Resident Historian reveals Olympic Trivia through the Ages
February 07, 2014
Though the world seems to stop for the Olympic Games, there is still much that remains largely unknown about the history of the largest international sporting competition — facts that make tonight’s Opening Ceremony in Sochi and the weeks of competition to follow all the more interesting.
As told by Dr. David Lunt, a scholar of ancient Greek and Olympic history and history professor at Southern Utah University, we present 17 little-known facts — one for each day of Olympic competition —about the Olympic Games through the ages.
- Extreme Competition
Only 14 of 32 competitors finished the 1904 St. Louis Olympics marathon race. The winner, American Thomas Hicks, took strychnine, brandy and egg whites during the race, but his trainer allowed him no water.
- Ancient X Games
The ancient Olympics featured a “pankration” competition, which was essentially a mix of boxing, wrestling and strangling. The only rules: no biting and eye gouging.
- Hometown Hero
On the subject of the “all powerful” competition (the rough translation for “Pankration”), in the fifth century BC Theagenes of Thasos won that Olympic crown as well as one for boxing. He was worshiped as a hero in his hometown for hundreds of years.
- Southern Utah’s own Golden Boy
The first Utahn to win an Olympic medal was 22-year-old Parowan native Alma Richards, who won gold in the high jump in the 1912 Games in Stockholm.
- Harsh Judgment
Judges in the ancient Olympics held long sticks, or switches, with which they could whip athletes who broke the rules.
- Leaving it all on the Field
Though tonight’s Opening Ceremony will undoubtedly include informal fashion critique of team uniforms, ancient Olympians actually competed in the nude.
- History Repeated?
On the subject of nudity in the Olympics, from 1999 to 2011, female beach volleyball competitors were required to wear bikinis with a maximum allowable bottom size of 6 cm. wide at the hip. (Men have always worn shorts and tank tops.)
- Before Bikinis
In ancient Greece, Olympic competition and spectatorship were reserved for males. The Priestess of Demeter was the only woman allowed to attend the games.
- The Mom that Spoiled it for Everyone
Around 400 BC, a woman named Pherenike disguised herself as a trainer to accompany her son to his championship boxing bout. When her son won, she excitedly leapt over the trainers’ enclosure and her outfit flew open, revealing her womanhood. Afterwards, trainers were required to strip nude like the athletes.
- First Female Gold
However, around that same time — 400 BC — a Spartan princess named Kyniska was the first woman to win an Olympic crown. Though she could not compete in or attend the competition, Kyniska was dubbed the official chariot race winner as owner of the winning horse.
- A Golden Fraud
The most decorated Olympic champion ever is not Michael Phelps, but the Roman Emperor Nero. In AD 65 he had the Games re-scheduled for his own convenience and, unsurprisingly, claimed victory in many events—including a chariot-race in which he did not complete.
- Faking It
During Denver’s bid process for the 1976 Games, organizers painted snow onto a picture of the Colorado mountains in order to convince the IOC that the area received adequate snowfall for Olympic events.
- Distant Mountains
The Olympic Games ran every four years during the Festival to Zeus at Olympia, a site quite distant from both Athens and Mount Olympus. The ancient Olympic Games were actually one of four such competitions, on an annual rotation with the Pythian Games, Nemean Games and Isthmian Games.
- Short-lived Revival
Although the IOC traces the revival of the Olympic Games to 1896 in Athens, a wealthy Greek businessman named Euangeles Zappas funded an earlier revival in 1859. In addition to running and jumping competitions, the “Zappas Olympics” featured pole climbing as an event and offered cash prizes to the winners.
- Only the Greatest
When asked if he would compete in the Olympic Games, Alexander the Great replied, “Yes, but only if I can race against kings.”
- Olympic-sized Ego
One of the most famous of ancient Greece’s Olympic champions, Milo of Croton, won the Olympic crown in wrestling six straight times. Convinced of his own power, Milo led the soldiers of his city into battle while crowned with his six Olympic wreaths, wearing a lion skin and carrying a club — in imitation of Herakles (Hercules).
- From the Nazis
The ancient Olympics had no torch race; the Olympic Torch Relay was actually introduced in 1936 by Nazi organizers of the Olympics at Berlin.