History of the Olympics

01/08/2016

While the first modern Olympics were held in Greece just over a hundred years ago in 1896, the ancient Olympic Games were run 2500 years earlier under very different conditions. Originally staged in Olympia, Greece, the ancient Games were part of a bigger religious festival in honour of the Greek god Zeus. While 776 BC is widely believed to be the date of the first Games, contrary evidence suggests the Games may have existed at Olympia as early as the 10th or 9th century BC.

The early years of the Olympics were very different from today, with spectators witnessing just a single event - a foot race called the stadion. The inaugural event, just 600 feet in duration, was won by Koroibos, a cook from the nearby city of Elis. The stadion race was the only athletic event for the first 13 Olympic festivals until 724 BC, with more and more events added to the schedule until the 6th and 5th century BC when interest started to wane. While there is no consensus regarding the end of the ancient Olympics, the most commonly held date is 393 AD after the Romans gained power and ordered the destruction of Greek temples.

After a break of 1500 years, the Olympics were brought back in 1896 when Athens, Greece hosted the first modern Games. The Greeks had been interested in reviving the Olympic Games since Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) set up and the first Olympic Congress held from 16 to 23 June 1894 at the University of Paris. Despite early demands to make Athens the permanent Olympic host city, rules were put in place to rotate the Olympics between cities every four years.

After the success of the 1896 Games, the Olympics struggled for the next few years. The Games held at the Paris Exposition in 1900 were little more than a side event, although they were notable for being the first time women were allowed to compete. The 1924 Games, also held in Paris, helped the Olympics to capture the imagination of people across the world, with 3,000 athletes from 44 nations competing and a closing ceremony featured for the first time. The Winter Olympics also debuted that year, with the Winter Games held on the same year as the Summer Games until 1992 when they became staggered.

The Olympics grew in popularity throughout the 20th century, with events held every four years except in 1916 during World War I, and in 1940 and 1944 during World War II. The Olympic Torch was first introduced in the 1928 Amsterdam Games, with the modern torch relay first introduced at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. When the 2004 Olympic Games returned to Athens for the first time in over a century, nearly 11,000 athletes competed from a total of 201 countries. The 2016 Olympics in Rio, Brazil is likely to break even more records, with 306 medals set to be awarded for 42 disciplines and 306 events.

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