Hosted every four years and dating back at least as far as 776 BCE, the Olympic Games represent one of the oldest and most famous sports events in the world.
More than 40 cities have hosted the Summer and Winter Olympics as Olympics history has extended across millennia. Once confined to ancient Greece, the games are now played in every corner of the globe, from Europe and Asia to the Americas and Australia. More than 200 countries send teams to compete in the modern games.
Although the games were halted for a while in the early Christian era, they were brought back to life in 1896 when the first modern Olympics took place. Since then, the games have been held every four years like clockwork except during the world wars and in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.
Read on to learn all about the history of the Olympics.
The Ancient Olympic Games
No one knows exactly when the Olympics began – those records, if they ever existed, are lost to history. Athletes from Greek city-states surely gathered to compete for decades or centuries before the first surviving written account, which dates to the eighth century BCE.
Early records suggest that a festival and athletic competition known as the Olympic Games was first held at Olympia, a sacred Zeus-worshiping site near the western coast of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. As legend has it, the founder of the Olympic games was Heracles, the son of Zeus, king of all Greek gods.
During Greece’s pre-Christian golden age, the festival was regularly organised and had but one athletic contest — a 192-meter footrace, the “stade”. Only men were allowed to compete and attend the Olympics. The first recorded champion was a cook named Coroebus.
Two longer races were added to the Olympics’ XIVth championship — the “diaulos” and the “dolichos”. The pentathlon was introduced in the XVIIIth Olympics. This multidisciplinary sport combined five disciplines: running, jumping, spear and discus throwing, and wrestling. Boxing became an Olympic sport at the XXIIIrd games.
Throughout ancient Olympics history, the games continued to grow as chariot racing and other sports were added to the program. In 632 BCE, the ancient Greek Olympics were expanded into a five-day event. The festival was held every four years during religious celebrations devoted to Zeus, between August 6 and September 19.
The games had such a significant cultural impact that ancient historians began measuring time according to the four-year periods between the Olympics. They named them olympiads.
The following are some trivia and fun Olympics history facts to help you envision the ancient games:
- All athletes competed naked.
- The pankration (an ancient martial art combining wrestling and boxing) had only two rules – no biting and no gouging.
- Wrestlers and pankration competitors fought covered in oil.
- Those guilty of a false start faced corporal punishment.
- Combat sports players indicated their surrender by raising their index finger.
After the Roman Empire conquered Greece in the mid-second century BCE, the festival went into a period of decline. One of the most infamous examples of how far the games had fallen comes from 67 CE in the history of the ancient Greek Olympics when the so-called Emperor Nero Olympics took place. The decadent emperor was declared the winner of a chariot race he took part in, even though he fell off his carriage and was unable to finish the competition. He “won” various other events, as well.
In 393 CE, the Christian Emperor Theodosius I, a Roman Christian, banned the festival, which he deemed pagan. This brought an end to the 12-century tradition of ancient Olympic games.
The games were idled until the late 19th century when Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France was so inspired by accounts of the site of the ancient games that he fought to revive and turn the original Olympic games into an international athletic competition. In 1894, de Coubertin got the approval to found the International Olympic Committee, now the governing body of the Olympic Games.
The Modern Olympics
Under de Coubertin’s leadership, the IOC launched the first revived Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. He led the IOC until he retired in 1924.
The 1896 Olympics featured the first marathon, which followed the legendary route of Pheidippides. By the second modern Olympic competition, nearly 1,000 athletes from 24 countries competed at an expanded series of sports that included archery, soccer, rowing, and equestrian events for the first time. Women competed in sailing, golf, and lawn tennis, but in an unofficial capacity.
The next event in the history of the Olympics, often referred to as the “Intercalated Olympic Games”, came in 1906. This event is thought to have introduced one of the most important Olympic traditions – the opening ceremony’s Athletes’ Parade.
Since the Intercalated Games never secured their spot in the official chronology of the Olympics, though, many sources cite the 1908 games as the first to have brought this tradition to life.
The next Olympics that were widely remembered were held in 1912. As those were the most efficiently organized games to that date, they became known as the “Swedish Masterpiece”. For the first time ever, a public address system and electronic timing devices were used during this Olympiad. Another important piece of information about the Olympics of 1912 is that among other new competitions, modern pentathlon, swimming, and diving events for women took place.
The VIth Olympics were scheduled for 1916 in Berlin. They were canceled due to the outbreak of World War I.
The 1920 games in Antwerp were the first Olympics after the war. That was also the year when the famous Olympic flag was first flown at the games.
Representing 29 countries, 2,600 athletes attended these Olympics. Among them was American swimmer and diver Aileen Riggin. At the age of only 14, she won the gold medal in springboard diving, leaving her mark as one of the youngest Olympians ever to compete.
The next event in the Olympics history timeline: the 1924 Paris games. This event welcomed more than 3,000 athletes from a record number of 44 nations. For the first time in the Olympics, women’s foil joined other Olympic fencing events. After Paris, tennis lost its Olympic status and did not regain it until more than 60 years later, at the 1988 games.
1924 was also the year when the first Winter Olympics took place. They were held in Chamonix, France. Out of 250 athletes representing 16 countries, 11 female athletes competed in the figure skating competition, the single sport open to women in the history of the Winter Olympics of that time. In 1936, Alpine skiing was also made available to female competitors.
Due to the Great Depression, the 1932 winter games had only about 250 athletes from 17 countries. Half were from Canada and the United States. Those were the Olympics when the two-man bobsled was brought into play. At the Summer Olympics of the same year, uniform automatic timing and the photo-finish camera were used, and the race walking event was introduced. The first Olympic Village was built that year as well. The accommodation center covered 321 acres and was one of the biggest Olympics venues in the history of the early modern Olympic Games.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics were the first to transmit results by telex and transport newsreel footage by zeppelin. The games were televised for the first time, and they were the first to employ the torch relay, one of the most distinctive ceremonial aspects of the Olympics. Lit in Olympia, the flame was carried by torchbearers to Berlin.
1940s and 1950s
After a 12-year interlude, the 1948 Summer Olympics took place in London. That was one of the Olympic years that introduced more women’s competitions, including the 200-meter dash, the long jump, and the shot put were all added to the list of women’s Olympic sports, making the London games the first in Olympic Games history to expand the variety of women’s events to 10. Earlier that year, at the Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Alpine skiing was fully recognized as a discipline, with the downhill and slalom as separate competitions.
In 1956, Melbourne hosted the Summer Olympics. This was the first time the games were held in the Southern Hemisphere. Naturally, the games took place in November and December due to the reversal of seasons south of the equator. These were also the first games in modern Olympics history that introduced the practice of athletes marching into the closing ceremonies together, a spectacular sight that Olympic photos from the era bear witness to.
During the 1956 winter games, an Italian television network broadcast the games live for the first time in the history of the Winter Olympics. As for changes in the Olympic program, Finnish athletes introduced a new style of ski jumping that year.
The 1960 summer games were the first Olympics fully covered by television. The winter competitions were also broadcast live on American television – and even hosted by Walt Disney himself. That year, South Africa entered the competition, leaving its mark in Winter Olympics history.
The Olympic torch was relayed from Greece to the site of the winter games for the first time in 1964.
Drug testing and female gender verification were first performed at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
African-American medallists stirred worldwide controversy and headlines performing a black-power salute during the 1968 medal ceremony in Mexico City.
The games after 1960
At the 1972 Games in Munich, eight members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September killed six coaches and five athletes from the Israeli team. Five Black September members and one West German police officer were also killed.
At the following Olympics in Montreal, women were granted participation in basketball and rowing competitions. At the Winter Olympics of 1976, ice skating Olympics history was marked by the reduction of compulsory figures from 50 to 40 percent and by dividing the skating program into two routines – the short and free skate/long programs we know today.
The games of the 21st century
The Olympic host city for the 2000 summer games was Sydney, Australia. That year, a record 928 medals were awarded for 300 events. Men’s and women’s triathlon, trampoline, tae kwon do, and synchronised diving events entered the program for the first time, which helped secure a place for Sydney in Olympics history. Women’s weightlifting, modern pentathlon, and pole vault were other sports that made their Olympic debut that year.
The 2004 Summer Olympics returned to where it all began – Greece. After Athens 2004, host cities were Beijing (2008), London (2012), and Rio de Janeiro (2016). 2020 was supposed to be Tokyo’s second Olympic year. Unfortunately, the games were postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Japan is tentatively scheduled to host the games for the fourth time in 2021.
When it comes to Winter Olympics locations, hosts after 1976 included Lake Placid, Sarajevo, Calgary, Albertville, Lillehammer, Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin, Vancouver, Sochi, and Pyeongchang.
When did the ancient Greek Olympics first take place?
The first written records of the ancient Olympic Games date back to 776 BCE.
What was the original purpose of the Olympic games?
The games were held during a religious festival praising the god of all gods, Zeus.
How long do the Olympics last?
The Olympics currently last for 16 days. Athletes compete in 35 sports that are represented through 300 events.
Who invented the Olympics?
According to the legend, Heracles, the son of the Greek god Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene founded the Olympic Games.
Why are the Olympics held every 4 years?
The Olympics are held every four years to honour the origins of the ancient Olympic celebrations.
Where have the Olympics been held so far?
Some 43 cities have played a part in Olympics history; locations include:
- Albertville, France (1992)
- Amsterdam, Netherlands (1928)
- Antwerp, Belgium (1920)
- Athens, Greece (1896, 2004)
- Atlanta, Georgia, USA (1996)
- Barcelona, Spain (1992)
- Beijing, China (2008)
- Berlin, Germany (1936)
- Calgary, Canada (1988)
- Chamonix, France (1924)
- Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy (1956)
- Garmisch Partenkirchen, Germany (1936)
- Grenoble, France (1968)
- Helsinki, Finland (1952)
- Innsbruck, Austria (1964, 1976)
- Lake Placid, New York, USA (1932, 1980)
- Lillehammer, Norway (1994)
- London, England (1908, 1948, 2012)
- Los Angeles, California, USA (1932, 1984)
- Melbourne, Australia (1956)
- Mexico City, Mexico (1968)
- Montreal, Canada (1976)
- Moscow, Soviet Union (1980)
- Munich, Germany (1972)
- Nagano, Japan (1998)
- Oslo, Norway (1952)
- Paris, France (1900, 1924)
- Pyeongchang, South Korea (2018)
- Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2016)
- Rome, Italy (1960)
- Salt Lake City, Utah, USA (2002)
- Sapporo, Japan (1972)
- Sarajevo, Yugoslavia (1984)
- Seoul, South Korea(1988)
- Sochi, Russia (2014)
- Squaw Valley, California (1960)
- St. Louis, Missouri, USA (1904)
- St. Moritz, Switzerland (1928, 1948)
- Stockholm, Sweden (1912)
- Sydney, Australia (2000)
- Tokyo, Japan (1964)
- Turin, Italy (2006)
- Vancouver, Canada (2010)