Military Athletes Have Proud Olympic History
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 13, 2004 As 21 servicemembers report to Athens to participate in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, they carry on a proud tradition.
While few records of the Army's participation in Olympic games exist from before 1948, there is a record of a 2nd Lt. George S. Patton participating in the modern pentathlon in the 1912 games. He placed fifth.
Since 1948, more than 400 servicemembers have participated in summer and winter Olympic games. The Army can claim 102 total medals for its efforts.
Since the Air Force's inception in 1947, that service's athletes have won 24 Olympic medals, according to Steve Brown, chief of Air Force Sports. The Navy boasts at least 30 medals in the Games from 1948. Marines have participated in at least 15 Olympics and have won 14 medals since 1948.
The earliest records place the first Olympic games at Olympia, in Western Pelloponnese, in 776 B.C. It is believed, however, Olympic games had been held for several centuries before that.
Consisting mostly of foot races, the games gradually grew in scope. First, wrestling and the pentathlon were added. Today about 312 total events -- 165 for men, 135 for women and 12 mixed events -- are featured in the Summer Games.
In ancient Greece, the games were understood as a time of truce between sometimes not-so-cordial cities, and all Greeks were allowed to participate. For the most part, this agreement was honored and is a tradition observed in modern times.
While other games took place in other cities, it was the Olympic festival in honor of the Olympian Zeus that gained considerable importance. One of the most popular Pan Hellenic festivals of the 5th century, the games eventually became a symbol of political and cultural unity among the Greeks.
The Olympic Festival, held every four years -- and always during the hottest days of the summer -- included sacrifices to the gods and, of course, athletic contests. By the early 1st century, victors were being crowned with wreaths of wild olive in several events, including wrestling, boxing, equestrian and the obligatory track-and-field events.
All continued smoothly until the year 394, when Roman Emperor Theodosius I abolished the time-honored tradition as part of reforms against pagan practices. While attempts were made to revive the Olympic games, none were successful until 1894, when the International Olympic Committee was founded.
At the urging of French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the committee was formed and an oath developed. The IOC decided the games would be held at periodic intervals, as had the originals. Also, the games would include representatives of all countries and all sports.
"To do this was to revive the Olympic games. The name imposed itself; it was not even possible to find another," Coubertin said.
Thus the groundwork was laid for the first International Olympic Games to be held in Athens in 1896. Fourteen countries sent about 245 representatives to compete in 43 events. The first modern Olympics were not open to women, however, as Coubertin decided their participation would be "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect." Women first competed in swimming events in the 1912 games.
In 1924, "International Winter Sports Week" was held in Chamonix, France. Two years later it was retroactively named the first Winter Olympics.
Time, politics and world events have altered the face of Olympic competition. The spirit of the competition, however, remains unchanged. Twenty-one service members and countless Americans will participate in events or coach "for the glory of the sport and the honor of our teams."
(Information obtained from: www.infoplease.com, www4.army.mil/Olympics/history, www.fhw.gr/olympics/ancient/index.html, and Achieving Excellence: The Story of American Military Athletes in the Olympic Games, 1992.)