Ancient Greece’s Olympic champions were superstar athletes

The first Olympic winners became celebrities with social and political heft—and even the power to heal.

The Discobolus or “discus thrower” is one of the most iconic athletic artworks from ancient Greece. Originally sculpted around the 5th century B.C., the bronze statue was made famous by later Roman copies, like this one from the National Roman Musuem in Rome.
SCALA, FLORENCE

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part.” Like many celebrated quotes, the words themselves have become considerably more famous than the person who uttered them—in this case, a French aristocrat, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. By profession an educational theorist, Coubertin is better known today as the father of the modern Olympics.

Coubertin’s passionate belief in the moral example of the ancient tournament eventually led to the first modern Summer Olympics, held in Athens, Greece, in 1896. A far cry from today’s slick and heavily marketed events, the games were steeped in Coubertin’s deep knowledge of, and passion for, classical culture, and his conviction that “the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

In the run up to the 1896 Athens games, heated debates in the International Olympic Committee centered on “professionalism” versus “amateurism” in sport. The committee finally decided that only “non-professional” athletes could compete in the Olympic Games, and that there would be no cash prizes. Led by Coubertin, it outlined its vision of an event that promoted peace, understanding, and friendship between peoples.

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