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History of Olympic Sport

By Nikolaos K. Paschos, MD, PhD

    • Industry Insights

The name “Olympics” comes from the place where the games were first started, the small town of Olympia.

However, a more insightful approach reveals that it is much bigger than a toponym. Olympia was named after the Mount Olympus, the tallest mountain of Greece that was considered the house of Gods. And, according to the myth, the Gods themselves participated in the first Olympic games. And this highlights the importance of the games and the unique background behind the games. Olympic games were held every four years and they became so prominent that created a legacy that remained alive until the revival of the Modern Olympics.

Aristotle places the date of the first Olympic games to be 776 BC. Before that, the Mediterranean region had a long tradition of athletic and performance events, with representation of athletic scenes in tombs from Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. However, these were part of celebrations and performances that were held to entertain the monarch and the nobles. The main difference with the Olympic games was the introduction of contest and rivalry as well as the ability of everyone to be able to participate and attend. Noteworthy, the first Olympic Champion was Coroebus, a cook from the city of Elis.

The Ancient Games were much different than today. Despite the innovation of everyone being able to participate, this needs to be placed in the context of the ancient world. Only free men could participate from all Greek cities. There were only a handful of events:

  • Running (1-stade =192m), 2-stade =384m), long distance (24 stades), 4 stade race in armor (helmet, shield, and greaves) with an estimate weight about 50-60 lbs.
  • Pentathlon (the same athlete participated in discus, javelin, long jump, running and wrestling Boxing (like today, but with fewer rules and goal was to knock out the opponent)
  • Equestrian events (chariot racing and horseback riding)
  • Pankration (a sport where mixed boxing and wrestling techniques were used but also kicking, holding, and choking on the ground, making it similar to modern mixed martial arts)
  • Wrestling (like today, the goal was to throw the opponent on the ground, landing on a hip, shoulder, or back for a fair fall)

The marathon was not an official event in the Olympic Games until the first modern Olympics in 1896, held in Athens, Greece. This event was inspired by the legendary run of Pheidippides, who, according to ancient stories, ran from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens to announce a Greek victory over the Persians in 490 BC. The distance of the first Olympic marathon was approximately 40 kilometers, mirroring the legendary route. This original distance varied slightly in subsequent Games until it was standardized at 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers) during the 1908 London Olympics to accommodate the British royal family's viewing preferences. Since then, the marathon has been a staple of the Olympics, symbolizing endurance and the spirit of the Games.

For the first 200 years, the games had mostly local and religious character, but over time, the Olympic Games gained increasing recognition, used as one of the units of time/year measurement. Breakthrough changes in the society such as democracy, alphabet, philosophy, and theater transformed the games with some events to be abandoned (pankration). The Olympics became the most prominent cultural and athletic event in ancient world during the golden era of the Greek Civilization. In that time, the ideals of Olympism evolved, attempting to integrate sport with culture, athletics with education, and international cooperation and peace. In that spirit, a truce during the games was established. Remarkably, the prize was only a crown made from olive leaves, and the winner was entitled to have a statue of himself set up at Olympia. The games stayed active for several hundreds of years with the last games officially held were in 393 AD, with some views suggesting that some games were still held. This makes the Olympic games lasting continuously for more than 1000 years!

The first Modern Olympic Games were hosted in the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens in 1896. 241 athletes from 14 different Nations competed in 43 events. In the last Games in 2020, 11,300 competitors from 206 nations were able to participate. The program consisted of 35 sports, 30 disciplines and 408 events. The best-known architect of the modern Games was Pierre de Coubertin. The number of sports contested at the Summer Olympic Games has gradually risen to thirty-six on the program for 2028. Major adaptations over the years included:

  • The formation of the Paralympics. The “Parallel Olympics" was introduced in 1960 in Rome.
  • Inclusion of women. The first modern Olympic Games to allow female athletes was the 1900 Games in Paris, with Hélène de Pourtalès of Switzerland became the first female Olympic champion in sailing.
  • In 2010, the Olympic Games were complemented by the Youth Games, for athletes between 14- and 18-year-old.

The evolution of the Olympic Games offers a compelling mirror to the broader changes and developments of global society. As the world’s cultures evolved towards a more secular and international focus, the spirit of humanistic ideals and personal and collective improvement developed. In the early days, the Olympic Games have also served as a platform for promoting political ideologies, with several notable instances highlighting this usage. During the 1936 Berlin Games, Nazi Germany utilized the event to propagate its ideals of Aryan supremacy and nationalism. The 1968 Mexico City Olympics were marked by the Black Power salute by American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos during their medal ceremony, a powerful protest against racial discrimination in the United States that reverberated around the world. Additionally, as part of the Olympics becoming a stage for geopolitical expression, we have seen moments like the boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Games by the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively. These boycotts mirrored the Cold War tensions and showed how sport could both reflect and affect international diplomacy. The inclusion of professional athletes in the 1990s paralleled the global trend towards professionalization and commercialization in various sectors, highlighting shifts in economic policies and global capitalism.

The Olympic Games have been tarnished by numerous allegations of bribery and corruption over the years, casting a shadow over the integrity of the event. Notably, the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City were embroiled in a bribery scandal involving the provision of scholarships and other gifts to members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to influence their vote in the host city selection process. This scandal led to the expulsion and resignation of several IOC members and prompted significant reforms in the bidding process to enhance transparency and reduce corruption risks. Additionally, allegations of corruption have surfaced in the construction contracts for Olympic venues, with accusations that projects were awarded in exchange for bribes, often leading to increased scrutiny and public criticism. These incidents highlight the ongoing challenges in maintaining the Games as a symbol of global unity and fair competition.

The progressive inclusion of women and athletes from diverse backgrounds has mirrored societal shifts towards gender equality and multiculturalism. This change is seen in the steady increase in women’s events at the Games and the breaking of numerous gender barriers, reflecting broader movements for equality in society. Similarly, the Paralympics and the introduction of the Youth Olympic Games echo global pushes for inclusivity and youth engagement in civic life.

Finally, the growing focus on sustainability in the Olympic Games, with initiatives like the Olympic Agenda 2020 aiming for environmental and fiscal sustainability, reflects a global recognition of the need for sustainable practices in the face of climate change and resource scarcity. This evolution of the Olympics demonstrates how this global event not only adapts to but also seeks to lead in the reflection of our changing world values and priorities.

Fun Facts

  • Gold medals were solid gold until 1912.
  • The Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912 were the first to include competitors from all five continents represented by the Olympic rings.
  • Many sports, like hot air ballooning, rope climbing, and tug of war, were once part of the competition in the Olympics but have since been removed from the program.
  • The United States is the only country to have earned a medal at every Olympic Winter Games.
  • Only five countries—Greece, Switzerland, Great Britain, Australia, and France—have competed in every Olympic Summer Games
  • Only four athletes have won medals in both the Winter and the Summer Olympics
  • Tarzan competed in the Olympics: Johnny Weissmuller, an athlete-turned-actor who played Tarzan in 12 movies, won five gold medals in swimming in the 1920s.
  • From 1912-1948, artists participated in the Olympics: Painters, sculptors, architects, writers, and musicians competed for medals in their respective fields.
  • During the 1936 Berlin Games, two Japanese pole-vaulters tied for second place. Instead of competing again, they cut the silver and bronze medals in half and fused the two different halves together so that each of them had a half-silver and half-bronze medal.
  • The six colors of the Olympic flag – blue, yellow, black, green, red, and the white background – were chosen because every nation’s flag contains at least one of them.


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  3. "Olympic Games." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.
  4. David Sansone, Ancient Greek civilization, Wiley-Blackwell, 2003, p.32 Wendy J. Raschke (15 June 1988). Archaeology Of The Olympics: The Olympics & Other Festivals In Antiquity. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp. 22–. ISBN 978-0-299-11334-6.
  5. Golden, Mark. "Sport and Society in Ancient Greece." Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  6. David C. Young (15 April 2008). A Brief History of the Olympic Games. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 135–. ISBN 978-0-470-77775-6. Olympics in Athens.
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  8. Lovett, Charlie. "Olympic Marathon: A Centennial History of the Games' Most Storied Race." Praeger Publishers, 1997.
  9. Howe, P. David. "The Cultural Politics of the Paralympic Movement." Routledge, 2008.
  10. Jennings, Andrew. "The New Lords of the Rings: Olympic Corruption and How to Buy Gold Medals." Pocket Books, 1996.
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