History of the Olympic Games: From Ancient to Modern Times

History of the Olympic Games: From Ancient to Modern Times
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The Ancient Games

Originally, the Games were held every four years at the temple of Zeus in Olympia Greece. They were both a sporting and a religious event, featuring sacrifices and tributes to Zeus. Representatives of various city-states and kingdoms within Greece competed in athletic, equestrian and combat sports. Legend states Heracles and his father Zeus were the founders of the games. After Heracles completed his Twelve Labors, he built the Olympic Stadium to honor his father.

The first Olympic Games were most likely in 776 BC. Inscriptions at Olympia document the winners of a foot race held every year beginning in 776. The Ancient Games consisted of running, boxing, wrestling, horse racing, chariot racing, the mixed martial art pankration and a pentathlon. The five events in the pentathlon were jumping, running, discus, javelin and wrestling.

The Games began to fade as the Romans grew in power over the Greeks. They may have come to a stop in 393 AD, when Emperor Theodosius I ordered the cessation of all pagan cults and rituals. Another final date could have been 426 AD, when Theodosius II decreed that all Greek temples be destroyed.

The Road to Rebirth

Various athletic events from the 17th to the 19th century bore the “Olympic” name. English lawyer Robert Dover organized the Cotswold Olimpick Games near Chipping Campden. Those games were held annually beginning in about 1612. The have occurred on and off until the present day.

Each year from 1796 to 1798, L’Olympiade de la République was held in France, composed of various ancient Greek sports.

In 1859, Dr. William Penny Brookes held the Wenlock Olympian Games at Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England. The games are still being held.

A Grand Olympic Festival was held in Liverpool every year from 1862 to 1867. These games were organized by John Hulley. Together with Dr. Brookes and EG Ravenstein (founder of the German Gymnastics Society in London), Hulley founded the National Olympian Association. The group’s articles of foundation would be used as a framework for the International Olympic Charter.

The Revival

Olympic Congress 1894 Schedule

During the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, Greeks dreamed of rebuilding their national pride with their traditional sporting contest. Poet and journalist Panagiotis Soutsos proposed a renewal of the Ancient Games in 1833 with his poem “Dialogue of the Dead.”

Wealthy philanthropist Evangelos Zappas wrote to King Otto of Greece in 1856 and proposed to fund a permanent revival. He bankrolled the restoration of the ancient Panathenaic Stadium. He sponsored the first modern Olympic Games in 1859, featuring athletes from Greece and the Ottoman Empire.

The stadium hosted the Games again in 1870 and 1875. After attending the 1890 Wenlock Games, French educator and historian Baron Pierre de Coubertin decided to found the International Olympic Committee. He expanded the ideas of Brookes and Zappas, aspiring to create an international competition occurring every four years at locations across the globe. At the first Olympic Congress in Paris, June, 1894, it was decided to hold the first new Olympic Games in Athens in 1896.

The Games, 1896 to 1906

The rebirth of the Games was held at Panathenaic Stadium, bringing together 241 athletes from 14 nations. They competed in 43 different events. A trust left by the Zappas family funded the event. Public response was very positive. Many athletes and spectators believed the games should always be held at Athens, although the IOC dictated that the host city should be rotated.

The 1900 Games were held in Paris as part of the Paris Exposition. The Games were a sideshow to the rest of the fair. There was not even a stadium for competition. It did mark the first time women were allowed to take part.

The 1904 Games were held in St. Louis at the World’s Fair. Again, they took second stage. 580 of the 650 athletes were from the United States.

Athens seized back their event by hosting the 1906 Intercalated Games. Although not recognized by the IOC, they attracted a world-wide field of athletes and achieved great public interest.

The Winter Games

Toronto Granites, 1924 Winter Olympics champions

Figure skating was included in the 1908 and 1920 games. Hockey was also part of the 1920 games. Naturally, it was almost impossible to host other winter sports side-by-side with sumer sports. The 1921 Olympic Congress decided to hold a winter version of the Games.

The first Winter Olympic Games were held in 1924 at Chamonix, France, as part of the Paris Games held three months later. Originally, the IOC intended to have the same country host both Summer and Winter Games in the same year. It proved to be an impossible dream. They chose to have separate hosts for both games held every four years.

This took place until 1992. Starting with the 1994 Lillehammer Games in Norway, the Winter Olympics were held two years after the Summer Olympics.

The Paralympics

Following World War II, Sir Ludwig Guttmann organized a competition between several hospitals to encourage the rehabilitation of soldiers. The Games were held in conjunction with the 1948 London Olympics. Known as the Stoke Mandeville Games, they were held annually for the next twelve years. In 1960, Guttmann brought 400 athletes the Olympics in Rome for the “Parallel Olympics.” The Paralympics have been held every Olympic year. Since the 1988 Seoul Games, the Olympic host city has also hosted the Paralympics.

“We want to change public attitudes towards disability,” said Lord Coe, Chairman of the London organizing committee for the 2012 games, “celebrate the excellence of Paralympic sport and to enshrine from the very outset that the two Games are an integrated whole.”

Politics and the Olympics

Legend has it that the Greeks halted all wars during the Ancient Games. The “Olympic truce” is a modern myth, but participants and spectators were allowed to pass through warring territory because of Zeus' protection.

In the modern era, attempting to bring together all nations of the world has had its natural complications. Australia, France and Great Britain are the only nations to be present at every Olympics since 1896. World Wars caused the cancellation of the 1916, 1940 and 1944 Olympics.

Boycotts have been a common form of protest against the state of world affairs. Ireland boycotted the 1936 Berlin Games because the IOC would allow only athletes from the Irish Free State and not the entire island.

The 1956 Melbourne Games were boycotted by the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland to protest the repression of the Hungarian uprising by the Soviet Union. The same games were boycotted by Cambodia, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon because of the Suez Crisis.  The People’s Republic of China boycotted because Taiwan was allowed to compete under the name “Republic of China.”

In 1972 and 1976, numerous African nations threatened to boycott if the IOC did not ban South Africa and Rhodesia because of their segregationist governments. They also wished New Zealand to be banned because their national rugby team had toured South Africa. The IOC banned the first two, but not New Zealand because rugby was not an Olympic sport. Twenty African nations carried through with their boycott of the Montreal games.

The 1980 Moscow Games and the 1984 Los Angeles Games were marked by the Cold War. Sixty-five nations led by the United States refused to attend in 1980. The Soviet Union responded with fifteen others in boycotting the 1984 Olympics.

The Olympics have also been a platform for racial reform. Adolf Hitler intended the 1936 Games to be proof of the superiority of his Aryan athletes. Germany did collect more medals than any other nation, but two successes refuted his racial beliefs.

Hungarian Jew Ibolya Csák won gold in the women’s high jump. African-American Jesse Owens stole the show in track and field, winning the 100 meters, 200 meters, the long jump and the 4x100 meter relay. His four gold medals were the most won by any athlete at the Berlin Games.

On the first day of the Games, Hitler shook hands with only the German medal winners. The IOC insisted that he would greet either all or none of the medalists. Hitler chose to greet none, rather than touch non-Aryans, and was not present at any other medal presentations. He left the stadium before each of Owens' events and never acknowledged his victories.


This post is part of the series: Curious Customs: Stories Behind Popular Holidays

We take holidays for granted in that we celebrate them according to tradition, but where did the tradition come from? Why do we buy a Christmas tree? Why are hearts popular on Valentines? What is the reason we decorate pumpkins for Halloween? Find out in this series.

  1. The History of Valentine’s Day
  2. The Origin of Presidents' Day: Who Are We Celebrating?
  3. Who Was St. Patrick?
  4. Origin of April Fool’s Day
  5. The Science, History and Culture Behind the Spring Equinox
  6. Curious Customs: Stories Behind Popular Holidays—Passover Seder
  7. Curious Customs & Stories Behind Mother’s Day
  8. History & Origins of Labor Day
  9. The Origins of Common Good Luck Traditions
  10. Three Superstitions and Their Origins
  11. The History of the Olympic Games
  12. What is All Hallows Eve? The Customs and Origins of Halloween
  13. The Origins of Thanksgiving: The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth