Postponed from last summer due to the global pandemic, the controversial Olympics for months now will continue (for now) and open in Tokyo on July 23 (perhaps, however, without fans present). The Games feel woven into the fabric of modern history, offering signposts that fix memory in much larger stories – for example, from Jesse Owens to the 1936 Berlin Olympics before World War II, the protest from John Carlos and Tommie Smith to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and the Civil Rights movement, or the 1980 Ice Miracle and the Cold War. The games both live in our minds while evoking ancient Greece and evoking an unbroken connection by then.

But the real history of the Olympic Games is a modern invention; its ancient roots strongly mythologized. In this side of the story, the so-called “dark ages” have disappeared from the Games as they have allegedly done with so many others. The real history of the Games, and of sport more broadly, is much more complicated.

The Ancient Olympics probably started in the 8th century BCE, but rose to prominence in the next century, with participants from all over the Hellenic world to the ancient Greek religious shrine of Olympia on the Peloponnese peninsula. These events eventually became part of a “four-year circuit of sports festivals. [including] the games of Pythia, Nemea and Isthmus ”, in the words of David Goldblatt. Soon, perhaps due to the association of Olympia with the veneration of Zeus, the Olympic Games became the preeminent event of this circuit (a circuit which in fact expanded as other cities have created their own sports competitions) and drew massive crowds.

The games continued even after the Romans conquered the Peloponnese, with the Romans themselves becoming enthusiastic sponsors and participants. They continued the cult of Zeus (now called “Jupiter”) and built heavily in the area, replacing a pseudo-tent city that housed the athletes with permanent structures, building more private villas for wealthy spectators and improving the stadium infrastructure and surrounding community. In addition, they increased the number of events and participants, opening it up to non-Greeks and extending the duration of the games by another day (from five days to six).

Mosaic of chariot races in ancient Rome

(Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

For a long time, historians blamed the end of ancient sports competitions on the rise of Christianity, especially the Roman Emperors who viewed these sports as polytheistic relics. But then, like now, the real story can be found by following the money.

New research has shown that the Regional Olympics, with semi-professional athletes traveling to compete across the Mediterranean, continued into the fifth century AD. back of private donors. Then, as cultural tastes changed (in part, indeed, due to Christianization) and local budgets periodically became strained, all events except those in the larger cities were called off, never to return. Even then, some games persisted until the beginning of the 6th century.

The popular perception is often that, in the words of one author, “the Middle Ages is the place where sport went to die”. But although events marked as “Olympics” have come to an end, sports, even formal regional competitions, have survived.

In the Byzantine Empire, events like chariot races remained a touchstone for civic life in Constantinople (and elsewhere) at least until the 11th century. It was an immensely popular sport in the Empire, with formalized “factions” (or teams) competing against each other on a regular basis. Fans devoted to their faction filled the stadiums, frequented the fast food stalls and applauded the charioteers of their faction, who were often enslaved peoples from across the Mediterranean. Although many died in the course of their races, some (like one named Calpurnianus who won over 1,100 races in the first century AD) could become fabulously famous and wealthy.

Then as now, sport was also political and chariot races could play a central role in the fate of the empire. For example, in 532 CE, a riot broke out at the Hippodrome in Constantinople when the two main factions of chariot racing fans, the Blues and Greens, united and attacked Imperial agents. Emperor Justinian considered fleeing the capital but his wife, Theodora, herself a former actress and whose family had been part of the Greens, convinced him to stick with the (probably apocryphal) words: “Think for a moment if , once you escaped to a place of safety, you would not willingly trade such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that royal purple is the noblest shroud. Justinian stayed and ordered the army to quell the riot. Some 30,000 people were reportedly killed in the ensuing bloodshed.

In the West, chariot races died out quite quickly, but from the second half of the 11th century, knightly tournaments were the spectacle of medieval Europe. At their peak, from the 12th century until at least the 16th century, participants, like their ancient Olympic ancestors, traveled a circuit of competitions across Europe, comparing their skills to other professionals. (The portrayal in the 2001 film Heath Ledger The story of a knight was not far from reality.) In these competitions, men in armor and on horseback tried to knock down their opponents with a spear and shield, or fought on foot with blunt weapons ( but still dangerous) to determine who was the better warrior, all for a crowd.

Representation of medieval knight Ulrich von Liechtenstein, who wrote an autobiographical poem about his jousting adventures

Representation of medieval knight and poet Ulrich von Liechtenstein

(Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

And indeed, these are performances. Lionized in contemporary fiction and discussed several times in historical chronicles of the time, one researcher has suggested that these were often accompanied, just like modern Olympics, by theatrical opening and closing ceremonies. A set of 13th-century autobiographical poems, for example, asked knight Ulrich von Liechtenstein to perform a chaste quest for a wealthy nobleman (bride). Dressed as a woman, especially the goddess Venus, Ulrich travels through Italy and the Holy Roman Empire to defeat all his opponents in jousting and hand-to-hand combat.

In another case, Jean Froissart, a late 14th century chronicler who enjoyed the patronage of the Queen of England and traveled extensively during the Hundred Years’ War, spoke of a specific joust held at St. Inglevere ( near Calais, France). During a lull in hostilities between the kings of England and France, three French knights proclaimed a tournament and the word spread widely. Excitement particularly built in England, where many nobles wanted to put these French knights in their place. The tournament lasted 30 days and the three French knights bowed with the dozens of challengers one at a time until everyone had their chance. In the end, everyone was satisfied and the English and French congratulated each other and parted in a “friendly” way.

Note the way Froissart is very specific with the names and their individual accomplishments, and the way Ulrich is clear about his own accomplishments. Much like the modern Olympics, the prowess of the individual was of paramount importance to those who watched and those who read the tournaments. Moreover, these two examples show that it was not a question of military exercises, but of spectacles: competitions and entertainment. Froissart is clear that the French and English nobles, who in the past clashed on the battlefield, were in this context friendly competitors, and these types of tournaments as a whole were, perhaps against our expectations, mainly on “The friendly physical competition between nobles from various European jurisdictions.

The history of sport is history, as sports competitions both shape and reflect the times in which they take place. As the nobility began to spend less time on the battlefield after around 1600, they continued to ride horses and compete in sports, but the tournament died out. And at the end of the 19th century, the Olympics reappeared thanks to an intoxicating combination of growing nationalism across Europe and a redefinition of “correct” masculinity by elite white men who emphasized physical education. In 1896 they took place in Athens, then in Paris in 1900, and in Saint-Louis in 1904, and now they are arriving in Tokyo. Let the games begin, but remember that sports work as beacons within a larger story, and always have.