History of the Olympic Games

You might be anticipating the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games with a sense of childlike excitement, or you might be feeling as though an old friend is coming by to stay for the a couple of weeks. The Olympics, much like the annual television broadcasting of The Wizard of Oz or The Grinch Who Stole Christmas are anticipated by more than the athletes involved.

Many faithful viewers tune in every four years to watch the fun and excitement that the Olympic Games brings. But how did the spectacle that is the Olympics come about?

The ancient Olympics

In 776 B.C., the first recorded Games were held in Greece at Olympia (thus, the Olympic Games) and featured only one event — a sprint. In later years, other sports were added, particularly other track and field events (in 724 B.C.) in the form of the pentathlon and wrestling (in 708 B.C.).

The first Olympic Games featured athletes from only Greece. Later, athletes from all over the Roman Empire participated.

These ancient games were held every four years for 1170 years, from 776 B.C. until 393 A.D. The Olympiad, the four-year period between the games, was the basis for the Greek calendar.

After so many consecutive Olympic games, regardless of times of war or peace, the Games were brought to a halt for religious reasons. The games had begun as a celebration to honor the Greek gods, in particular, Zeus. Roman emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, stopped the games because he considered them pagan.

The modern Olympics

Although the origins of the Olympics in ancient Greece are fairly well-known. The true hero of the modern Olympics is a French baron, Pierre de Coubertin, who pushed to get the games reinstated after a visit to the site of Olympia. The first modern Summer Olympic Games were held 1896 in Athens, Greece. The Winter Games were not added until 1924.

Decisions regarding the schedule, sports included, and host cities of the Olympic Games rests on the shoulders of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which Coubertin founded in 1894 in Paris. The IOC's headquarters are currently in Lausanne, Switzerland. The original committee had only 14 members. Today's committee has 70 members. Each country that sends athletes to the games has a National Olympic Committee.

Modern Olympic Games Host Cities
City Year City Year
Athens 1896 Rome 1960
Paris 1900 Tokyo 1964
Saint Louis 1904 Mexico City 1968
London 1908 Munich 1972
Stockholm 1912 Montreal 1976
Antwerp 1920* Moscow 1980
Paris 1924 Los Angeles 1984
Amsterdam 1928 Seoul 1988
Los Angeles 1932 Barcelona 1992
Berlin 1936 Atlanta 1996
London 1948* Sydney 2000
Helsinki 1952 Athens 2004
Melbourne 1956 Beijing 2008

*Unlike the uninterrupted streak managed by the ancient Greeks, the modern Olympics were cancelled during times of war in 1916, 1940, and 1944.

It wasn't until after 1992 that the Summer and Winter Games were held in different years. Winter Games were held in 1994 (just two years later).

Sports must meet three criteria in order for the IOC to add them to the Olympic roster: worldwide recognition, have an international governing body, and be willing to follow the Olympic Charter, which defines the structure of the Games and the core values the athletes must embrace.

Sports in the Summer Olympics

Many sports and events within that sport are part of the Summer Olympic Games. Sports such as athletics and wrestling have been part of the Olympics since the ancient games. The following sports are currently part of the Summer Olympics:

  • Diving (aquatics)

  • Swimming (aquatics)

  • Synchronized swimming (aquatics)

  • Water polo (aquatics)

  • Canoe/kayak slalom

  • Canoe/kayak sprint

  • BMX cycling

  • Road cycling

  • Track cycling

  • Mountain biking

  • Dressage (equestrian)

  • Eventing (equestrian)

  • Jumping (equestrian)

  • Artistic gymnastics

  • Rhythmic gymnastics

  • Trampoline

  • Beach volleyball

  • Volleyball

  • Greco-Roman wrestling

  • Freestyle wrestling

  • Athletics

  • Archery

  • Badminton

  • Basketball

  • Boxing

  • Fencing

  • Football

  • Golf

  • Handball

  • Hockey

  • Judo

  • Modern pentathlon

  • Rowing

  • Rugby

  • Sailing

  • Shooting

  • Table tennis

  • Taekwondo

  • Tennis

  • Triathlon

  • Weightlifting

Sports in the Winter Olympics

Relatively new to the Olympic roster, most of the sports in the Winter Olympics would have been impossible in Greece due primarily to a lack of snow and ice. The following sports are currently part of the Winter Olympics:

  • Bobsleigh

  • Bobsleigh skeleton

  • Figure skating

  • Short track speed skating

  • Speed skating

  • Alpine skiing

  • Cross-country skiing

  • Freestyle skiing

  • Nordic combined (skiing)

  • Ski jumping

  • Snowboard

  • Biathlon

  • Curling

  • Ice hockey

  • Luge

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