In the year 776 BC, a humble Greek cook named Koroibos made history, winning the first and only event in the first Olympic Games of antiquity, the stadion race. The foot race, no longer than 600 feet, was the beginning of a long storied history in Ancient Greece of sport, competition, and athleticism that would continue until 393 AD. Like Koroibos himself, the prize for his achievement was a modest one, an olive branch.
The Olympic Games, like most public activities in Ancient Greece, existed as a way to both honor and emulate the pantheon of gods. Indeed, no one could run as fast, or be as strong as the gods, but dammit if they didn’t try.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away the people we now know as Polynesians were spreading across the South Pacific, developing unique, albeit related cultures, religions, and societies. When exactly Polynesians settled in Hawaii is disputed – anywhere from 300 to 1266 AD. Nor do historians know when exactly ancient Polynesians, specifically Hawaiians, began to recreationally practice surfing. Still, if the beginnings of Polynesian surfing temporally overlapped with the period of the Olympic Games worlds away, it’s safe to say the Ancient Greeks would have been amazed by the way Polynesians effortlessly slid across the ocean, taming the surf.
Forgive me for all this talk of ancient civilizations. I just had the opportunity to visit Athens, and the place’s affection for ancient history is contagious.
Greece prides itself as the cradle of democracy and the birthplace of the Olympics. With all the controversy surrounding surfing’s debut in the 2020 Games, the focus on the ancient history of the Olympics, and that of surfing seemed to me to offer a new perspective – if not only to imagine the collision of two ancient civilizations that never encountered each other face to face.
Say what you will about the modern Olympics. It’s too commercial. It’s a…