August 20, 2016 – January 2, 2017


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In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Games and in collaboration with Hearst Castle, California, the Michael C. Carlos Museum, and Oglethorpe University, The Games: Ancient Olympia to Atlanta to Rio will feature Ancient Greek artifacts, many of which exceed 2,500 years of age, which tell the history of the Olympic Games and Ancient Olympia, athletic competition, and Greek mythology and politics. We also examine the impact the modern Olympics had on the built environment of Atlanta, and will have on the next host city, Rio de Janeiro.


The Olympic Games were the oldest and most important games in ancient Greece. Nearly every Greek city had its own games, but none had the prestige of the Olympic Games. They were founded in 776 BC and held at Olympia in Western Greece. Managing the Olympic Games was prestigious, lucrative, and fought for by city-states near Olympia. Originally, the games were organized by Pisa, but from approximately 570 BC onwards, they were under the control of a larger city Elis, about 50 km (31 miles) north of Olympia. The games lasted for more than 1,000 years and came to their end in the early fifth century AD when the Roman Emperor Theodosius I thought them too pagan.


The Games were held every four years in the summer. As we call a ten year period a decade, a four year period, starting with the year of the games was called an olympiad. They lasted only five days, but the athletes had to come to Elis one month in advance for training under the control of the hellanodikai, who were the judges of the games. They were picked from people living in Elis and housed in a special building in Olympia called the Hellanodikai. The public held them in high regard and they were renowned for their fairness.


Initially, only free men who spoke Greek were allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. Romans and other city-states in the Hellenic world from the Black Sea to Italy were eventually allowed to join the competitions. Running events such as the stadion, meaning short sprints, and the diaulos, a longer foot race, were the primary events of the early games. The hoplitodromos, meaning hoplite race, was added later. The hoplitodromos was a race where the participants wore armor and carried a shield. Over the years more events were added including boxing, wrestling, javelin and discus throw, and pankration which was a fighting event that combined wrestling and boxing.


There was only one winner per event and he immediately became a celebrity. The winners had a red band wrapped and an olive branch placed upon their head at an award banquet on the final day of the Games. They were awarded large vases of olive oil and often times received hundreds of drachma, or Greek currency. Statues were built honoring the winners and they lived a life of ease receiving free meals for the rest of their lives in their respective city.


Mythology played a central role in the games. The Olympic Games were played in honor of Zeus, but less prestigious games in other Greek cities were played to honor other Gods. Ancient Olympia commissioned one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the great statue of Zeus built by Phidias. The statue was approximately 13 meters (43 feet) tall and the sculpture consisted of ivory plates and golden panels over wooden framework. The statue survived over 800 years and was meticulously cared for until the abolishment of the Olympics by Theodosius I. There are conflicting stories about the eventual destruction of the statue including a fire, earthquake, and possible relocation to Constantinople.


Power in ancient Greece was centered on the city-state, a sovereign city with surrounding territory that was dependent on it. During the Olympic Games a ekecheiria, or truce, was observed. Messengers known as spondophoroi were sent from the city of Elis to participant cities to announce the beginning of the truce. During this time, armies were forbidden from entering Olympia, wars, legal disputes, and the death penalty were suspended during the ekecheiria. The truce was designed to allow athletes and visitors to travel safely to Olympia.


The modern Olympic Games began in 1896 in Athens, Greece, and quickly grew in size and importance. The Centennial Olympic Games, hosted by Atlanta, Georgia in 1996 had an enormous impact upon the built environment of the city. Buildings, parks, and transportation infrastructure were constructed, and the regional economy grew. When the eyes of the world fell on Atlanta in July 1996 the city was prepared and successfully showcased its arrival as an important international metropolis on the world stage. To this day, Olympic monuments still grace the city including Centennial Olympic Park, Turner Field, and the Prince of Wales’s World Athlete’s Monument owned by the National Monuments Foundation and Millennium Gate Museum.




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