It all began with a myth, but the career of the olive branch and laurel as the most important sports trophies is a fact.
“'Oh no, Mardonius! What sort of men have you led us to fight? They compete not about money but about excellence!” shouted, according to Herodotus, one of the Persians about to fight in the battle of Thermopylae, once he learned that in the Olympics the Hellenic people competed for a olive wreath, rather than gold and riches.
Branches from the sacred wild olive tree (Olea oleaster, as opposed to the domesticated variety Olea europaea) growing next to the Temple of Zeus in Olympia were cut with golden scissors by a boy from Elea. In order to be assigned this task, both of his parents still had to be alive. He carried the cut branches to the Temple of Hera, where he laid them down on an altar made of gold and ivory. It was from there that the judges of the games, or Hellanodikai (literally: ‘judges of the Greeks’) took them and made wreaths from the branches, with which they would later crown the winners. According to Humanistyczna encyklopedia sportu [The Humanistic Encyclopaedia of Sport] by Wojciech Lipoński, the wreath was originally placed on a tripod standing in the vestibule of the Temple of Zeus. In the fifth century BCE, the custom of folding it on a gold and ivory table made by the sculptor Kolotes and located in the place of worship of Hera was introduced. The winners were given an olive branch shortly after finishing the competition, and they were awarded the wreath at the end of the games. The first athlete we know to be awarded in this way was Daikles of Messene, who won the one stadium race in the eighth Olympic Games (752 BCE).
According to Pausanias, the author of Periegesis tes Hellados, which was a sort of guide to Greece, in which geographical and historical information mingled with mythology, the custom of handing olive wreaths was taken from Heracles of Idai – the eldest of the five Kuret brothers; guardian deities of Zeus. Heracles challenged the brothers to a running duel, and the winner was handed an olive branch.
A laurel in remembrance of Daphne
The olive wreath was the main prize in the most important of the ancient games: the Olympics. In others, however, such as the Pythian Games organized in Delphi, wreaths were woven from laurel shoots. The laurel bush was the symbol of the god and protector of athletes: Apollo.
Apollo, also the patron of archers, mocked Eros, who used a bow and arrow for his daily work – at least that’s what the myth says. Offended and upset, Eros prepared two arrows: gold and lead. He designated gold for Apollo, and lead for Daphne – a river nymph whom Apollo had fallen in love with. When Daphne was hit by the arrow, she immediately began to hate the beautiful Apollo and ignored his advances. Blinded by love, the god chased the nymph, and she ran away from him. When he finally caught Daphne, she begged him to free her, and Apollo turned her into a laurel bush. He used his powers to make the bush evergreen, even in winter. From the branches of the tree into which Daphne was turned, Apollo wove a wreath, put it on his head and never took it off.
Laurel wreaths were handed not only to athletes, but also to poets and sculptors, because artists competed at each of the games. Because of this, in European languages we have the words ‘laureate’ and ‘laurel’, as well as the phrase ‘to rest on one’s laurels’.
Of course, saying that athletes during the Olympic Games competed only for olive wreaths is not entirely true. Yes, no other trophies were given out during the Olympics, but after returning home, the winners could count on cash prizes. It was the local authorities that paid them; they received tax breaks, an open door to a career in politics, and front row seats in the theatre. The best athletes were immortalized on vases and other ceramics, and also praised in poems. Victory in the Olympics gave athletes the right to erect a symbolic monument commemorating their triumph. A three-time victory in Olympia meant even greater honour and allowed the erection of a personalized sculpture, a realistic representation of the athlete.
Most likely, one such sculpture is Statue of a Victorious Youth. It is a bronze statue currently in the collection of the Getty – a museum in the suburbs of Los Angeles, California – although the Italian government has been demanding its return for years. It is recognized that the author of the work may be Lysippi – a Greek artist working in the years 370–320 BCE, initially specializing in images of athletes, the then court sculptor of Alexander the Great. The Statue of a Victorious Youth depicts a muscular athlete who reaches for the olive wreath resting on his temples. It is not known whether the athlete himself is putting it on, but it would be contrary to the known descriptions. Another interpretation is that the young man wants to take the wreath off his head to sacrifice it to the gods.
A water supplier triumphs
In 1896, baron Pierre de Coubertin lived to see his dream and vision come true. He organized the modern Olympic Games, in a special location: the capital of Greece, Athens. A handful of ancient traditions were kept, but the athletes – amateurs – competed for cash prizes and medals. In addition to the silver medal, the winners also received an olive branch. Those who took second place received a copper medal and the branch of a laurel bush. Until 1904 and the Olympics in Saint Louis, those in third place received nothing.
In the first games of the modern era, it was also customary that the decoration of the prizes took place at the end, just before the closing ceremony. Spiridon Luis, who won the marathon, became the star of the first games. The Greek audience recognized the marathon as the most important and most traditional discipline. Luis was honoured to carry the Greek flag during the closing of the Games. At the time of his triumph, the 23-year-old son of a farmer earned a living by supplying clean water to the rich inhabitants of Athens. 40 years later, when the Games came to Berlin, wearing a traditional fustanella (a men’s skirt worn in the Balkans), he was a guest of honour at the opening ceremony. Escorted by marching soldiers, he handed an olive branch, which in modern Europe gained the status of a peace symbol, to the host of the games: Adolf Hitler.
Laurel obverse and reverse
The second games of the modern era – held in Paris in 1900 – were not a successful event. Sports competitions accompanied the world exhibition and hardly anyone was excited about them. For the only time in the history of the Olympic Games, the medals were rectangular. The front featured an image of the goddess of victory Nike holding an olive wreath in her hands. The reverse depicted an athlete with an olive branch in his hand, and in the lower corner there was another branch; a laurel branch. In Paris, however, not all winners were honoured with medals: most received cups or diplomas.
Following these aesthetic experiments, in 1928 the medals were unified according to the following concept. Nike appeared on the front with a laurel wreath in her right hand and a palm branch in her left. On the reverse was a crowd carrying an athlete holding a palm in his hand. The obverse remained unchanged until 2004, but unfortunately Nike was stripped of her wreath. The reverse was uniform until 1972, when the organizers were given the freedom to propose their own design. The motifs of an olive or laurel wreath or olive branch appeared in Montreal (1976), Seoul (1988), Atlanta (1996) and Rio de Janeiro (2016). For quite a long time, medals were simply handed to athletes. Beginning with the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, medals were hung around the winners’ neck. However, a chain imitating bay leaves joined together was replaced by today’s ribbon.
For years, cycling and motor sports have provided a special place for wreaths. For generations of fans, Formula 1 was associated with drivers on the podium, their necks decorated with gigantic laurel wreaths. Juan Manuel Fangio, Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda have all been photographed like this. Probably the last driver to be honoured in this way was Alain Prost following the Italian GP in 1985. With the commercialization of Formula 1, sponsors who wanted to advertise on cars, helmets and driver suits began to arrive. They did not spend their money for their logos to be obscured by some weed in the most important press shots – those on the podium. And so, the laurels became a thing of the past. Today they are embroidered with gold thread on hats advertising Pirelli (the tire supplier for Formula 1), which competitors must wear on the podium.
Olives in logotypes
The custom of handing olive wreaths to the winners of sporting competitions returned during the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The capital of Greece had applied to be the organizer of the Olympic Games on the 100th anniversary of the first modern games, i.e. in 1996. Coca-Cola and its financial resources, however, were more powerful than tradition – at least this is what the popular, though unproven theory peddled by the Greek media claims. On the centenary of the Games, the Olympics were organized by Atlanta. Athens was offended, and Greek activists said they would never compete for the Olympics again. But they did not keep their promise: in 2004, the Olympic torch was lit again in Greece, and athletes were given olive wreaths.
Today, flower crowns are associated with the most popular headgear worn during Coachella or boho-style weddings, the olive wreath features as the logo of companies such as Fred Perry and Mercedes-Benz, and the branch is the visual identification of the Cannes film festival. It is worth remembering, however, that it all began with Heracles of Idai, who handed the olive branch to the fastest brother.
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel