by Piet Coetzer

Olympic heroes

Olympic heroes in National Women’s Month

Olympic Heroes
Olympic heros.jpg

It is strikingly appropriate that South Africa’s first Olympic heroes during this year’s Games in London -- taking place during National Women’s Month -- should all have to do with water. First there were the swimmers and then the rowing team. Not only was the first hero in history a female with a story that is closely related to swimming heroics but the word “hero” has its roots in Greek culture, which among others, gave us the Olympics. 

Wikipedia tells us that the first “hero” actually carried the name Hero and she was a priestess of Aphrodite, goddess of love in Greek mythology.

She was based at Sestos, a town on the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles). The love of her life was a young man named Leander from Abydos, a town on the Asian side of the channel. But Hero could not marry Leander because as priestess of Aphrodite she was bound by a vow of chastity.

Love always finds a way, however, and every night Leander swam from Asia to Europe. He was guided on his way by a lamp in Hero's tower. Then fate struck one stormy night. A strong wind extinguished the beacon flame. Leander lost his way and drowned. His body eventually washed ashore beneath Hero's tower. In her grief, she threw herself into the sea.

The name, and therefore also the word,hero, derives from the Greek word hḗrōs meaning 'protector' or 'defender'.

Hḗrōs, in Greek mythology represented a group of demigods. When in ancient Greece the area surrounding Athens was divided into various sections or demes for voting purposes, a 'hero' was selected for each division as its individual 'protector'.

Later, hero (male) and heroine (female) came also to refer to characters who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, displayed courage and self-sacrifice in a martial context for the greater good. Over time, the concept was  extended to include moral excellence.


In the Olympics, heroes are mostly measured in terms of the number of medals they win. This form of reward for heroics is also rooted in ancient history.

The word “medal” traces its roots back to the post-classical Latin word “medalia”, meaning a coin worth half a denarius, which was a small silver coin first minted in 211 BC.

It came into the English language in 1578 and derived from the Middle French “médaille”, which in turn came from the Italian “medaglia”.

According to the website, the first known instance of a medal being awarded comes from the historian Josephus who, writing long after the event, recounts that in the 4th century BC the High Priest Jonathan led the Hebrews to the aid of Alexander the Great, and that in return for this Alexander "sent to Jonathan... an honorary award, a golden button which is customarily given to the king's kinsmen."

The Roman emperors used both military awards of medals and political gifts of medallions like large coins, usually in gold or silver, that were die-struck in the same way as coins. These and actual gold coins were often set as pieces of jewellery, worn by both sexes.

The Olympics and politics

In the modern Olympic Games, and in sport in general, it is often complained that politics and the quest for national glory, as opposed to individual heroics, play too much of a role. But then, the origin of the Olympic Games is deeply rooted in politics.

After all the ancient Olympics, held to celebrate the god Zeus, were organised every four or five years to bring a stop to wars.

The first of these athletics contests was held in 776 BC at Olympos or Olympia, a town or district in Elis in ancient Greece. But they were abolished by Roman Emperor Theodosius in 394 AD when it became impossible to contain the conflicts of the time.

The first modern revival of the Olympic Games came in 1896 and was organised by Baron de Coubertin.

Other linguistic contributions

The world of sport during ancient times also contributed a number of other common modern-day words.

The word 'athlete' came to us from the Greek word athlos which means contest, via the Latin word athleta. The first use of the word in English, according to The Words Origin website, dates back to 1528 to denote a participant in ancient games, and from 1827 to denote modern participants in physical games and feats. The adjective 'athletic' dates from 1636. The noun athletics, denoting physical contests is from 1727. An obsolete form of the noun, athletic, is from 1605.

The word 'gymnastic' also comes from ancient  Greek and arrived in English in 1574. The modern sense of gymnastics, meaning a set of exercises requiring strength and co-ordination, is from 1652. Gymnastics has been an Olympic sport since the first modern games of 1896.

Even the word 'stadium' comes from the ancient Greeks and was originally a linear measure of 600 Greek or Roman feet, first used in English in 1398. By 1603, the meaning had transferred to the place of competition as we know it today.

And from the Alphadictionary, we learn that the title we give to the winners at modern-day events, champions, originates from the Latin words campio and  campionis (campus or playing field).

It originally only meant contestant on the playing field but later came to mean the winner of a battle or competition. But then we know just making it to the Olympic Games, especially by sport stars such as our own Oscar Pistorius, marks them as true heroes and champions.

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This edition

Issue 374


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