There are many strange and fascinating facts buried in the long, bizarre history of the Olympics. The Summer Olympics of 2016 look almost nothing like those from a century ago, and it’s not just the slick presentation and technological advancements in the individual events. Everything about the Summer and Winter Olympics used to be a whole lot weirder and, well, pretty backwards. In many ways, the games have acted as a microcosm of what was happening in the world at the time, for better or for worse.
Just how old are the Olympics? That depends if you’re referring to the ancient or modern games: the ancient games were held from the 8th century BCE to the 4th century CE, while the modern games were born in 1896. Both eras feature tons of examples of almost superhuman athleticism, but also a whole lot of sexism, racism, nudity, incompetence, drug abuse, waste, and wackiness. So who created the Olympics? What about those Olympic rings? Read on to learn some things you probably don’t know about the history of the Olympic games.
It sounds too disgusting to be true, but it happened: the so-called “Anthropology Days” of the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, MO were real. “Savage” and “primitive” people from around the world were kept in a “human zoo” and paid to compete in unofficial Olympic competitions against whites. It was just as absurd and nauseating as you’d imagine.
Language barriers created a ton of confusion about the rules of the European-style competitions, meaning most match-ups had no clear winner. There were also “savage-friendly” games like mud-throwing, tree-climbing, archery, and a “Mohawk vs. Seneca lacrosse match,” but those didn’t go much better. What was the point of all this? The organizer wanted to prove the physical inferiority of "primitive" peoples.
The man largely responsible for the existence of the modern Olympics was kind of a sexist. Well, maybe more than “kind of”: he thought the games should be reserved exclusively for men. French Baron Pierre de Coubertin was basically a sexist quote factory. Here’s his view on women’s sport in general: “the most unaesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate.” Here he is in 1912 on what the Olympics should be all about: “the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism with internationalism as a base, loyalty as a means, arts for its setting and female applause for its reward.”
It may look and feel like something the ancient Greeks would have done, but the Olympic torch relay and ceremony was actually invented by the Nazis for the 1936 games in Berlin. The whole thing was the brainchild of Nazi official Carl Diem, who served as the secretary general of the organizing committee of the Berlin games. Diem was reportedly inspired by the torch that burned during the 1928 games in Amsterdam. The torches used in 1936 were created and sponsored by The Krupp Company, Germany’s largest armament producer at the time (the company later used Jewish women from Auschwitz to build its weapons).
Before 1968, women were barred from competing in track events that required running farther than 200 meters. Why? The “health of global womanhood,” according to David Goldblatt, author of The Games: A Global History Of The Olympics. A little backstory: the 1924 games in Amsterdam were the first time women could compete in track and field at all, and they were actually allowed to compete in the 800 meter event (before 1928, women were limited to events such as swimming, diving, and tennis). But when men saw how exhausted the women were after running the 800 (duh), they freaked out. The event was limited to men until 1968, and it wasn’t until 1984 that women could compete in marathons.