day. When the president of the International Olympic Committee told Hitler he had to congratulate all the winners, not specific athletes, Hitler said that he wouldn’t congratulate anyone anymore. So the next day—the day Owens won his first gold medal in the 100 meters—no athletes were invited to Hitler’s box. Hitler’s supposed snub is a nonevent.
Was the torch relay that begins the modern Olympics part of the ancient Games?
Though fire always played a role in ancient religious ceremonies, no torch-bearer ran into the ancient stadium at Olympia, through the sacred grove of trees and into the temple of Zeus to light the cauldron. An Olympic flame was lit in 1928, but there wasn’t any kind of ceremony. In 1936, trying to piggyback onto the cultural achievements of other civilizations, the Nazis instituted the relay as an ancient practice they were reestablishing. The torch was carried by blond, blue-eyed men who ran all the way from Olympia to Berlin. Few people now know that the spectacle was a Nazi propaganda stunt.
Have the Olympics always been political?
The myth is that the ancient Games were pure and apolitical and that somewhere along the way they became corrupted. The fact is that the ancient Games were political, and the modern ones have been political since their inception. Despite the recurring political incidents at recent Olympics, the Games keep us talking with each other. They bring people together for better or worse. And they certainly beat going to war.