More myths about the Olympic Games

Dr. David C. Young is professor emeritus of classics at the University of Florida and author of The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival.  As such, he knows his stuff when it comes to the historical significance of the Olympic Games. But Dr. Young believes that many aspects of our Olympic Games have been justified by “specious ancient antecedents”, which is a classicist’s way of saying:

“It ain’t necessarily so!”

Writing in the The Archeological Institute of America’s journal,  Archeology, Dr. Young listed a number of beloved (and wrong) beliefs about the ancient Olympics that still endure about the modern Games:  

1. Olympic athletes were amateurs.

“Nonsense!” writes Dr. Young. “The ancient Olympics had no such rule, and the Greeks did not even have a word for amateur. Ancient Olympic athletes were professionals.”

2.  The Olympic Games symbolized peace.

Wrong again, Dr. Young says.

“The Olympic Truce, while guaranteeing safe passage to athletes and spectators on their way to the Games, did not, contrary to popular belief, stop all wars in Greece. Sparta attacked Elean territory in 420 B.C., and Arcadians invaded the sanctuary at Olympia in 364.”

3.  Ancient Greek Olympians abstained from strong drink, thus setting a healthy example for today’s competitors.

No, apparently not.  Dr. Young explains:

“Modern Olympic officials cite an ancient inscription from Delphi that had been translated ‘Wine cannot be taken into the stadium.’ But it now seems the correct translation is ‘Wine cannot be taken out of the stadium.’ “

4. The five interlocked Olympics rings were an ancient Greek symbol for the Games.

“More nonsense!” according to Dr. Young. This theory may stem from a 3,000 year old stone block from Delphi with the five rings inscribed on it*, apparently proof that the five rings create “a link between the ancient and modern Olympics”.  But Dr. Young reminds us that the five rings were actually invented in 1913 by Pierre de Coubertin, president of the International Olympic Committee.

“There had been five modern Olympiads by that time, and Coubertin’s writings suggest each ring was intended to represent a completed Olympiad, the first five host countries united in ‘Olympism’ and peace. Apparently he expected to add a sixth ring after Olympiad VI, to be held in Berlin in 1916, and so on, until there was a flagful of rings and ‘universal peace.’

“But Olympiad VI was pre-empted by World War I, so de Coubertin gave the symbol a different official meaning: each ring represented one of the five continents of the world, united in Olympism . Thus the logo froze at five and stays there today, a fossil of pre-World War I Europe, when hopes of world peace briefly flowered.”

Ed. Note: de Coubertin was apparently no geography scholar: he lumped North and South America together as one continent, and omitted Antarctica entirely.

5.  The Olympic Torch relay is a legacy of the ancient Games.

Sigh . . . Yet another myth, claims Dr. Young, who says that the custom of lighting the flame at ancient Olympia and relaying the torch to the modern Olympic stadium is merely a legacy of Hitler’s 1936 Berlin games.

Carl Diem, organizer of the 1936 Olympics, seeking to glamorize them with an ancient aura, staged the first lighting of the Olympic flame, now a hallowed ritual in which thousands delight. The first Olympic torches were made by the Krupp Company, better known for providing weapons for two world wars.”

Finally, here’s my own personal favourite myth, and perhaps the biggest and most enduring of them all:

6.  Hosting the Olympic Games brings economic benefits and a lasting legacy to the host city.

Although Dr. Young didn’t write specifically about this myth, modern sports economists certainly have. And besides getting caught up in the contagious thrill of hosting a really, really expensive two-week drinking party (or, as The Globe and Mail indelicately described downtown Vancouver during our own 2010 Olympics party here on Canada’s west coast: “a river of vomit”), taxpayers living in or near any Olympic Games venue might want to put down the Kool-Aid long enough to observe the reality of these modern Olympic Games.

As quoted in Why the Olympics Are Bad Business, sports economist Dr. Jeffrey Owen of Indiana State University reminds us:

“To date, there has not been a single study of an Olympics or other large-scale sporting event that has found empirical evidence of significant economic impacts.”

Surprisingly, contrary to what those expensive pre-Games economic impact consultants’ reports promise, hosting the Olympics will not boost tourism for the host city. For example:

  • The University of Calgary reported that “the number of non-Canadian visitors to Alberta has never fallen below pre-Olympic numbers in 1988” – which is a bit like damning with faint praise.  At least we’re not going backwards . . .
  • After the Lillehammer Games in 1994, 40% of the hotels built in and around Lillehammer for the Games went bankrupt, and two large new alpine skiing facilities built for the Games were sold for less than $1 to prevent bankruptcy.
  • Convention attendance in Atlanta, which had been increasing steadily over the previous 10 years leading up to the ’96 Games, fell 10% in the years following.
  • When Athens hosted in 2004, Greece didn’t see visitor numbers recover to their pre-Games level until two years later.
  • Overnight international tourism visits to Vancouver dropped during the year following the 2010 Winter Games here.

Even despite the hordes of tourists who do descend upon an Olympic city, many local businesses are disappointed when they do not cash inon the anticipated boom. A strange urban phenomenon was common in Vancouver, for example – based entirely on geography.  Just short blocks away from the huge lineups at downtown Vancouver shops, restaurants and bars during the 2010 Games were countless shockingly quiet businesses in the normally bustling Denman Street, 4th Avenue or Commercial Drive neighbourhoods – so dead, in fact, that you’d never even guess that the Olympics were in town.

Ask Dr. Stefan Szymanski about tourism benefits. He’s a professor of economics at City University London, and the author of Playbooks and Checkbooks: An Introduction to the Economics of Modern Sports, who writes:

“For most foreign visitors, attending the Olympics is a proposition that costs thousands of dollars. True, many foreigners and Olympics die-hards will come, but far more of the attendees will be locals taking advantage of the party of a lifetime.

“And of those who do travel from abroad, many will be what’s known as ‘time-switchers’: people who would have come anyway, but just plan their trip to coincide with the Games.

“Tourist arrivals usually fall after the Olympic circus leaves town.”

Consider as well the doping scandals, corporate sponsorship bullying, pervasive commercialism, anti-terrorist security, political interference, questionable IOC integrity, and obscene taxpayer-funded price tags inherent in hosting the Olympics.

And for more on these economic benefit myths, read:


* Those “ancient carvings” of the Olympic rings found at Delphi?  The infamous 1936 Nazi Olympics of Berlin provide the answer, says Dr. Young. Leni Riefenstahl filmed the 1936 Olympic torch relay as the flame moved from ancient Olympia toward Berlin for her acclaimed movie Olympia.

For a film scene where a torch runner circles the photogenic stadium at Delphi, a crude stone block was inscribed with the symbol of the five rings, and placed in the stadium.

Years later in the 1950s, American authors Lynn and Gray Poole observed the old movie prop in the stadium, mistook it for an ancient inscription, and published the error in their History of the Ancient Games – a myth which soon spread to other books, where, as Dr. Young writes, it “continues to mislead the unwary to this day.”


Q: Can we realistically afford to host future Olympics Games?

2 thoughts on “More myths about the Olympic Games

  1. I suspect the Olympics makes politicians feel important. May also have something to do with the notion of “bread and circus”.

    Here in Australia there is a row because some teams fly business and others economy! Australia “pays” an estimated $40 million per gold medal through the Australian Institute of Sport. Meanwhile we have had swimmers get into trouble for having a picture taken with a gun, and a shooter having her picture taken in swimwear. And a swimmer also chastised for having her photo taken in… swimwear (OK, granted a Bikini)

    Meanwhile locals in the UK are not amused. Read this from the New York Times.

    • Hi Dr. Joe – thanks for that New York Times link. (Love that Daily Mail unofficial motto: “What fresh hell is this?”) Perhaps someday the residents of all cities who believe bidding on hosting the Olympics is a good thing will actually reconsider.

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