Harnett County,
North Carolina

Cooperative Extension 

Why aren't the Chinese crowning Olympic champions with olive wreaths?

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Question Why aren’t the Chinese crowning Olympic champions with olive wreaths?

Answer They may not have been able to get the computer simulated wreathes to download. On the other hand, they may not have liked the symbolism the wreath represents.

Winners of the ancient Olympic games were crowned with olive wreaths. This wreath was called a kotynos. It was made from a wild olive branch. When the Olympic games began in 776 BC, the only prize was an olive wreath. There weren't any second or third places recognized. This may sound like a trivial prize, but it was actually a powerful symbol.

The olive tree represented power and peace. Power - because of its longevity and ability to flourish on the most barren terrain. Peace - because of its solitary tranquility. The winners of the ancient Olympic games were thought to represent these same ideals of strength and peace. The Chinese probably want an image of tranquil solidarity instead of solitary tranquility.

Greeks began cultivating olive trees around 5000 BC (that's over 7000 years ago). Olives were more than mere food to the Greeks. They were magical and the source of great wealth and power.

Oil was pressed from the olive fruit, and it was the hottest commodity in the Mediterranean region for thousands of years. Homer, an ancient philosopher (who indirectly wrote “Oh Brother Where Art Thou”), called it liquid gold. For the Greeks, olive oil was considered a gift from the gods. It was used in cleaning, perfumes, beauty care, medicine and lighting (burned in lamps).

The olive tree has become a symbol of love and peace in many religions throughout the world. Even the Great Seal of the United States has an eagle holding a bundle of olive branches.

In recent decades, the medicinal value of olive oil has been found to aid in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Olive oil contains monounsaturated oleic acid, which raises the level of lipoprotein HDL (good cholesterol) in human blood.

Hundreds of acres of symbolic love and peace (olive trees) are now grown in California and parts of Texas. Although the olive is the most cold-hardy of the subtropical fruit trees, it will sustain severe damage at 12 degrees F. Olive trees can be killed to the ground with temperatures below 10 degrees F.

In North Carolina, the closest we can get to an olive is the Osmanthus sp. They are in the same family, Oleaceae. Both are evergreens and have wonderfully fragrant flowers. Osmanthus shrubs grow well in North Carolina. The common names for Osmanthus sp. include Fragrant Tea Olive, Holly Tea Olive or False-Holly. They are great landscape plants, but their spiny leaves prevent them from making good wreaths.

For more info about ancient Olympics, visit http://www.museum.upenn.edu/new/olympics/olympicfaqs.shtml If you have Osmanthus questions, then call me at 910-893-7533 or email me at gpierce@harnett.org

Olive wreaths certainly make Olympians look more Olympic. TV ratings would soar, if the current athletes wore the same clothes as the ancient athletes.

Gary L. Pierce

Horticulture Extension Agent

Harnett County

 
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