The evolution of the Olympic Games


1st Jan 2015 Life

The evolution of the Olympic Games

The first Olympic Games, inspired by the Olympian Gods, took place in Greece in 776 BC. Centuries on, the torch has been carried from country to country, through an array of political developments, wars, boycotts and above all, incredible human achievements. 

776 BC—The first Olympic Games

chariot racin
Image via Reddit

The ancient Olympic Games can be traced back to 776 BC. The Greek games were dedicated to the Olympic gods until Emperor Theodosius banned them for their pagan undertones in 393 A.D.

The modern Olympics have been held every four years since 1896, except during the two World Wars.



1896 Athens

Athens 1896 Olympics

The modern Olympics kicked off in 1896, Athens. The modern marathon was born and won by a Greek named Spiridon Louis.

American students dominated the track and field, but German gymnast Hermann Weingartner won the most medals. 245 men from 14 nations competed.        



1900 Paris

1900 Paris Olympics

1319 people from 22 countries entered the 1900 Olympics held in Paris.

Women competed for the first time, but the Games were overshadowed by the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park London: the first in a series of World's Fair exhibitions of culture and industry.                             



1904 St Louis

high jump
American track and field athlete Charles Dvorak at the 1904 St Louis Olympics. Image via Wiki 

The games were held in St Louis in 1904 where 687 competitors from 13 nations took part. 525 of the competitors were from the US with some events including Americans only.

The most medals were won by Anton Heida (US) won five golds and a silver in men's gymnastics.



1908 London

Olympians at the 1908 London games

In 1908 the Games were held in London and 2035 men and women from 22 countries took part.

Allegations of bias by the British judges led the American teams to threaten to withdraw.

Dorando Pietri, a sweet shop owner from Italy, collapsed during a marathon just a few steps from the finish. He was disqualified for being helped over the line, despite protests.                               



1912 Stockholm

Stockholm hosts the 1912 Olympics

Swimming and modern pentathlon were included for the first time in the 1912 Games in Stockholm, and gymnastics grew popular, with 1000 competitors from 13 countries entering those events.

Electronic timing devices were used for the first time.

US gold winning pentathlon and decathlon athlete, Jim Thorpe was ordered to return his medals six months later when it was found he had previously been paid to play baseball.         



1920 Antwerp


Eight years later, Antwerp was chosen to host in 1920, to honour the Belgians who had lived under enemy occupation for four years of the First World War.

Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Turkey were not invited. Oscar Swahn (Sweden) became the oldest Olympic medalist at 72, winning silver in the running deer team shooting event.



1924 Paris

Olympics 1924

In Paris, 1924, 3092 people from 44 countries competed. The Olympic motto "citius, altius, fortius" ("faster, higher, stronger") was coined. French fans caused controversy by booing the national anthems of other countries.

US swimmer Johnny Weissmuller won gold medals in freestyle relay events before starring in Hollywood blockbuster Tarzan after the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.



1928 Amsterdam

Amsterdam 1928 Olympics

1928 was a year of firsts. Women competed for the first time in track and field events in the Amsterdam Games and Germany were invited back again after the First World War.

India won gold for men’s hockey for the first time thanks to centre-forward Dhyan Chand, who went on to win golds in 1932 and 1936.



1932 Los Angeles

1932 Los Angeles olympics
The Olympic Stadium in Los Angeles. Image via Team USA

In the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, only 1408 people from 37 nations took part due to the Great Depression. Photo-finish cameras and automatic timers were launched, as well as podiums for award ceremonies and national anthems.

The 50km walk marked the entry of walking as an Olympic sport. Mildred "Babe" Didrikson (US) excelled, winning gold in the javelin and 80m hurdles and silver in the high jump, later becoming the most prominent golfer of all time and voted the best female athlete of the half-century.                                                                                                      



1936 Berlin

The first Olympic torch relay, Berlin 1936

Berlin won the bid for the Olympic Games in 1931, two years before Adolf Hitler became Reich Chancellor. Alongside the International Olympics Committee, Hitler transformed a small sports event into the huge spectacle we know it as today. The 1936 Berlin Games were the first to be televised, with 3738 competitors from 49 nations entering. The Olympic flame was first used in the torch relay this year, the idea for the relay actually came from the Nazis.

This being Nazi Germany, the grandeur of the event had dark undertones. At first, it was suggested that the 1936 Olympic Games be an exclusively Aryan event, forbidding black and Jewish athletes from participating. But when threatened with a boycott, Hitler permitted it, and even added one 'token' Jew, a woman named Helene Mayer, to the German team.

In the end, Ireland was the only team to boycott in protest against Nazi antisemitism.

Writer Thomas Wolfe described the opening as an "almost religious event, the crowd screaming, swaying in unison and begging for Hitler. There was something scary about it; his cult of personality.

The sinister atmosphere took a rather pleasant turn as Hitler's Nazi propaganda event was impeded by the success of non-Aryan athletes. African-Americans won gold in every track event from 100m to 800m. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to stop the persecution that was already well underway—although it was concealed from  the prying eyes of international spectators.



1948 London

1948 London Olympics, the important thins is not winning
The sign reads: The important thing about the Olympic Games is not the winning but the taking part. The essential thing in life is not the conquering but fighting well

In the 1948 London Games, communist countries took part for the first time but Germany and Japan were not invited following the Second World War. The USSR decided against participating. 

In light of the 1940 and 1944 cancelled games, the emotional opening ceremony of 59 marching nations helped to rectify the fallout of WWII.

The most medals were won by Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen, a 30-year-old mother of two who won golds in the 100m and 200m sprints, 80m hurdles and four 100m sprint relays.

Although the Olympics had been an event that sought to unify nations peacefully in spite of politics, it would become increasingly political, as many countries began to boycott events in protest to various humanitarian crisis and wars. 



1952 Helsinki

The opening ceremony of the Men's Olympic Football Tournament, Helsinki 1952. Image via FIFA

4925 athletes from 69 nations entered the 1952 Helsinki games. The USSR competed for the first time and, despite reservations, Soviet and American athletes got on.

The Games were outstanding in organisation with commentators suggesting Scandinavia should always host the Olympics.

Czech husband and wife, Emil and Dana Zatopek took golds in the 5000m, 10000m and marathon and javelin respectively.

Gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya (USSR) took two golds and five silvers: the most medals won by a woman in a single Games.



1956 Melbourne

Olympic torch

In 1956, Melbourne saw 3342 competitors from 72 nations enter the first Olympics held in the Southern Hemisphere. Equestrian events were held in Stockholm due to Australian quarantine laws.

The most medals were won by gymnasts Viktor Chukarin (USSR) and Ågnes Keleti (Hungary) who took four golds and two silvers each.

Seven countries boycotted this event for various reasons.



1960 Rome

Rome 1960 Olympics

Some events at the 1960 Rome Games were held in ancient stadia. The wrestling took place in the Basilica of Maxentius where Romans had held similar contests 2000 years previously.

It would be the last Games to which South Africa was invited for 32 years. Cassius Clay won gold for the US  in the light-heavyweight boxing division.



1964 Tokyo

Tokyo games
Japanese athletes walk during the opening ceremony for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Image via Japan Times

In 1964 the Olympics were held in Asia for the first time. In Tokyo, judo and volleyball were introduced and 5140 competitors of 93 countries took part.

The Games helped the Japanese move on from the war, both Germany and Japan were banned from the Games up until 1956. A student born near Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb fell lit the Olympic flame.

Most medals were won by Larissa Latynina (USSR), taking home two golds, two silvers and two bronzes in the women’s gymnastic events.

South Africa was suspended because of their apartheid policies.



1968 Mexico

Smith and Carlos give black power salute at 1968 olympics

Mexico City was a controversial choice for the 1968 Games because of the high altitude. Low air density resulted in new sprint world records, whereas distance running proved difficult.

Bob Beamon (US) beat the world long jump record by 55.25cm. When he realised his achievement he had a seizure and collapsed, later recovering to claim his gold medal.

In 1968 the Olympic Project for Human Rights advocated the boycotting of the Mexico Olympics unless certain conditions were met. Although the boycott failed to materialise, sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith (winning gold and bronze in the men's 200-meter race) took the podium wearing OPHR badges, one black glove each and in a defiant, political, but brave act, gave black power salutes on the podium. 

The third man on the podium was Peter Norman, an Australian sprinter. He also wore an OPHR badge, it was him that suggested Smith and Carlos wore the gloves. All involved were reprimanded by media and Olympic committees and suspended from the games. Norman was never permitted to compete again and was not allowed to join other past Olympic medalists at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. 

When Norman died of a heart attack in 2006, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers.



1972 Munich

Flag at half mast in the suspended 1972 Olympic games
The Olympic flag flies at half mast

In the 1972 Munich Games, full-scale drug testing began. The US lost the basketball final for the first time, to the USSR. 

Olga Korbut (USSR) won three gymnastics gold medals, and the most medals to be won by one person in a single Olympic Games was achieved by American swimmer Mark Spitz, who took home seven golds.

This particular year will be forever blighted by a terrorist attack that became known as the Munich Massacre. Eleven members of the Israeli team were taken hostage and murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

Unlike modern terrorist attacks, this was motivated by secular nationalism with the commander of the group having been born to Jewish and Christian parents. The group were also aided by German neo-Nazis.

The attack took place two weeks into the games, and consequently, after much public criticism, and for the first time in modern history, the Games were suspended. On 6 September a memorial service was held and the games continued. IOC President Avery Brundage said, "The Games must go on, and we must… and we must continue our efforts to keep them clean, pure and honest." Although the continuation was heavily criticised by the public.

However, many teams and athletes chose not to stick around. Dutch distance runner Jos Hermens said, "It's quite simple. We were invited to a party, and if someone comes to the party and shoots people, how can you stay?"

West Germany had attempted to shed the former image of the Berlin 1936 Olympics—set against a backdrop of military personnel for Hitler's benefit. Organisers had grossly underestimated the need for security and armed personnel, aiming instead for a peaceful "Carefree Games".



1976 Montreal

montreal 1972 olympics
The Montreal Olympic Games closing ceremony, Image via Montreal Olympics

The 1976 Games in Montreal was a financial disaster due to poor organisation and corruption. Twenty-two African nations boycotted the games to protest the committee’s refusal to bar New Zealand after its All Blacks rugby tour of South Africa. The various boycotts meant only 92 countries participated—there were 121 participating teams in 1972.

Most medals were won by gymnast Nikolai Andrianov (USSR) who took four golds, two silvers and a bronze.     

Host province Quebec incurred $1.5 billion debt, which was only paid off in 2006.



1980 Moscow

Moscow 1980 Olympics

Led by President Jimmy Carter, the US, Canada, West Germany and Japan boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Who exactly boycotted is difficult to determine but 62 eligible countries failed to participate.

An alternative games, Liberty Bell Classic—better known as the Olympic Boycott Games—was held in Philadelphia and attended by 29 of the boycotting countries.

Polish gold medalist pole vaulter Władysław Kozakiewicz gave an obscene bras d'honneur gesture to the Soviet public causing a scandal and almost losing his medal. But Soviet officials were heavily criticised for using their authority to negate their opponent's marks. 

East German women won 11 golds on the running track, setting seven world records in doing so.

British runners Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe competed in the middle-distance finals with Ovett taking gold and Coe silver in the 800m before the titles were reversed in the 1500m.

Gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin (USSR) won eight medals, beating the world record for most medals won by one man in a single Games.         



1984 Los Angeles

1984 Los Angeles Olympic opening ceremony

6797 athletes from 140 nations took part in the 1984 Games held in Los Angeles, which was boycotted by the USSR. Officially they claimed that there was a lack of security for their athletes although it's generally considered as revenge for the Moscow boycott in 1980.

Thompson (UK) won gold in the decathlon for the second Olympics in succession and American athlete Carl Lewis took gold medals in four events; the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4 × 100m relay.



1988 Seoul

seoul olympics

8465 people from 159 nations competed. Florence Griffith-Joyner (Flo Jo) won three golds and a silver for the US.

Not surprisingly, North Korea chose to boycott its neighbour's event.

Ben Johnson won the 100m in world record time for Canada, but after testing positive for steroids was later stripped of his gold medal.

German swimmer, Kristin Otto took six golds: the most won by any woman in a single Olympics.

There was some controversy surrounding the event in 1995. Diver Greg Louganis struck his head on the springboard and suffered a concussion and a small cut to the head. He went on to earn gold medals. But in 1995 he revealed that he had been diagnosed HIV-positive prior to the event.

Many criticised him for taking part, especially as he had a wound. Although chief of HIV/AIDS surveillance at the time assured the commentators that there was little chance of infection in a pool—the blood was diluted by thousands of gallons of water and HIV would not survive the chlorine in the pool.



1992 Barcelona

Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé performed 'Barcelona' to celebrate Barcelona winning the bid in 1988

In the 1992 Barcelona Games, former Soviet republics competed as the Unified Team under the Olympic flag and won the most medals, with male gymnast Vitaly Scherbo winning six golds.

As apartheid ended, South Africa returned to the Games and a united German team also entered.

Meanwhile UK cyclist Chris Boardman used a controversial carbon fibre, titanium one-piece bicycle with disc wheels that was more aerodynamic than his competitors' more traditional bikes.



1996 Atlanta

1996 Atlana Opening Ceremony

10744 competitors from 197 countries entered the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, featuring the first Irish multiple medal winner; swimmer Michelle Smith who won three golds.

Russian gymnast Alexei Nemov won two golds, a silver and three bronzes.

Unfortunately, events were marred by a bomb explosion in the Centennial Olympic Park that killed one person. Fortunately, it could have had much worse implications if the bomb had not been identified by Richard Jewell, who moved people to safety.

From this point onwards, the Olympics saw a peaceful period without political tensions, attacks, and boycotts. The future of Olympic controversies would surround the athletes themselves, drugs, judges and occasionally apparatus. 



2000 Sydney

olympic ceremony

In Sydney, 2000, the triathlon was held for the first time and tae-kwan-do was first competed over for medals.

Aboriginal Australian Cathy Freeman delighted fans in winning the 400m and British rower Steve Redgrave became the first competitor to collect five consecutive gold medals. But it was Alexei Nemov who topped the medal tables, matching his 1996 total of two golds, a silver and three bronzes.



2004 Athens

In 2004, the Olympics returned to its original city, Athens. 296 events in 28 sports were held. At the 1896 Games, there were just 43 events in nine sports. 

Over 11,000 athletes from 199 nations entered and competed in facilities that included a newly renovated Panathenaic Stadium, where the first modern Olympics were held.



Beijing 2008

Beijing opening ceremony

Beijing hosted the Games in 2008, the year of Usain Bolt and British wins. Jamaican sprinter Bolt broke three world records and won three gold medals while the British cycling team, led by Chris Hoy and British sailing team led by Ben Ainslie dominated their respective events, winning gold medals all round.

It had been half a century since Britain won in a women's Olympic swimming event when Rebecca Adlington won two at the 2008 Beijing Games.  



London 2012

London during the 2012 Olympic Games. Image via Lemerg

In 2012 London hosted for the third time, with 10,500 athletes competing from 205 nations and 4200 Paralympic athletes competed for 165 nations. This year, 8000 specially picked inspirational people carried the flame across the country in the Torch Relay through 1000 cities, towns and villages over 70 days.

London-based volunteers helped out and joined the 200,00 strong workforce needed for the Games. Athletes from the United States won the most gold medals, with 46, and the most overall, with 104.


Rio 2016

Rio Olympic Stadium 2016

And so to this Summer, when Rio will be hosting the 2016 Olympics. Despite media attempts to derail the reputation of the city, it’s set to be another record-breaking year; an optimism demonstrated in the number of condoms that will be given to athletes (450 000 to be exact).

The City of Rio’s generosity does not end there, with 210 tonnes of food set to be delivered to participants in the Olympic village each day.

It’s also a year for firsts: the International Olympic Committee are supporting the new team: a group of 10 refugee athletes given the chance to compete in the Games for the first time. Watch this space!   

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for more inspiring stories

Feature image: Mel Sheppard at the 1908 London Olympics. Via Vintage Olympics