The Olympic spirit

Olympic rings

Discover the meaning of the Olympic spirit and the history of the Games.

For many of us, mention of the Olympics conjures up images of the summer games. Perhaps the memorable performances from Beijing 2008: Usain Bolt's domination of the sprint competition, Sir Chris Hoy's three gold medals or Rebecca Adlington's double triumph in the pool. Perhaps the word 'Olympics' creates anticipation for London 2012. The Olympic Movement, however, covers more than just the summer games. The movement aims to unite people through sport.

Origins
The Olympic Movement is named after the city of its origin: Olympia. The Games were one of the many ways that the Greeks worshipped their gods. Olympia was one of the oldest religious centres in Ancient Greece, and played host to all the ancient games. Vitally, it was easily accessible by sea as athletes travelled from Greek colonies in Spain and the Black Sea to compete in the Games.

Did you know?

A pentathlon is a competition involving five events, where points are awarded according to each competitor's performance in each event. The pentathlon in the ancient Games was comprised of: running, jumping, javelin, discus and wrestling.

The origins of the Olympics are shrouded in myth and legend. The first record of an Olympic Games dates from 776 BC, although the games could have taken place long beforehand. Running was the only event at the first 13 recorded Olympic Games, but further events were added over the years and eventually included jumping, discus, wrestling, boxing, pankration (a primitive martial art), horse riding and chariot racing. The main event of the ancient games was the pentathlon.

The Olympic Truce was established in Ancient Greece with the signing of a treaty between three kings. The truce prohibited combat between the Greek city states allowing athletes and others to travel safely to and from Olympia for the Games.

The ancient Olympic Games reached their zenith in the sixth and fifth centuries BC before petering out as the Romans grew more influential. Olympian Games were sporadically revived from the late 18th century onwards. A French baron, Pierre de Coubertin, was inspired by the Much Wenlock Olympian Society to revive the Olympics as an international spectacle. He founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894. Two years later Athens hosted the first modern Olympic Games.

Be the best you can be
De Coubertin believed that 'The important thing in life is not to triumph, but to compete,' and encouraged everyone to compete against themselves. His sentiment was institutionalised in the Olympic motto which challenges each individual to become the best they can: 'Citius, Altius, Fortius' (Faster, Higher, Stronger).

Did you know?

The modern pentathlon was invented by Pierre de Coubertin who intended the sport to be educational. It is considered the 'sport that most accurately conveys the ideals of Olympism,' with physical, mental and intellectual attributes essential to success across the five disciplines.

Source: Official website of the Olympic Movement

Spirit of fair play
The Olympic Charter, established by de Coubertin, states that 'The practice of sport is a human right'. Everyone should be able to play sport 'without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.'

At heart de Coubertin was an educationalist. He hoped that sport would contribute to a peaceful and better world. He wanted sport to push people to become the best they can and help others to do the same. Crucially, he wanted sport to be available to everyone in a spirit of fair play. A medal for sportsmanship has been named in his honour.

The ancient traditions of the Olympic Games have not been lost. The IOC revived the Olympic Truce, aiming to protect the interests of the athletes and sport, and to encourage peaceful and diplomatic solutions to the conflicts around the world. Observance of the Olympic Truce during the 1998 Nagano Olympic Winter Games offered an opportunity to seek a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in the Persian Gulf.

Olympic SymbolismAncient statue of Olympic figure in the British Museum.
Designed to reflect the core values of Olympism, the iconic symbol of five rings represents the universality of Olympism. Each ring on the flag is a different colour (blue, yellow, black, green and red) and displayed on a white background. These six colours represent all nations.

The rings are interlocked signifying the spirit of respect shown in the gathering of athletes from all over the world during the Olympic Games. The flag was first used at an Olympic Games in Antwerp 1920, just after the culmination of the First World War.

The Olympic flame is lit in Olympia by the sun's rays and travels around various countries in the months prior to the Olympic Games. Along its route, the flame is passed between many torches and relay runners and conveys a message of peace and friendship. The highlight of the opening ceremony of an Olympic Games is the entry of the flame into the stadium where the final relay runner lights the cauldron. The flame in the cauldron, symbolising friendship, remains alight for the duration of the Games.

Sport for everyone
The Olympic Movement is always developing to adapt to the changing world. Women were allowed to participate in the Games for the first time in the Paris Olympics of 1900, but only in golf and tennis. Female participation in all sports grew throughout the 20th century. Rome 1960 saw the beginning of the Paralympic Games and the first Youth Olympic Games will take place in Singapore in 2010.

The spirit of the Olympic Movement remains throughout all its work, bringing people together in peace and friendship to play sport.


BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.