The Olympic Games, or Olympics, are an international multi-sport event taking place every fourth year. Originally held in ancient Greece, they were revived by a French nobleman, Pierre Frèdy, Baron de Coubertin in the late 19th century. The Games of the Olympiad, better known as the Summer Olympics, have been held every fourth year since 1896, with the exception of the years during the World Wars.
A special edition for winter sports, the Olympic Winter Games, was established in 1924. Originally these were held in the same year as the Summer Olympics, but starting with 1994 the Winter Games are in between, two years after the Games of the Olympiad.
In detail: Ancient Olympic Games
The origin of the ancient Olympic Games has been lost, although there are many legends surrounding its origins. One of these legends associates the first Games with the ancient Greek concept of ekeicheiria or Olympic Truce . The first recorded celebration of the Games in Olympia was in 776 BC, although this was certainly not the first time they were held. The Games were then mostly a local affair, and only one event was contested, the stadion race.
From that moment on, the Games slowly became more important throughout ancient Greece, reaching their zenith in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. The Olympics were of fundamental religious importance, contests alternating with sacrifices and ceremonies honouring both Zeus (whose colossal statue stood at Olympia), and Pelops, divine hero and mythical king of Olympia famous for his legendary chariot race, in whose honor the games were held. The number of events increased to twenty, and the celebration was spread over several days. Winners of the events were broadly admired and were immortalised in poems and statues. The Games were held every four years, and the period between two celebrations became known as an Olympiad. The Greeks used Olympiads as one of their methods to count years. The most famous Olympic athlete lived in these times: The sixth century BC wrestler Milo of Croton is the only athlete in history to win a victory in six Olympics.
The Games gradually lost in importance as the Romans gained power in Greece. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Olympic Games were seen as a "pagan" festival threatening Christian hegemony, and in 393 the emperor Theodosius outlawed the Olympics, ending a thousand year period of Olympic Games.
During the ancient times normally only young men competed. Performers were usually naked, not only as the weather was appropriate but also as the festival was meant to be, in part, a celebration of the achievements of the human body. Upon winning the games, the victor would get not only the prestige of being in first place but also a crown of olive leaves.
During competition for some of the events, many of the participants would use oils to keep their skin smooth, as well as provide an appealing luster to anyone who saw them.
Revival of the Olympic Games
The Olympic Games did not die in 393. Already in the 17th century a sports festival named after the Olympic Games was held in England. Over the next few centuries, similar events were organised in France and Greece, but these were all small-scale and certainly not international. The interest in reviving the Olympics grew when the ruins of ancient Olympia were uncovered by German archaeologists in the mid-19th century.
At the same time, Pierre, Baron de Coubertin searched for a reason for the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). He thought the reason was that the French had not received proper physical education, and sought to improve this. Coubertin also thought of a way to bring nations closer together, to have the youth of the world compete in sports, rather than fight in war. In his eyes, the revival of the Olympic Games would achieve both of these goals.
In a congress at the Sorbonne university in Paris held from June 16 to June 23, 1894 he presented his ideas to an international audience. On the last day of the congress, it had been decided that the first modern Olympic Games would take place in 1896 in Athens, in the country of their birth. To organise the Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was established, with the Greek Demetrius Vikelas as its first president.
The first modern Olympic Games were a success. Although the total number of athletes did not exceed 250, they had been the largest international sports event ever held. The Greek officials and public were also very enthusiastic, and they even proposed to be allowed to have the monopoly on organising the Olympics. The IOC decided differently, however, and the second Olympic Games took place in Paris, France.
After the initial success, the Olympics struggled. The celebrations in Paris (1900) and St. Louis (1904) were overshadowed by the world's fair exhibitions in which they were included. The so-called Intercalated Games (because of their "off-year" status) were held in 1906 in Athens, as the first of an alternating series of Athens-held Olympics. Although originally the IOC recognised and supported these games, they are currently not recognised by the IOC as Olympic Games, which has given rise to the explanation that they were intended to mark the 10th anniversary of the Modern Olympics. Most contemporary Olympic historians, however, consider them to be official Olympic Games. Either way, the 1906 Games again attracted a broad international field of participants — in 1904, 80% had been American — and great public interest, thereby marking the beginning of a rise in popularity and size of the Games.
From the 245 participants from 15 nations in 1896, the Games grew to more than 10,500 competitors from 200 countries at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The number of competitors at the Winter Olympics is much smaller than at the summer edition; 2,400 athletes competed at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 78 events.
With over 16,000 broadcasters and journalists present in Sydney, the Olympics are one of the largest media events, together with the Football World Cup. In 2000, an estimated 3.8 billion viewers watched the Olympics on television. The growth of the Olympics is the largest problem the Olympics face today. Although allowing professional athletes and attracting sponsorships from major international companies solved financial problems in the 1980s, the large number of athletes, media and spectators makes it difficult and expensive for host cities to organise the Olympics.
Over 200 countries currently participate in the Olympics. This is noticibly higher number than the number of countries recognized by the United Nations, which is only 192. This is because the International Olympic Committee allows nations to compete which do not meet the strict requirements for political sovereignty that many other international organizations demand. As a result, many colonies and dependencies are permitted to host their own Olympic teams and atheletes even if such competitors hold the same citizenship as another member nation. Examples of this include territories such as Puerto Rico, Bermuda, and Hong Kong, all of which compete as soverign nations despite the fact that politically they are considered part of another country and their residents do not carry citizenship from that nation. Also, since 1980, Taiwan has competed under the name "Chinese Taipei", and under a flag specially prepared by the IOC (prior to that year the People's Republic of China refused to participate in the Games because Taiwan had been competing under the name "Republic of China").
Despite what Coubertin had hoped for, the Olympics did not stop wars from happening. In fact, three Olympiads had to pass without Olympics because of war — due to World War I the 1916 Games were cancelled, and because of World War II the games of 1940 and 1944 were also skipped.
In 1972, when the Summer Games were held in Munich, West Germany, eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists. A failed liberation attempt led to the deaths of all of the abducted athletes, along with five of the terrorists and a policeman. This event is known today as the Munich Massacre.
A political incident on a smaller scale occurred at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Two African American track-and-field athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, advertised domestic political views in staging a protest against racism in the United States on the victory stand of the 200-meter track and field race. As a result, the IOC told the USOC to either send the two athletes home, or to withdraw the complete track and field team. The USOC opted for the former.
In 1963, various newly-independent nations set up a challenge to the IOC called GANEFO (Games of the New Emerging Forces), which openly espoused politics in sport. The IOC declared participants in GANEFO personae non gratae for the Olympic Games.
Five Summer Olympics in a row, starting with Mexico 1968, were marred by boycotts.
In 1968, 1972, and 1976 a large number of African countries threatened the IOC with a boycott, to force them to ban respectively South Africa, Rhodesia, and New Zealand. Twice the IOC gave in, but for the 1976 Olympics they refused, and the African countries did not take part. There was very little sympathy for the African Nations' attitude as it was felt that they were holding the movement to political blackmail, but a lot of sympathy was felt for the African athletes who were forced by their governments to leave. Several were forcably removed from the Olympic Village.
Also in 1976, Canada told the team from Taiwan that it could not compete at the Montreal Summer Olympics under the name 'Republic of China', despite a compromise that would have allowed Taiwan to use the ROC flag and anthem. Taiwan refused and did not participate as a result.
In 1980 and 1984 the cold war opponents boycotted each other's games. The United States and several other Western nations refused to compete at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, for reason of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union and most of its Eastern Bloc partners countered by skipping the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, arguing the safety of their athletes could not be guaranteed there.
Another boycott, but on a smaller scale has been performed by Iran over the years. Since Iran does not acknowledge the existence of Israel it does not allow its athletes to compete against Israelis, resulting in a series of "injuries" and similar reasons for refusing to compete. During the 2004 Summer Games at Athens, Greece for the first time this happened at the Olympics, as in a judo event Arash Miresmaeili intentionally overate, to avoid having to face Israeli Ehud Vaks.
A number of organisations are involved in organising the Olympic Games. Together they form the Olympic Movement. The rules and guidelines by which these organisations operate are outlined in the Olympic Charter.
At the heart of the Olympic Movement is the International Olympic Committee (IOC), currently headed by Jacques Rogge. It can be seen as the government of the Olympics, as it takes care of the daily problems and takes all important decisions, such as the host city of the Games and the programme of the Olympics.
Three groups of organisations operate on a more specialised level:
- International Federations (IFs), the governing bodies of a sport (e.g. FIFA, the IF for football (soccer))
- National Olympic Committees (NOCs), which regulates the Olympic Movement within one country (e.g. USOC, the NOC of the United States)
- Organising Committees for the Olympic Games (OCOGs) which take care of the organisation of a specific celebration of the Olympics.
At present 202 NOCs and 35 IFs are part of the Olympic Movement. OCOGs are dissolved after the celebration of the Games, when all subsequent paperwork has been done.
More broadly speaking, the term Olympic Movement is sometimes also meant to include everybody and everything involved in the Olympics, such as national sport governing bodies, athletes, media and sponsors of the Olympic Games.
In the past, the IOC has often been criticised for being a monolithic organisation, with several members remaining a member at old age, or even until their deaths. Especially the leadership of IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch has been strongly criticised. Under his presidency, the Olympic Movement made great progress, but has been seen as autocratic and corrupt. Samaranch's ties with the former fascist government in Spain, and his long term as a president (21 years), until he was 81 years old, have also been points of critique.
In 1998, it became known that several IOC members had taken bribes from the organising committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, in exchange for a vote on the city at the election of the host city. The IOC started an investigation, which led to four members resigning, and six being expelled.
The scandal set off further reforms, changing the way in which host cities are elected to avoid further bribes. Also, more active and former athletes were allowed in the IOC, and the membership terms have been limited.
A BBC documentary aired in August 2004 entitled Panorama: "Buying the Games" investigated the taking of bribes in the bidding process for the 2012 Summer Olympics. The documentary claimed it is possible to bribe IOC members into voting for a particular candidate city. In particular Bulgaria's member Ivan Slavkov and Muttaleb Ahmad from the Olympic Council of Asia were implicated. They denied the allegations.
In detail: Olympic symbols
The Olympic movement uses many symbols, most of them representing Coubertin's ideas and ideals. The best known symbol is probably that of the Olympic Rings. These five intertwined rings represent the unity of the five continents. They appear in five colours on a white field on the Olympic Flag. These colours, white (for the field), red, blue, green, yellow, and black (for the rings), were chosen such that each nation had at least one of these colours in its national flag. The flag was adopted in 1914, but the first Games it flew at was Antwerp, 1920. It is hoisted at each celebration of the Games.
The official Olympic Motto is "Citius, Altius, Fortius", a Latin phrase meaning "Swifter, Higher, Stronger". Coubertin's ideals are probably best illustrated by the Olympic Creed :
- "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."
The Olympic Flame is lighted in Olympia and brought to the host city by runners carrying the torch in relay. There it plays an important role in the opening ceremonies. Though torches have played a part historically, the relay was introduced in 1936.
Many traditional elements frame the opening ceremonies of a celebration of the Olympic Games. The ceremonies typically start with the performing of the host country's national anthem. The traditional part of the ceremonies starts with a parade of nations, during which most participating athletes march into the stadium country by country. One honoured athlete, typically a top competitor, from each country carries the flag of his or her nation leading the entourage of other athletes from that country. Traditionally (starting at the 1928 Summer Olympics) Greece marches first, because of their historical status as the origin of the Olympics, while the host nation marches last. (Exceptionally, in 2004 when the Games were held in Greece, Greece marched last as host nation rather than first, although the Flag of Greece was carried in first.) Between these two, all other participating nations march in alphabetical order of the dominant language of the host country, or in English alphabetical order if the host country does not write its dominant language using an alphabet. After all nations have entered, the president of the host country's Olympic Organizing Committee makes a speech, followed by the IOC president, who at the end of his speech, introduces the organizing country's head of state, who in turn formally opens the Olympics.
Next, the Olympic Anthem is played, and the Olympic flag rises in the stadium. Then, the flag bearers of all countries circle around a rostrum, where one athlete (since the 1920 Summer Olympics) and one referee (since the 1972 Summer Olympics) speak the Olympic Oath, declaring they will compete and judge according to the rules. Finally, the penultimate runner in the Olympic Flame relay brings a torch into the stadium, passing the flame to the last carrier. The last carrier of the torch, often a well-known athlete from the host nation, then lights the fire in the stadium's cauldron. (The Olympic Flame has been lit since the 1928 Summer Olympics, but the torch relay didn't start until the 1936 Summer Olympics.) The lighting of the Olympic Flame is followed by the release of doves, symbolising peace; this was first done at the post–World War I 1920 Summer Olympics and discontinued after several doves were burned alive in the Olympic Flame during the 1988 Summer Olympics opening.
Apart from these traditional elements, the host nation ordinarily presents artistic displays of dance and theatre representative of that country.
The closing ceremonies are not as structured as the opening ceremonies. The athletes also march into the stadium, but they march in random order, not divided by country. The Olympic fire is then extinguished, and the Olympic flag is lowered, folded, and presented to the mayor of the host city of the next Olympic Games. The IOC president ends the ceremonies by declaring the Games closed.
In detail: Olympic sports
At the 2004 Olympics, events were held in 28 sports, per the IOC count. If one splits up sports such as aquatics, there were 37 different sports. Only five sports have been on the Olympic programme since 1896: athletics (track and field), cycling, fencing, gymnastics and swimming. If the 1896 rowing events had not been cancelled due to bad weather, they would have been included in this list as well.
At the most recent Winter Olympics, 7 sports were conducted, or 15 if one splits up sports such as skiing and skating. Of these, cross country skiing, figure skating, ice hockey, nordic combined, ski jumping and speed skating have featured on the programme at all Winter Olympics. In addition, figure skating and ice hockey have also been contested as part of the Summer Games before introduction of separate Winter Olympics.
In recent years, the IOC has added several new sports to the programme to attract attention from young spectators. Examples of such sports include snowboarding and beach volleyball. The growth of the Olympics also means that some less popular (modern pentathlon) or expensive (white water canoeing) sports have to fear for their place on the Olympic programme. Although no sports have been excluded from the programme since the 1920s, the IOC has indicated it may do so after the 2008 Games if sports no longer fit in the programme.
Until 1992, the Olympics often also featured so-called demonstration sports. The objective was for these sports to reach a big audience through the Olympics; the winners of these events are not properly Olympic champions. These sports were sometimes sports only popular in the host nation, but also internationally known sports have been demonstrated. Some demonstration sports, such as baseball and curling were eventually included as full-medal events.
Amateurism and professionalism
In Coubertin's vision, athletes should be gentlemen. As in most cases only amateurs were considered such, professional athletes were not allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. The exception to this were the fencing instructors, who were indeed expected to be gentlemen. This exclusion of professionals has caused several controversies throughout the history of the modern Olympics.
1912 Olympic pentathlon and decathlon champion Jim Thorpe was disqualified when it was discovered that he played semi-professional baseball prior to winning his medals (he was restored by the IOC in 1983). Twenty-four years later, Swiss and Austrian skiers boycotted the 1936 Winter Olympics in support of their skiing teachers, who were not allowed to compete because they were considered to be professionals, earning money with their sport.
It gradually became clear to many that the amateurism rules had become outdated. For example, many athletes from East European nations were officially employed by the government, but effectively given opportunity to train all day, thereby only being amateurs in name. Nevertheless, the IOC held on to amateurism.
In the 1980s, amateurism regulations were relaxed, and eventually completely abolished in the 1990s. This switch was perhaps best exemplified by the American Dream Team, composed of well paid NBA stars, which won the Olympic gold medal in basketball in 1992. As of 2004, the only sport in which no professionals compete is boxing; in football the number of players over 23 years of age is limited to three per team.
Advertisement regulations are still very strict, at least on the actual playing field, although "Official Olympic Sponsors" are common. Athletes are only allowed to have the names of clothing and equipment manufacturers on their outfit. The sizes of these markings are limited.
One of the major problems facing the Olympics (and international sports in general) is doping, or performance enhancing drugs. In the early 20th century, many Olympic athletes used drugs to enhance their performance. For example, the winner of the marathon at the 1904 Games, Thomas Hicks, was given strychnine and brandy by his coach, even during the race.
As these methods became more extreme, gradually the awareness grew that this was no longer a matter of health through sports. The first olympic death caused by doping occurred in 1960. At the games in Rome the danish Knut Enemark Jensen fell from his bicycle and died. As was later established he had been doped with amphetamines.
In the mid-1960s that sports federations put a ban on doping, and the IOC followed suit in 1967. The first Olympic athlete to test positive for doping use was Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, a Swedish pentathlete at the 1968 Summer Olympics, who lost his bronze medal for alcohol use. More than fifty athletes followed him over the next 34 years, several medal winnners among them. The most publicised doping-related disqualification was that of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who won the 100 m at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but tested positive for stanozolol.
Despite the tests, many athletes used doping without being caught. In 1990, documents were revealed that showed many East German athletes, especially women, had been administered anabolic steroids and other drugs by their coaches and trainers, as a government policy.
In the late 1990s, the IOC took initiative in a more organised battle against doping, leading to the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 1999. The 2000 and 2002 Olympics showed that the battle is not nearly over, as several medallists in weightlifting and cross-country skiing were disqualified after doping offences.
Olympic champions and medallists
In detail: Olympic medallists
For all events held at the Olympic Games, a classification is made up. The athletes (or teams) who place first, second, or third receive medals. The winners receive what are called "gold medals". (Though they used to indeed be of solid gold, they are now actually gilted silver, making the description somewhat inaccurate.) The runners-up receive silver medals, and the third-place athletes bronze medals. In some events contested by a single-elimination tournament (most notably boxing), third place might not be determined, in which case both semi-final losers receive bronze medals. The practice of awarding medals to the top three competitors was introduced in 1904; at the 1896 Olympics only the first two received a medal, silver and bronze, while various prizes were awarded in 1900. However, the 1904 Olympics also awarded silver trophies for first place, which makes Athens 1906 the first games that awarded the three medals only. In addition, from 1948 onward athletes placing fourth, fifth and sixth have received certificates which became officially known as "victory diplomas;" since 1976 the medal winners have received these also, and in 1984 victory diplomas for seventh- and eighth-place finishers were added, presumably to ensure that all losing quarterfinalists in events using single-elimination formats would receive diplomas, thus obviating the need for consolation (or officially, "classification") matches to determine fifth through eighth places (though interestingly these latter are still contested in many elimination events anyway). Certificates were awarded also at the 1896 Olympics, but there they were awarded in addition to the medals to first and second place. Commemorative medals and diplomas — which differ in design from those referred to above — are also made available to participants finishing lower than third and eighth respectively.
Because the Olympics are held only once every four years, the public and athletes often consider them as more important and valuable than world championships and other international tournaments, which are often held annually. Many athletes have become celebrities or heroes in their own country, or even world-wide, after becoming Olympic champion.
The diversity of the sports, and the great differences between the Olympic Games in 1896 and today make it difficult to decide which athlete is the most successful Olympic athlete of all times. When measuring by the number of titles won, the following athletes may be considered the most successful:
|Ray Ewry (USA)||Athletics||1900–1908||10||0||0||10|
|Larissa Latynina (URS)||Gymnastics||1956–1964||9||5||4||18|
|Paavo Nurmi (FIN)||Athletics||1920–1928||9||3||0||12|
|Mark Spitz (USA)||Swimming||1968–1972||9||1||1||11|
|Carl Lewis (USA)||Athletics||1984–1996||9||1||0||10|
|Bjørn Dæhlie (NOR)||Cross-country skiing||1992–1998||8||4||0||12|
|Birgit Fischer (Germany)||Canoeing||1980–2004||8||4||0||12|
|Sawao Kato (JPN)||Gymnastics||1968–1976||8||3||1||12|
|Jenny Thompson (USA)||Swimming||1992–2004||8||3||1||12|
|Matt Biondi (USA)||Swimming||1984–1992||8||2||1||11|
Locations of Modern Olympic Games
The table below gives an overview of all host cities of both the Olympic Summer Games (Games of the Olympiad) and Winter Games. Only actual host cities are listed. Click on the year to get more detailed information about the host city election for those Olympics.
- Ancient Olympic Games
- International Society of Olympic Historians
- Paralympic Games
- Art competitions at the Olympic Games
- Olympic Museum
- Buchanan, Ian & Mallon, Bill (2001). Historical dictionary of the Olympic movement. Lanham: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-81084-054-5.
- Wallechinsky, David (2000). The complete book of the Summer Olympics – Sydney 2000 edition. New York: Overlook Press. ISBN 1-58567-033-2.
- Wallechinsky, David (2002). The complete book of the Winter Olympics – Salt Lake City 2002. New York: Overlook Press. ISBN 1-58567-195-9.
- Kamper, Erich & Mallon, Bill (1992). The Golden Book of the Olympic Games. Milan, Italy: Vallardi & Associati. ISBN 8-88520-235-7.
- Official website of the Olympic Movement
- Official website of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens
- Story of Pelops, mythical king of Olympia honored by the ancient games
- Article on Rising Costs to Host the Olympic Games
- Olympic Watch: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008
- Olympic Information Center by the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles – Includes a primer on the Olympic Games, and many historical documents on the Olympic Games are presented in digital form.
- Nairobi Treaty on the Protection of the Olympic Symbol
- Paula Radcliffe - The Official Website
|Summer Olympic Games|
|1896 | 1900 | 1904 | 1906* | 1908 | 1912 | 1916 | 1920 | 1924 | 1928 | 1932 | 1936 | 1940 | 1944 | 1948 | 1952 | 1956 | 1960 | 1964 | 1968 | 1972 | 1976 | 1980 | 1984 | 1988 | 1992 | 1996 | 2000 | 2004 | 2008 | 2012 | 2016|
|Winter Olympic Games|
|1924 | 1928 | 1932 | 1936 | 1948 | 1952 | 1956 | 1960 | 1964 | 1968 | 1972 | 1976 | 1980 | 1984 | 1988 | 1992 | 1994 | 1998 | 2002 | 2006 | 2010 | 2014 | 2018|
|*The 1906 Olympic were organised by the IOC, but are currently not officially recognised by the IOC.|