An important tradition linking sport and culture, the history of the Olympic Games dates back to over one thousand years. Although that history may be disjointed in places, the Games have well and truly made a comeback. Even the early festivals organised by the Ancient Greeks demonstrated the values that still form the core of the Olympic Spirit today. Moreover, in Antiquity, warring states observed a truce throughout the sporting competitions – a tradition that continues today, with the United Nations General Assembly adopting the Olympic Truce ahead of each edition of the Games. The history of the Games is incredibly rich and spans millennia.
The first written evidence of the official Games dates from 776 BC, when the Greeks began measuring time in Olympiads, or the duration between each edition of the Olympic Games. The first Olympic Games were held every four years in honour of the god Zeus. From then on, a number of artistic activities such as music, singing, poetry and theatre were organised at the Pythian or Delphic Games (a separate event to the Games held in Olympia), linking culture and sport right from the beginning of the Games.
In 393 AD, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned the Olympic Games for religious reasons, claiming that they encouraged paganism. They were not revived until the modern era.
A revival in Paris
A number of initiatives to re-establish an international sporting event were attempted at the end of the 19th century, but failed due to the lack of coordination among the worldwide sporting movement – until one man decided to bring the main stakeholders together in Paris. The Olympic Games were therefore revived at the first Olympic Congress, organised by Baron Pierre de Coubertin and held at the Grand Amphitheatre at the Sorbonne University from 16 to 23 June 1894. Two thousand people attended, including 58 French delegates representing 24 sports organisations and clubs, and 20 delegates from Belgium, Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Spain, Sweden and the United States representing 13 foreign sports federations.
As the congress came to an end on 23 June, the Olympic Games were reborn and the International Olympic Committee created. The principles that guided Baron Pierre de Coubertin in this endeavour and inspired Olympism and the Olympic movement include :
- Promoting the development of the physical and mental qualities that form the foundation of sport;
- Educating young people through sport in a spirit of mutual understanding and friendship with a view to help build a better, more peaceful world;
- Sharing the Olympic ideals with the whole world and creating an international sense of goodwill; and
- Bringing together athletes from all over the world for a major celebration of sport every four years, the Olympic Games.
Women finally allowed to take part
The first Olympic Games of the modern era took place in Athens, in the country where the original Games took place in Antiquity, in April 1896. Paris hosted the second Games in 1900.
The Paris 1900 Olympic Games saw women compete for the first time. The first female Olympic champion was Charlotte Cooper, a British tennis player who won Wimbledon five times. Out of a total of 997 athletes, 22 were women, competing in just five sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian events and golf. Of these disciplines, only golf and tennis included women‑only events. According to the Olympic Charter, the IOC’s role is “to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures, with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women”. Female participation in the Olympic Games has increased dramatically since; 48.9% of the athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Games are expected to be women, as opposed to 23% at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and just 13% at the 1964 Tokyo Games. The IOC has been working with international federations as well as the Olympic Games Organising Committees to increase the number of women’s events at the Games for over 20 years. By adding a women’s boxing event, the Games in London in 2012 were the first where women competed in all sports of the Olympic programme. At the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, 45% (5,059 women out of a total of 11,238) of the athletes were women. The Games of Tokyo in 2021 were the most equal yet, with 48.9% women athletes.
The development of the Games over the centuries
The 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis (Missouri) were the first to distribute gold, silver and bronze medals, and also included the first known disabled athlete to compete in the Olympic Games, George Eyser. He won six medals in gymnastics, three of which were gold.
The Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912 were the first to include competitors from all five continents represented by the Olympic rings. It was also the year that women made their debut in the swimming events.
From 1912 to 1948, artistic competitions were part of the modern Olympic Games, on the initiative of Pierre de Coubertin. Medals were awarded for sport‑related artwork falling in five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. In 1920, the Games continued after having been cancelled in 1916 due to World War I. The Olympic flag and the Olympic Oath, written by Pierre de Coubertin, were revealed at the Games in Antwerp.
“We swear that we will take part in the Olympic Games in a spirit of chivalry, for the honour of our country and for the glory of sport.”
The Olympic Games were held for the second and third times in France – in Chamonix from January to February for the first ever Winter Olympic Games, then in Paris again in the summer. The Olympic motto of “citius, altius, fortius” (faster, higher, stronger), used by Pierre de Coubertin since 1896 and taken from the priest Henri Didon, was also highlighted that year.
The Paris Olympic Games of 1924 were the first to build an Olympic Village, which has become customary at every Games since.
During the Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York, a woman acted as the flag‑bearer for an Olympic delegation for the first time; that woman was Mollie Phillips, a figure skater for Great Britain.
The Winter and Summer Olympic Games took place in Germany, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Berlin respectively. For the first time, the spectacle of the opening ceremony was broadcast live — an incredible development. Between big screens set up in Germany and the few households owning television sets, around 150,000 viewers tuned in. However, the Games served as a propaganda tool for Nazi Germany; the epitome of this was Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary film of the Games in Berlin, Olympia, which served as a monument to Nazism.
It was also at the Berlin Games in 1936 that the Olympic flame was introduced for the first time.
the Olympic Games of the XII and XIII Olympiads were cancelled due to the ongoing World War II.
The Winter Olympic Games held at St Moritz in 1948 were therefore named “The Games of Renewal”.
The Winter Olympic Games in Oslo were declared open by a woman for the first time – Princess Ragnhild of Norway.
The ninth Stoke Mandeville Games were held in the same city as the Olympic Games, Rome, one week later. This event is considered to be the first ever Paralympic Games.
The Grenoble Olympic Games were broadcasted live and in colour on television for the first time.
Since the Games in Séoul, the Olympic and Paralympic Games have always taken place in the same city, separated by just a few weeks.
The Winter Games were held in Lillehammer , just two years after the last Winter Games in Albertville, in 1992. This adjustment was made so that the Winter Games would no longer be held in the same year as the Summer Olympics, which take place in the first year of each Olympiad.
For the first time in Olympic history, all 197 of the National Olympic Committees (NOC) were represented at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Of those NOCs, 79 won medals, with 53 taking gold.
That same year, Italian archer Paola Fantato became the first athlete to compete in the Olympic and Paralympic Games in the same year.
At the Olympic Games in Sydney, North and South Korea marched together under the same flag at the opening ceremony. This was an unprecedented symbol of peace since diplomatic relations between the two states had ended after the Korean War of 1950 to 1953.
The legacy concept was added to the document that sets out the rules for governing the Olympic movement, the Olympic Charter. This addition came about after a period of reflection in the 1990s, with the Games in Barcelona in 1992 serving as an example. The Olympic Games needed to be seen as more than just a periodic sport event, but also a way to bring about urban development and have a positive impact on the society where they take place. From now on, to be selected by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), applicant cities must have a long‑term plan.
The Iraqi football team stunned at the Games in Athens. Despite the war ravaging their country, the team reached the semi‑finals of the tournament, offering a brief distraction for Iraqis and the entire world from their country’s dramatic situation. That same year was the first time that the Olympic torch relay, after leaving Olympia, crossed every habitable continent before returning to Greece.
The first summer version of the Youth Olympic Games took place in 2010, with the first winter version taking place in 2012 — proof of the Olympic movement’s strong commitment to youth and education.
The 127th Session of the IOC took place in Monaco on 8 December and approved to modify the Olympic Charter by adding: “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement”.
Olympism is defined by its universality, as demonstrated by its continuous development and worldwide presence on every habitable continent. There are 206 NOCs in the IOC, compared to the 193 member states of the UN for example. This universality gives unparalleled reach to the movement’s ongoing efforts to promote people and education.