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Olive Oil and the Olympics

 
By Carol Firenze, The Passionate Olive
07/23/2012

There's something so thrilling about the Olympics that it’s hard not to be a huge fan. I've attended two summer Olympics – Los Angeles in 1984 and Barcelona in 1992 - and this year I'm taking my grandson, a collegiate swimmer, to the 2012 Olympics in London. While media coverage is bound to be extensive, I doubt that any sports reporters will focus on the importance of olive oil to the Olympics and the athletes. It is a fascinating story with a deep history dating back to the beginning of the first games in Greece.

Preparing Olympic champions for competition

The first recorded Olympic games were held in Olympia, Greece in 776 BC in honor of Zeus, where naked runner Coroebus of Elis won the only event, a sprint race. In later years, other events were added – more foot races, the long jump, wrestling, boxing, javelin, discus, and for the wealthy, horseracing. Wrestlers, in particular, used olive oil on their skin to reduce their opponent's grip. Runners were often massaged with olive oil before their race in the belief that the wisdom, power and strength of the Goddess Athena would be bestowed upon them.

Bringing the Olympic flame to life

Believing that fire had sacred qualities, ancient Greeks rituals often included torch relays. At the early Olympic games, while women could not participate nor attend, it was the duty of the priestesses to light the oil lamps in the temple of Zeus. The history of the Olympic flame stems from this tradition. Every four years (since 1936), the flame is ignited by using a mirror and a little olive oil to capture the morning sun’s rays and kindle the Olympic flame. For the 2012 Olympics, the flame was ignited by an actress playing the priestess role in front of the ruins of the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece. The torch, of course, is always used to light the large Olympic Flame, the highlight of the Opening Ceremonies. The flame remains lit until, sadly, it is extinguished in the Closing Ceremony.

Nurturing mind and body for a chance at victory

To symbolize the ideal of harmony between the body and mind, athletes (only men were allowed to compete) in ancient Greece competed completely naked. (Some historians note that competing in the nude was in an effort to keep women from competing in disguise). As part of the Greek tradition, it was thought that through training and care of the body, the mind would also be developed. Care of the body included vast amounts of olive oil. This natural cosmetic kept the skin smooth, sensual, and appealing, and would help elasticize athlete’s muscles.

Offering liquid gold as the ultimate award

While athletes today strive for a gold medal, early Olympians competed for victory and “liquid gold”. Victorious athletes were crowned with wreaths of olive branches, laurel, pine or parsley and were accorded a measure of respect and fame that could last a lifetime. Material prizes were also given, including amphorae filled with the finest precious and expensive olive oil. This tradition was continued when the first modern Olympics was held in 1896, where the winning athletes received olive branches and in 2004, when the winners of the Summer Olympics in Athens were awarded crowns of olive branches.

The tradition continues in 2012 with a gift of olive oil

I’m thrilled to be going to our Modern Olympics, where women can attend (without the penalty of death) and where the men are not naked (well, not completely)! While the official Olympians no longer receive crowns of olive leaves and awards of olive oil, I'm going to continue the tradition in my own way by bringing my own gifts to the London Olympics: my California Olive Oil and Olive Oil soap. These gifts are for my wonderful host, Sister Laura of Chigwell Convent, who invited us to stay at the convent, which is only one tube stop away from the Olympic Park. And great Zeus! If the gods smile upon me, I may get a chance to give a bottle to Michael Phelps or Gabby Douglas!

Website Sources
Keener, Candace. How the First Olympics Worked
The Olympic Museum: The Olympic Games in Antiquity