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The Art of the Olympics: Let the Games Begin

A steel torch holder from the 1936 Olympics, showing the route from Olympia to Berlin.

A steel torch holder from the 1936 Olympics, showing the route from Olympia to Berlin. Source: The New York Times

Today, the Olympic Games is the foremost sports competition in the world with representatives of over 200 countries vying for the glory of their nations but the origins of the tournament belong to the realm of the spiritual. Founded in 776 B.C. on the ancient plains of holy Olympia, the Games were closely linked to the religious festivals of the cult of Zeus. The Games continued for nearly 12 centuries until Emperor Theodosius decreed in 393 A.D. that all such “pagan cults” be banned. As the 2012 Summer Olympics in London draws near, museums around the world are paying tribute to the storied history of the Olympics, both contemporary and ancient. Later this summer, the Museum of London will display “London and the Olympics,” featuring specific artifacts from 1908 to 1948. At the end of July, the Royal Opera House in London opens a show titled “The Olympic Journey: The Story of the Games,” and will feature items from ancient Greek sports equipment to legendery American track athlete Jesse Owens’ sneaker.

Outside of London, other exhibitions about the Olympics are showcasing fascinating artifacts from ancient Greece. “Olympia: Myth–Cult–Games” at the Martin-Gropius-Bau Museum in Berlin focuses on the ancient Olympians, their culture and the contests held during their time. Over 500 loaned objects will be displayed from international institutions, including the Vatican. In the United States, the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut is currently showcasing their own version of the Games titled “The Olympic Games: Art, Culture & Sport,” which explores the comparisons between the ancient and contemporary games through objects, art, science and technology. Artifacts such as Greek vases, sports equipment and memorabilia are on display as well as modern and interactive art. From a tribute to the gods to the camaraderie of a global community, the Olympic Games has had many meanings at different times but at its crux, it retains a fascination over the collective imagination that is likely to endure into the foreseeable future.

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