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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Pettit

The Meaning of "Back to Olympus"

One Man’s Lifelong Ascent Towards the Olympic Ideal

In the mythology of the ancient Greeks, “Olympus” was named the home of the twelve Olympian gods. It was a place conceived as a lofty mountaintop among the clouds, and in all regions settled by Greek tribes, the highest local elevation was so deemed. The highest peak in all the territories with Greek settlement was on the border of Thessaly and Macedonia, and over time it came to be named as the Pan-Hellenic representative of the seat of the gods, Mount Olympus.

The highest mountain in Greece, and among the highest in all of Europe, Mount Olympus, in the Olympus Range, is not a perfectly carved mountain with a single summit. Rather, it has 52 peaks and deep gorges with the highest of these peaks, Mytikas, considered the home of the gods. It is a regal gift of nature, and noted for its beauty, biodiversity and teeming flora and fauna. Today, thousands of visitors flock to this natural work of art and climb its varied slopes and multiple peaks, in a seemingly unending journey that has no terminus.

Zeus was the king of the Olympian gods and the supreme deity in Greek religion. The ancient Olympic Games were always held in Olympia, a religious sanctuary in southwestern Greece on the Peloponnese peninsula, hundreds of miles from Mount Olympus. The games were originally as much a religious festival as an athletic event and celebration of and for Zeus, featuring a series of athletic competitions among participants from Grecian city-states. The first Olympics date back to 776 BC, and maybe even further, and the games were held every four years, or Olympiad, which became a unit of time.

During the games, an Olympic Truce among warring city-states was enacted so that athletes could travel safely from their homes in other cities to Olympia. The games became political gatherings as well, and often alliances were established. They were used by the Greeks to spread Hellenistic culture throughout the Mediterranean. Artistic expression was a major part of the games as painters, sculptors, poets and other artisans would display their works in artistic competition.

While the format of athletic events changed a number of times, there was always the pentathlon, consisting of the long jump, javelin throw, discus throw, foot race and wrestling. The pentathletes were held in high esteem as physical specimens of excellence. In the discus, the athlete threw a stone disk, originally, and later solid bronze, lead and iron implements were introduced. The weight and size of the discus varied over the more than one thousand years of the ancient games. The Greeks considered the rhythm and precision of an athlete throwing the discus as important as his strength. The discus thrower was honored in a famous bronze sculpture, “Discobolus,” created in the 5th century BC by the Athenian artist Myron, and copied multiple times by the Romans.

While Olympia was where the celebration of athletic and cultural endeavors was executed, it was Mount Olympus that represented the challenging journey to attain the principles of today’s Olympism. That is, a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. By blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

Norman Bellingham, past Chief Operating Officer of the USOC and Olympic gold medalist wrote, “Al Oerter’s successes, coupled with his true humility and dignity as an individual, have inspired so many people. The ancients said that when you won in Olympia, the Gods reached down to touch you and, for a brief moment, let you sit beside them on Mount Olympus. I have no doubt that they would be saying to us now that Al earned his own permanent seat among the immortals on Olympus, and not just for his greatness in Athletics – but more so for showing us all how important it is to keep pursuing goals that stretch one’s limits and, at the same time, promote the Olympic Movement, this force for good.”

“Back to Olympus” is a metaphor for Al Oerter’s never-ending and repeated ascents up that symbolic ancient Greek summit, his pursuit of personal improvement no matter the outcome, the enjoyment of his life-long journey, and the expression of his considerable humanity.

Mount Olympus: The Seat of the Greek Gods
Mount Olympus: The Seat of the Greek Gods

© 2020 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved

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