The history of sports stretches back to the beginnings of civilization itself. But how have sports evolved from ancient days to today’s global competition? With the Games now underway, professor Zina Giannopoulou looks at four ways in which modern competition differs from its ancient counterpart. Nude competitors, chariot racing and potential death in combat matches—these are just a few of the differences between the Olympic Games as we know them now and the athletic contests of old.
One big change is that from ancient times to today, sport has become a business—and a very profitable one at that. Athletes earn salaries that are often more than the average person makes in a lifetime. This influx of money has changed the nature of sports, making them less about playing a game for love or for the fun of it and more about how good the player can make himself look. This, in turn, has led to the use of performance-enhancing drugs and other questionable tactics. There is also the issue of equality. In the past, athletes competed against equals. Today, however, athletes are matched according to age, weight and height—often with the goal of producing a physically perfect athlete.
This has brought a host of other issues, including injuries and controversies about the role of agents, steroids and doping in professional sports. Another change has been the role of politics and religion in sports. The Olympic Games were originally a religious festival to honor Zeus. It was not until after the rise of Christianity and Islam that sports began to have a more secular function. This is reflected in the way that some sports—like basketball and soccer—struggle to retain their mystical, spiritual roots while others, like wrestling and boxing, continue to incorporate elements of pre-Christian or pre-Islamic magical cults. The earliest written records of the Olympic Games date to 776 B.C. They consisted of a single event—a foot race called the stade. Later, other events were added, including a long jump, discus and javelin throwing, wrestling and pankration (a combination of all five).
The word “Olympic” comes from the name of the temple at Olympia. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games, which are held every four years. As the modern Olympics have grown, so too have the issues that surround them. But it is important to remember that the people who attend and watch sports are the ones who make these problems possible, whether they’re complaining about player salaries or using performance enhancing drugs to gain an advantage over their fellow competitors. The growth of the Olympics has been made possible by the public—and the players and fans who support it.