What is the ‘Olympic Hymn’, the choral cantata composed for the first-ever Summer Olympics in 1896?

19 July 2021, 13:39 | Updated: 19 July 2021, 14:31

Listen to the ‘Olympic Hymn’, a choral cantata composed for the 1896 Summer Olympics in Greece
Listen to the ‘Olympic Hymn’, a choral cantata composed for the 1896 Summer Olympics in Greece. Picture: Alamy/Wiki

By Rosie Pentreath

The official anthem of the Olympics is heard when the Olympic flag is raised and lowered at the opening and closing ceremonies.

This is the story of the stirring choral anthem that marked the first-ever modern Olympic Games in 1896 – and will mark the Games as they return in 2021.

The ‘Olympic Hymn’ is a choral cantata composed by Greek opera composer Spyridon Samaras, with lyrics by the Greek poet Kostis Palamas.

It was written for the first summer Olympic Games in modern history, which took place in Athens and saw fourteen nations, and over 200 athletes, compete in the Greek capital.

It was Demetrius Vikelas, the first president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who chose both artists to pen this important work. The hymn was first heard during the Opening Ceremony of the first instalment of the games, which was formally called the Games of the I Olympiad.

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For the following Olympics, nations took on the tradition of commissioning their own anthems for ceremonies, until 1956 when the hymn was used again. In 1958, the IOC declared Samaras’ Olympic Hymn the official anthem of the games, and it was sung, in its English version, at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley in the US.

The ‘Olympic Hymn’ from then on had an important place in the meticulously laid-out opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics, the rigorous orders of which have been determined and entrenched by the IOC. Since being declared the official anthem, the hymn has been heard at every Olympic games during the Opening Ceremony as the Olympic Flag is raised, and during the Closing Ceremony when the flag is lowered.

The IOC decreed that the ‘Olympic Hymn’ should be performed in Greek or English, or else in the host nation’s language – as long as it was translated from the original Greek of Palamas’ pen.

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The piece itself is an optimistic, brass fanfare-fronted choral cantata in a major key. It has an invigorating melody that embodies strength and hope.

The song’s words are also drenched in unfailingly uplifting messages of hope, bravery and victory, telling of the immortal Olympic Flame and how it can ‘unite’, ‘inspire’ and ‘bring honour’ as it lights the way for nations and our sporting heroes, as they come together every (mostly) four years.

With that, let’s take a look at the rousing lyrics.

Drawing of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens: At the start of the 100 meters final run the runners take different positions
Drawing of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens: At the start of the 100 meters final run the runners take different positions. Picture: Alamy

What are the ‘Olympic Hymn’ lyrics in English?

Olympian flame immortal
Whose beacon lights our way
Emblaze our hearts with the fires of hope
On this momentous day

As now we come across the world
To share these Games of old
Let all the flags of every land
In brotherhood unfold

Sing out each nation, voices strong
Rise up in harmony
All hail our brave Olympians
With strains of victory

Olympic light burn on and on
O’er seas and mountains and plains
Unite, inspire, bring honour

To these ascending games
May valour reign victorious
Along the path of golden way

As tomorrow's new champions now come forth
Rising to the fervent spirit of the game
Let splendour pervade each noble deed
Crowned with glory and fame

And let fraternity and fellowship
Surround the soul of every nation

Oh flame, eternal in your firmament so bright
Illuminate us with your everlasting light
That grace and beauty and magnificence

Shine like the sun
Blazing above
Bestow on us your honour, truth and love