As the 2021 Tokyo Olympics open on Friday, the music of Spyridion Samaras and the lyrics of Kostis Palamas will be heard around the globe once again through the Olympic Anthem, which dates back to 1896.
The hymn, also known in Greek as a Kantatha, was commissioned by the director of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Demetrios Vikelas. He chose Samaras, who had composed several Greek operas and Palamas, a renowned Greek poet, for the honor of composing the lyrics and the melody.
The 1896 Olympic Games in Athens were the first revival of the athletic competition dating back to antiquity.
Olympic Anthem Created by Samaras, Palamas
Samaras was a Greek composer, particularly admired for his operas, who was part of the generation of composers that heralded the works of Giacomo Puccini. His compositions were praised worldwide during his lifetime and he is arguably the most important composer of the Ionian School.
The anthem was performed for the first time at the opening ceremony of the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens. In the years that followed, each nation that hosted the games commissioned various musicians to compose a specific Olympic anthem for their countries’ edition of the games.
However, the Olympic Anthem by Samaras and Palamas was declared the official by the IOC in 1958, at the 54th Olympiad in Tokyo. The Olympic Anthem was performed in English at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley and since then it has been played at each Olympic Games. The Anthem is played as the Olympic flag is hoisted at the opening ceremony and again as it is lowered at the closing ceremony.
Olympic Anthem Officially Adopted in 1958
Since 1958, each host country has performed the Olympic Anthem, translating it into the host country’s language. Generally, the original Greek lyrics and the official English translation are also provided for reference.
The Olympic Anthem has been recorded and performed in many different languages. The IOC doesn’t require that the anthem be performed in either English or Greek.
If the Olympic Anthem is to be performed in English, then the English sung version is used, which has been usually the case in English-speaking countries. If it is to be performed in a language other than English or Greek, then the original version is translated to the language it is to be performed.
However, in the 2008 Beijing games, Greek was sung instead of Mandarin and in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games, English was sung instead of Portuguese.
The only Olympic games in which English lyrics were used as the basis of a translation of the Olympic Anthem — rather than the original Greek — were the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Donovan Seidle, the associate music director for the games, arranged the anthem, translating some of the stanzas to French in recognition of the official bilingualism in Canada.
The history and origins of the Olympic Games take us back into Ancient Greece and the legends of the heroic athletes visiting the city of Olympia every four years to take part in one of the most important athletic competitions of the ancient world. There is no record of an Olympic anthem dating back to the original games, however.
Held in honor of the father of the ancient Greek gods, Zeus, written records show that the Olympics first took place in 776 BC and were celebrated for more than 1,000 years, until the Emperor of Byzantium Theodosius I suppressed the Games as a pagan spectacle, since they were dedicated to Zeus.
Below is the English translation of the Olympic Anthem created two centuries ago.
Olympic Anthem English Translation
“Immortal spirit of antiquity
Father of the true, beautiful and good
Descend, appear, shed over us thy light
Upon this ground and under this sky
Which has first witnessed thy unperishable fame
Give life and animation to these noble games!
Throw wreaths of fadeless flowers to the victors
In the race and in the strife
Create in our breasts, hearts of steel!
In thy light, plains, mountains and seas
Shine in a roseate hue and form a vast temple
To which all nations throng to adore thee
Oh immortal spirit of antiquity!”