With the Summer Olympic Games to be held in Tokyo this year, the millennia-old tradition continues for this ancient event. It is believed that the first Olympic games were held in 776 BCE. The games were a pagan religious festival and ceremony for and an homage to the Greek God Zeus. Participants were male, free, and Greek speaking and gathered every four years for this event. These games lasted for more than 1,000 years. Even after Greece had been conquered by Rome, the games continued with accounts of Roman rulers like Nero participating in the games. With the rise of Christianity, the pagan games fell out of favor and were ended 394CE under the rule of Theodosius I.
Elis, Olympia, AR Stater c. 400 BCE struck for the 95th Olympic Games. Heritage World Coin Auctions Long Beach Sale 3015 lot 23095. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auction.
The Olympic Games predate coinage; however, with the advent and use of coinage, many ancient coins were created to commemorate the Olympics. The first coins of the Olympiad can be traced back to around 460 BCE to commemorate the 79th or 80th Games. Issued by the Greek city Elis, Olympia, these coins continued to be made for sequential games and have been both researched and attributed to individual year’s games. Other ancient issues would depict Olympic sports and victories made by cities and rulers.
1983 5000 Dr, featuring Baron Pierre de Coubertin, Greece, PCGS PR67DCAM. PCGS Population 2. One finer.
The rebirth of the Olympics occurred in the 1800s. While there is dispute as to who and which country claims revival, the French nobleman Baron Pierre de Coubertin is credited for announcing the games revival in 1892 and holding the first Olympiad since ancient times in Athens in 1896. The 1896 Athens Olympics had little international success. Greece hosted the games with honors and King George I of Greece opened and closed the games. Athletic clubs and teams from as far as the United States participated and brought home medals. While no commemorative coins were made for the occasion, award medals were made.
Medal from the 1900 Paris Expo Summer Olympic Games Medal. PCGS MS63. PCGS Population 2. None finer.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin organized the next Olympics four years later in Paris in 1900. The Games ran concurrently with the World’s Fair and Exposition in Paris. While these Games saw 13 nations participate, and for the first time included women athletes, they were not deemed to be a success. The 1904 Olympic Games were also held concurrently with the St. Louis World’s Fair and Exposition in the United States. The 1904 Expo overshadowed the Games and the eight nations that competed had no press or fanfare, getting lost in the shadow of the Exposition.
Participation Medal from 1908 London Olympic Games. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions Long Beach Sale September 2017, Lot 31033.
The Olympics became bigger news with the London games in 1908. With 22 nations participating in the Games, it should have been a success. However, the Games lasted over six months and controversy with British referee favoritisms made the Games look bad, with the press advocating for their end. The Games survived and were held in Stockholm in 1912. With the addition of competitions in “fine arts,” the Games survived.
In 1916 the Games were to be held in Berlin, but World War I changed those plans. They were renewed in 1920 in Antwerp. With only one year to prepare for the Games, war-devastated Belgium was able to stage the Games, which were used to encourage international friendliness despite Germany being excluded. The Olympics returned to Paris in 1924 and began to be covered by journalists from around the world. The 44 nations participating in the Games helped the event become closer to the vision of what was dreamt by Coubertin.
The 1928 Amsterdam Games saw the inclusion of Germany once again, and the idea of peace and harmony for the sporting event started to take root. The first use of the Olympic flame was in the 1928 Games. The Olympics where shortened to 16 days and the differentiation of the Summer and Winter Olympiad started in 1928. With the world falling in to the Great Depression, the 1932 Games went to the only city that bid for the hosting spot: Los Angeles. Spending over $3 million to build infrastructure and host the Games, the Americans provided a top-notch venue and hospitality not previously seen for athletes and participates. This trend continued with countries spending ever-greater amounts to showcase themselves.
By the 1936 Games, Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany. Hitler’s hosting of the Olympics that year was controversial to say the least. He banned Jewish athletes from participating in the Olympics and did not want black people to compete in any of the events, though the United States sent track-and-field star Jesse Owens anyway. Owens went on to win four gold medals, making him the most successful athlete at the Berlin Olympics and embarrassing Hitler, who held false, bigoted beliefs on racial superiority. Despite all of the controversy surrounding the Berlin Olympics, they were the first to have the torch relay that continues today and were also the first Games to be broadcast on television.
After the 1936 Olympics, no Games were held for the next eight years due to the outbreak of World War II. The quadrennial sporting event returned in 1948 in London, but it wouldn’t be until 1952 that the Olympics saw its first new commemorative coinage issued since antiquity. While no official coins were issued for most of the Games held from 1876 to 1948, medals were awarded, and commemoratives were made by governments and enterprising individuals. Award medals are always treasured as in-demand items that rarely trade. However, the commemoratives can be inexpensive depending on the Games they depict and the subjects involved. Regardless, they are all historical artifacts that help tell the story of the Olympic Games and how they got here.
- Ancient Olympic Games, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Olympic_Games
- “Full Circle: The Olympic Heritage in Coins and Medals.” American Numismatic Society http://numismatics.org/full-circle-the-olympic-heritage-in-coins-medals/