Olympics ancient and modern

The Open University has produced a fascinating free-to-access unit highlighting the similarities and differences between our modern Games and the Ancient Olympics and exploring why today, as we prepare for London’s 2012 Olympics, we still look back at the Classical world for meaning and inspiration.

Our modern Games and the Ancient Olympics are different in many respects. For example, today’s Olympics are strictly secular, whilst the Ancient Olympics were steeped in religion and our modern Games have 35 disciplines, compared to just six of the Classical world.

Today, men and women of all nationalities are invited to compete whilst, according to the Greek author Pausanias, any woman of marriageable age discovered at the Ancient Olympic festival supposedly risked being thrown off a cliff.

Whilst Ancient Greek athletes competed and trained completely naked, modern athletes wear light clothes often emblazoned with their nation’s flag – though not with the wrong sponsor’s logo or they risk a fate roughly similar to that of the Greek women of ancient times.

Clearly, things have changed in some respects, but a series of underlying principles and values inherited from Ancient Greece are still central to the modern Olympic spirit.

For example, the London 2012 theme of ‘truce’ echoes the Ancient Olympic tradition of ekecheiria (sacred peace); Classical ideals of equality and self-improvement still motivate athletes to compete fairly and push themselves to the limit.

Modern programmes such as the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad remind us of Classical associations between sport, poetry, music and prose composition.

This unit highlights the similarities and differences between our modern Games and the Ancient Olympics and explores why today, as we prepare for London’s 2012 Olympics, we still look back at the Classical world for meaning and inspiration.

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