Evolution, devolution, of Olympics

Citius, Altius, Fortius

Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”

— Olympic motto

When I turned on my television set, a man and woman, each on ice skates, were whirling across the screen. The channel, one that was set for the 2018 Olympics, was showing pairs figure skating. I watched for a few minutes and must admit that it was very exciting. However, I switched channels and found curling, which wasn’t very exciting by comparison. I decided to stick with curling, basically deck shuffleboard on ice.

Why? Well, as a progressive traditionalist, I’m naturally a little screwed up. On one hand, I favor change for most things; on the other, I like things to stay the way they are if change does not improve them. The Olympic games are a case in point.


Many of the traditional skills have been refined and participation in them has become more inclusive, but other skills have been added that seem to have little, if anything, to do with the original purpose of the sports competition, which was to demonstrate combat skills. I’m not sure that being able to lift a 40-pound rock in curling is an advantage in battle, but it’s probably a more valuable skill than doing a double axel on shoes fitted with runners in pairs figure skating.

Olympia, 776 B.C.

When the games originated, probably in the 8th century B.C., they were tests of skills that were useful in battle. Consequently, only men were eligible to participate, so long as they were Greek and not convicted of any crimes. In order to compete, the men had to undergo nearly a year of training and swear that they would “be of good spirit” toward their rivals. And, by the way, they had to compete nude, having coated their bodies with olive oil and fine sand.

The contests were held in Olympia, a valley where temples to the gods were located. The games included “dialos,” a foot race of two stadium lengths; “dolichos,” longer races (from seven to twenty stadium lengths); “hoplitodromos,” a foot race in full armor (helmet, shield, and spear); “keles,” a horse race; “tethrippon,” a horse-drawn chariot race; “apene,” a mule-drawn chariot race; and various other challenges that tested the speed and strength of men, as well as their command of beasts. There was also boxing, wrestling, and a pentathlon, consisting of running, jumping, discus and javelin throwing, and wrestling.

I list these in the original form to make two points. First, it’s easy to see how these skills would be useful in battle. In ancient times, fighting was hand-to-hand. Commanders might have chariots and horses, but regular soldiers fought on foot. Second, any spectator could see who won each contest.


The man standing won the boxing match; the man who was knocked to the ground three times (Greco-Roman rules) was the loser in wrestling; he who threw the discus or javelin farthest was the victor; and so forth. No panel of “experts” had to make complicated calculations to determine who got the crown of olive leaves and was recorded as the champion in the state records.

Athens, 1896

Over time, the games gradually lost their glamour. Perhaps there’s a limit to how many nude men can be tolerated (outside of bachelorette parties, of course). And, after the Romans gained control of Greek lands around 400 A.D., Emperor Theodosius I banned all “pagan cults and practices,” which included the Olympic games.

There were several attempts to revive the games (although usually in some altered form) in France, the Ottoman Empire, and Greece in the nineteenth century, but they were not very successful. Then, at the end of the century, Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with the idea of reviving the games and rotating them among major cities around the world every four years.

The first modern Olympic games were held in Athens in 1896. They featured 241 athletes from 14 countries who competed in 43 events. Women were allowed to compete for the first time. And, these modern athletes wore clothes. (See, here’s where traditionalism might apply, but only in selective cases.)

PyeongChang, 2018

The games that we’re now watching on TV are a modern addition to the Olympics in Greece where “winter” is more a concept than a season. However, there probably is some rationalization for the inclusion of such skills as speed skating and biathlon, a true test of combat which combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. Although it’s a bit of a stretch, I suppose we could even included such silly events as “big air” snowboarding and luge. But, I really draw the line at figure skating.

Here’s what really bothers me about both the summer and winter games: We observers shouldn’t have to depend on a panel of judges to tell us who wins any given event. Like most people, I can enjoy watching figure skating or, during the summer games, diving. All of the competitors who are good enough to make it to the Olympics perform at levels that the rest of us can only imagine.

Therefore, it is truly annoying when a fantastic dance routine on ice skates is rerun at super-slow motion as some expert informs us during a stop-action shot that “her toe is turned a quarter rotation too much toward the inside of the axel. That cost her the 1/16 of a point that makes the difference between the gold and the silver.” Or, “There, right there. You can see his eye blink just before he enters the water after his quadruple back flip with two 360 twists and a pike.”

Like many other contemporary things — other than Congress — the Olympic games experience change. One of the most annoying events, called synchronized swimming, used to occur during the summer games. After years of public outrage, mostly by me, the “exercise” was cancelled. So was that thing where girls pranced around while throwing streamers in the air. But, I don’t advocate cancelling pairs figure skating. However, it might be a good idea to include it as a demonstration, rather than as a competition. After all, if you watched that portion of the Olympics, could you honestly say that any of the performers were less than excellent?

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Jim Glynn may be contacted at j_glynn@att.com.