The Context of the Games and the Olympic Spirit

Today, the Olympic Games are the world's largest pageant of athletic skill and competitive spirit. They are also displays of nationalism, commerce and politics. These two opposing elements of the Olympics are not a modern invention. The conflict between the Olympic movement's high ideals and the commercialism or political acts which accompany the Games has been noted since ancient times.

Sotades at the ninety-ninth Festival was victorious in the long race and proclaimed a Cretan, as in fact he was. But at the next Festival he made himself an Ephesian, being bribed to do so by the Ephesian people. For this act he was banished by the Cretans.   Pausanias, Description of Greece , 6.18.6

map of some cities which sent competitors
to the Olympics in the 5th century B.C.

According to the Atlanta Olympics organizers, 10,700 athletes from 197 countries will compete at the 1996 Summer Games, and over 2 million people will go to Atlanta to see them. The number of people who will tune in to any part of the TV coverage is predicted to reach 3.5 billion. With such a large audience, the biggest international event in the world is a natural arena for controversies.

The ancient Olympic Games, part of a major religious festival honoring Zeus, the chief Greek god, were the biggest event in their world. They were the scene of political rivalries between people from different parts of the Greek world, and the site of controversies, boasts, public announcements and humiliations. In this section you can explore the context of the Olympics and read stories about the participants and spectators who came to Olympia from all over the Greek world.

To read more about these topics, see Further Resources.

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