Ever found yourself catching a glimpse of Olympic activity on TV and wondering how the pomp, ceremony, and sporting competition all started? The Olympic Games has a history that spans hundreds of thousands of years, and so it has a long, interesting, and sometimes controversial past. Since being abolished, then revived in 1896, and then held every four years, the Olympics has been an exciting feature in our calendars.
But the games have come a long way since the days of simple foot races, and sometimes a strange Olympic sport, with the likes of musical competitions. From the earliest days of 776 BC Greece to the bright lights of modern-day Tokyo, Japan, in 2020, there’s something about these games that have continued to captivate the hearts and souls of athletes and audiences alike.
Even people who don’t care much about sports find themselves sitting down to watch a race or turning up the radio when their country’s medals are mentioned. Professional athletes train all their lives to prove themselves the best, and audiences the world over gear up to watch them attempt it. Who will break the next record? Or who will win the most gold medals?
With Tokyo 2020 fresh in our minds, we take a look at the evolution of the event from its humble beginnings to a global spectacle.
The Ancient Greek Olympics
The Olympic Games are known to have begun as early as 776 BC and were created as a dedication to the Olympic gods (mainly Zeus) with a foot race of 200 yards. The games were localized, and only men were allowed to participate. In its 14th event, a second race was added to the schedule, which was double the distance.
By the 18th event, the games had started to grow, and additional sports were added to the agenda. From wrestling and discus to running, jumping, and javelin, the games were expanding rapidly. By the 23rd games, boxing and chariot racing had been added to the exciting schedule of competition. In 632 AD, it had become a five-day event that started to involve professional athletes, rather than just your average Joe from the street.
Years later, in 393 AD, Greek Emperor Theodosius banned the event because it had pagan sentiments. But by then, the games had lost some of their original appeal. Royal contestants are documented as competing purely for vanity, with many winners having statues created to glorify themselves in the eyes of their people.
The Olympics of today
The games were fortunately revived in 1896 by Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, despite the lackluster efforts of the Greeks to revive the games locally. After a meeting with sporting delegates from nine countries – including Greece, the United States, England, Italy, and more – it was unanimously decided to revive the games in Greece and that the games continue to be held every four years. The modern Olympics as we know them today, are held in a different country each time.
That year, medals were mainly won by athletes from the United States and Germany, despite thirteen countries competing. Just nine sports in total were played, including cycling, fencing, gymnastics, tennis, shooting, swimming, track and field racing, weight lifting, and wrestling.
A Winter Olympics was added to the games in 1924 to run concurrently with the Summer Games. But generally, the Summer Games are still the most popular event globally. The Olympic Games have steadily gone from a nine sport event to a 33 sport event as of 2020. It’s reported that the Olympic Games now play host to around 24,000 athletes from over 200 countries.
Today the Games feature anything from the usual running, cycling, gymnastics and swimming, to water polo, surfing, skateboarding, and yachting. Plus, new sports are often added to the agenda each time around.
Five fun Olympic Games facts
Despite long-standing traditions of lighting the torch, entertaining opening and closing events, and showcasing all teams involved, there are a few facts you might not know about these historical games. Take a look at the top five below:
- The five interconnected rings on the Olympic flag symbolize the unity of the five continents of Africa, America (North and South America), Asia, Oceania, and Europe
- In the ancient Greek games, winners were given olive wreaths and not medals
- During the opening ceremony, the procession always starts with Greece and is rounded up by the host nation
- Gold medals were made of solid gold until 1912. Since then, they’ve been made of 92.5% silver with gold plating
- Artists competed in the games from 1912 – 1948, including painters, sculptors, architects, writers, and musicians
From primitive foot races to highly skilled sporting professions, the Olympic Games has become a strong tradition in the world of sports that fans and even non-fans look forward to every four years.