University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

2012 London Olympics: Nike Then and Now

By: Ashley Harper

August 3, 2012

Silver dekadrachm of Syracuse, by the artist Euainetos, early 4th century, features Nike flying about to crown a charioteer.
Silver dekadrachm of Syracuse, by the artist Euainetos, early 4th century CE, features Nike flying. Penn Museum Object # 29-126-41

The Olympics kicked off on July 27th and will finish August 12th. During this time 302 victory ceremonies will take place commemorating the superb achievements of athletes numbering over 10,000 and representing 205 countries.

Due to advancements in areas like: technology, sports medicine and athletic training how could you compare these 2012 games to the games of circa 776 BCE? One rich area can be found in the tradition of representation.

The craft of metalwork has been used for centuries to commemorate the Olympic games as well as reward athletes’ outstanding performances. For example, the image above is a silver dekadrachm coin from Sicily during the Classical Greek period. It features the Greek Goddess Nike shown flying above a charioteer and horses.  Her arms are extended, as she begins to crown the head of a dedicated charioteer. He seems oblivious to her presence as his focus remains steadily forward; one hand on the reins and the other enforcing discipline on the horses. Below this is a depiction of: a shield, greaves, cuirass and helmet.

This action scene captures the moment during a race when victory becomes imminent and our chariot team moves from athletic aspiration to achievement. The thrill of competition and the unknown reservoir of energy it taps in order to bring forward record breaking performances remains a powerful moment for athletes and audience alike. Thus, this coin depicts something central to the Olympics both then and now.

2012 London Olympics Gold Medal designed by David Watkins
2012 London Olympics Gold Medal designed by David Watkins. Obverse features the Greek Goddess Nike exiting the Parthenon and arriving at the host city of the games. Reverse features 5 design elements representing: an amphitheater, the river Thames, a grid, a square and modern architecture.

London’s 2012 gold medal design by David Watkins continues the tradition of focusing on the Greek Goddess Victory. On the obverse of the medal she is shown boldly moving toward us. She leaves in the distance the Parthenon. This medal visually reinforces the importance of Nike, by implying that to host the Olympic games you need to start by inviting Victory.

Today the word victory may be understood as a measurable achievement in the context of athletic performance but the mysterious, exciting, record breaking aspect we love about the Olympics has a long history in the representation of Victory. Seeing her depicted in these two images we can be assured that our love for sports and our hope for sublime performances in these games won’t be let down.


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