A Passion for Victory: The Story of the Olympics in Ancient and Early Modern Times

A Passion for Victory: The Story of the Olympics in Ancient and Early Modern Times

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by Benson Bobrick

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From the barefoot races of 8th century BC to the underwater obstacle courses in the early 20th century to the high-tension Berlin Games preceding World War II, the Olympics have always been exciting dramas of athletic prowess and human interest.  In A Passion for Victory, award-winning author Benson Bobrick tells the details of the captivating story of

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From the barefoot races of 8th century BC to the underwater obstacle courses in the early 20th century to the high-tension Berlin Games preceding World War II, the Olympics have always been exciting dramas of athletic prowess and human interest.  In A Passion for Victory, award-winning author Benson Bobrick tells the details of the captivating story of the Olympic Games, starting with their inception in Ancient Greece. This wonderfully readable narrative is rich with anecdotes and profiles of athletes and weaves in important historical events to create a complete picture of each installment of the Games. This thorough account of an international fixation is gripping, poignant, and occasionally hilarious.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Veronica Bartles
The Olympic Games are a fascinating spectacle, capturing the hearts and imaginations of young and old. Bobrick gives us a brief history of the Games, from the first Olympics in Ancient Greece to the middle of the twentieth century. Although the narrative at times veers off onto confusing tangents that seem to have little or nothing to do with the history of the Olympics, as a whole Bobrick does an adequate job in condensing this large chunk of history into a manageable sized book for young readers. The black-and-white photographs throughout the book are interesting and eye-catching, though they do not always fit with the narrative on the pages. It is not an easy book to read straight through, as the narrative often wanders. However, the timeline at the front of the book and the index in the back make it fairly easy to skip through the various time periods in Olympic history. Bobrick includes an appendix with listings of medals won, by country, from 1896 to 1948 as well as a comprehensive bibliography, which makes this book a good resource for beginning research on the Olympics.
The Washington Post
In his new history…Benson Bobrick entertainingly conveys the many other ways the Games have changed since ancient times…Throughout this well-illustrated chronicle…Olympic spectators and competitors are vividly drawn, from the philosopher-wrestler Plato…to more recent heroes, such as Jim Thorpe and Jesse Owens.
—Abby McGanney Nolan
From the Publisher
Starred Review, Booklist, June 2012:
“Supported by loads of fascinating quotes, this history of the ancient and early modern Olympics shines.”
School Library Journal
Gr 5–10—This engaging and informative history delivers a lively overview of the Olympic Games from ancient Greece to Early Modern Times (1948). Drawing on a wealth of resources from Homer to the Huffington Post, Bobrick describes the athletes, traditions, popularity, and ferocity of the ancient Games; the Christian banning of the "pagan" Games in AD 394; the 18th-century rekindling of European interest in ancient Greece; the passionate leadership of French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who revived the Olympics in 1896; and the potent mingling of Olympics and international conflicts in the 20th century. Fascinating biographical anecdotes are woven into this historical, sociopolitical account. Despite challenges across the centuries from scandals, nationalism, economic hard times, and violence, the Olympic Games have endured as a transcending exhibition of athleticism, inspiration, celebration, and innovation. Although this timely overview stops in 1948, Olympic enthusiasts will enjoy Bobrick's dynamic, readable, contextual account of the origin and evolution of the Games and the Olympic spirit. Black-and-white photographs, a chronology, chapter notes, an index, and an extensive bibliography enhance the usefulness of this title for research. Coverage of more recent Olympic Games and medalists is available in Dave Anderson's Story of the Olympics (Morrow, 1996) and Nick Hunter's Inside the Olympics (Raintree, 2012).—Gerry Larson, formerly at Durham School of the Arts, NC
Kirkus Reviews
From the first Olympics in 776 B.C. to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a good portion of world history is told through the lens of sport. The first Olympics were held in a meadow in Olympia, Greece, to seek favor from the gods. The games always have spawned superstars, and such legends as Milo of Croton, Jim Thorpe, Johnny Weissmuller and Jesse Owens are given their due here. The photo-essay format conveys their stories effectively, as well as the glory, shenanigans and pettiness of the Olympics throughout history. Almost every full-page spread includes at least one photograph, and the text adroitly addresses the cultural context of the games. This is especially effective in the discussion of Jesse Owens, who won four Olympic gold medals in Berlin. Bobrick points out how, despite Hitler's views on non-Aryans, the German public adored Owens, and Owens could stay at any hotel, eat in any restaurant, and use all public transportation without interference, something he could not do at home in the United States. If the modern Olympics haven't always succeeded in the original goal of currying the gods' favor, they have always been, among other things, a grand celebration of the human spirit and the urge to achieve athletic greatness. A fascinating account of the Olympic Games and their place in history. (chronology, prologue, appendix, source notes, bibliography, index) (Nonfiction. 10 & up)

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Random House Children's Books
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Games Begin

Thousands of years ago, sports fans stood in stadiums like our own and cheered like crazy for the athletes they adored. One fan in the second century AD wrote to a friend, “Oh, I can’t describe the scene in mere words. You really should experience firsthand the incredible pleasure of standing in that cheering crowd, admiring the athletes’ courage and good looks, their amazing physical conditioning--their great skill and irresistible strength--all their bravery and their pride, their unbeatable determination, their unstoppable passion for victory! I know that if you were there in the stadium, you wouldn’t be able to stop applauding.”

He was talking about one of the ancient Olympic Games. By then, the Games were an established institution and had been occurring every four years without fail for almost a thousand years. For nearly that long, they had also been the rage of the Mediterranean world.

In addition to the Greeks, many ancient civilizations, including those in Egypt, Crete, and Celtic Ireland, incorporated athletic festivals or contests into their annual cycle of celebrations. But none kept going for as long as the Olympics have. Yet when the Olympics began, who could have imagined they would have such staying power? Their main purpose was to help hold widespread Greek communities together by a shared event.

In the eighth century BC, various Greek peoples had settled along the shores of the Mediterranean and adjacent seas. There were many differences between them, which eventually gave rise to rival city-states, like Athens and Sparta. But they had their “Greekness,” or Hellenic nature, in common. So the idea was to have a Panhellenic, or all-Greek, celebration that would affirm their common bond.

Only much later did the Games include representatives from other nationalities, and sportsmen from colonies as far away as Africa and Spain.

Over time, the Games also took on a life of their own. They remained communal but acquired the status of tradition. The determination to keep them going would outlast war, famine, turmoil, and even the conquest of Greece itself. They became a symbol of continuity amid the changing fate of nations and revolutions in world affairs.

Today, the Olympic Games are huge multicultural, multimedia events. They are global extravaganzas in which almost every nation takes part. Heroes of the Games enjoy enormous popularity and stature, and the principles the Olympics represent--athletic striving, fair play, goodwill among men--continue to excite the enthusiasm of sports fans throughout the world.

Yet the ancient Olympics could hardly have had a more humble start. As far as anyone knows, the first recorded Olympic event took place in 776 BC, when a 200-yard footrace was held in a meadow beside the Alpheus River in Olympia. The race was won by a man named Coroebus, from the nearby town of Elis, where he worked as a cook. Ideas for a local festival began to take hold, but for a dozen or so years the 200-yard footrace was the only Olympic contest. Then other races were added, drawing larger crowds. New events, too, joined the program, including the discus throw, the chariot race, the long jump, the javelin throw, wrestling, and boxing.

The footraces were of various lengths. The shortest, known as the stade, was a dash the length of the running track or stadium (hence its name), which at Olympia measured 200 yards. There was also a double stade race (up and down the track) and a 2 1/4-mile run twenty times around. As depicted in ancient art, the contestants were anything but lean or spare-looking, like some modern runners, but had substantial upper-body strength and bulging calves and thighs. “They evidently combined,” as one historian observes, “a driving knee action with a punching, piston-like movement of the arms for extra momentum.” Many sprinters, in fact, run like that today.

The footraces were run over a surface of layered sand and along a track with as many as twenty lanes. At the starting line, there was a stone slab into which grooves for toeholds were cut. As the runners took their places--in an order determined by lot--they warmed up for a few minutes, then (instead of going into a crouch like modern sprinters) stood up with their arms stretched forward, one foot slightly advanced. The blast of a herald’s trumpet sent them off. False starts were checked severely and offenders were struck by an official with his whip. Eventually (in the fourth century BC), the Greeks devised a starting mechanism known as the hysplex, which featured a series of starting gates released by strings.

The last of the race events (introduced in 520 BC) was unlike any other. It was more like a military field exercise than a race. Greek foot soldiers known as hoplites lined up and, at a signal, began to toil as best they could two times up and down the track in full body armor weighing about fifty pounds. According to the Greek historian Plutarch, the event was meant to remind the public that the real point of athletic excellence was the development of martial strength and skill.

In those days, there was no record-keeping or timing of events, so there were no records to be broken or means to compare achievements from year to year. Each Olympics was a world of competition unto itself.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

BENSON BOBRICK earned his doctorate from Columbia University and is the author of one other nonfiction book for young people, The Battle of Nashville, and several critically acclaimed books for adults. In 2002, he received the Literature Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He and his wife, Hilary, divide their time between New York and Vermont.

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