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The History of the Olympic Games

Compare the ancient Olympics to the modern games. Plus, learn how money, politics, and performance-enhancing drugs have become major influences, often causing controversy.

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The Olympic Games are an international sports festival that began in ancient Greece. The original Greek games were staged every fourth year for several hundred years, until they were abolished in the early Christian era. The revival of the Olympic Games took place in 1896, and since then they have been staged every fourth year, except during World War I and World War II (1916, 1940, 1944).

Perhaps the basic difference between the ancient and modern Olympics is that the former was the ancient Greeks' way of saluting their gods, whereas the modern Games are a manner of saluting the athletic talents of citizens of all nations. The original Olympics featured competition in music, oratory, and theater performances as well. The modern Games have a more expansive athletic agenda, and for 2 1/2 weeks they are supposed to replace the rancor of international conflict with friendly competition. In recent times, however, that lofty ideal has not always been attained.

The Ancient Olympics

The earliest reliable date that recorded history gives for the first Olympics is 776 B.C., although virtually all historians presume that the Games began well before then.

It is certain that during the midsummer of 776 B.C. a festival was held at Olympia on the highly civilized eastern coast of the Peloponnesian peninsula. That festival remained a regularly scheduled event, taking place during the pre-Christian golden age of Greece. As a testimony to the religious nature of the Games (which were held in honor of Zeus, the most important god in the ancient Greek pantheon), all wars would cease during the contests. According to the earliest records, only one athletic event was held in the ancient Olympics — a footrace of about 183 m (200 yd), or the length of the stadium. A cook, Coroibus of Elis, was the first recorded winner. The first few Olympics had only local appeal and were limited to one race on one day; only men were allowed to compete or attend. A second race — twice the length of the stadium — was added in the 14th Olympics, and a still longer race was added to the next competition, four years later.

When the powerful, warlike Spartans began to compete, they influenced the agenda. The 18th Olympiad included wrestling and a pentathlon consisting of running, jumping, spear throwing (the javelin), discus throwing, and wrestling. Boxing was added at the 23rd Olympiad, and the Games continued to expand, with the addition of chariot racing and other sports. In the 37th Olympiad (632 B.C.) the format was extended to five days of competition.

The growth of the Games fostered "professionalism" among the competitors, and the Olympic ideals waned as royalty began to compete for personal gain, particularly in the chariot events. Human beings were being glorified as well as the gods; many winners erected statues to deify themselves. In A.D. 394 the Games were officially ended by the Roman emperor Theodosius I, who felt that they had pagan connotations.

The Modern Olympics

The revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, unlike the original Games, has a clear, concise history. Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937), a young French nobleman, felt that he could institute an educational program in France that approximated the ancient Greek notion of a balanced development of mind and body. The Greeks themselves had tried to revive the Olympics by holding local athletic games in Athens during the 1800s, but without lasting success. It was Baron de Coubertin's determination and organizational genius, however, that gave impetus to the modern Olympic movement. In 1892 he addressed a meeting of the Union des Sports Athlétiques in Paris. Despite meager response he persisted, and an international sports congress eventually convened on June 16, 1894. With delegates from Belgium, England, France, Greece, Italy, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and the United States in attendance, he advocated the revival of the Olympic Games. He found ready and unanimous support from the nine countries. De Coubertin had initially planned to hold the Olympic Games in France, but the representatives convinced him that Greece was the appropriate country to host the first modern Olympics. The council did agree that the Olympics would move every four years to other great cities of the world.

Thirteen countries competed at the Athens Games in 1896. Nine sports were on the agenda: cycling, fencing, gymnastics, lawn tennis, shooting, swimming, track and field, weight lifting, and wrestling. The 14-man U.S. team dominated the track and field events, taking first place in 9 of the 12 events. The Games were a success, and a second Olympiad, to be held in France, was scheduled. Olympic Games were held in 1900 and 1904, and by 1908 the number of competitors more than quadrupled the number at Athens — from 311 to 2,082.

Beginning in 1924, a Winter Olympics was included — to be held at a separate cold-weather sports site in the same year as the Summer Games — the first held at Chamonix, France. In 1980 about 1,600 athletes from 38 nations competed at Lake Placid, N.Y., in a program that included Alpine and Nordic skiing, biathlon, ice hockey, figure skating and speed skating, bobsled, and luge.

But the Summer Games, with its wide array of events, are still the focal point of the modern Olympics. Among the standard events are basketball, boxing, canoeing and kayaking, cycling, equestrian arts, fencing, field hockey, gymnastics, modern pentathlon, rowing, shooting, soccer, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, volleyball, water polo, weight lifting, wrestling (freestyle and Greco-Roman), and yachting. New sports are added to the roster at every Olympic Games; among the more prominent are baseball, martial arts, and most recently triathlon, which was first contested at the 2000 Games. The Games are governed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), whose headquarters is in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The Summer and Winter Games were traditionally held in the same year, but because of the increasing size of both Olympics, the Winter Games were shifted to a different schedule after 1992. They were held in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994, in Nagano, Japan in 1998, in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002, in Turin, Italy in 2006, and in 2010, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. 

Politics and the Olympics

The ideology of nationalism, which swept the world during the early 20th century, left its mark on the Olympics. Athletic nationalism was brought to a peak by Nazi Germany, which staged the 1936 Games in Berlin and used the Olympics to propagandize its cause. The Germans built a powerful team through nationalized training and scientific advances and dominated the Games in terms of medals won.

The political overtones of the Olympics did not lessen with the fall of Nazi Germany. In 1956, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon boycotted the Melbourne Games to protest the Anglo-French seizure of the Suez Canal, and the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland boycotted as well to protest the USSR's invasion of Hungary. In Mexico City in 1968, two African American runners used the victory pedestal to protest U.S. racial policies. In the Munich Olympics in 1972, 11 Israeli athletes were massacred by Palestinian terrorists. And in 1976 in Montreal, 33 African nations, to be represented by about 400 athletes, boycotted the Games to protest South Africa's apartheid policies.

The most serious disruptions to the modern Olympics, however, occurred in 1980 and 1984. In 1980, under strong pressure from the Carter administration, the U.S. Olympic Committee voted to boycott the Summer Games in Moscow to protest the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. About 40 nations followed suit, including West Germany, China, and Japan, depriving the Soviets of their chief athletic competition and raising doubts about the future of the Olympic movement. Although the 1984 Winter Games, in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, proceeded without boycotts, the Summer Games, in Los Angeles, were undercut by an Eastern-bloc boycott led by the USSR. Fear of an openly hostile environment in Los Angeles was cited by the Soviet Olympic Committee as the reason for nonparticipation, but most commentators believed the reasons to be political: the poor state of recent U.S.-Soviet relations, revenge for the U.S. boycott in 1980, and possible embarrassment to the Soviets on worldwide television caused by planned anti-Soviet demonstrations and defections of Eastern-bloc athletes. The popularity and financial success of the 1984 Los Angeles Games were, however, greater than anticipated.

In 1988 the Winter Games — in Calgary, Alberta, Canada — went on without incident. At the Summer Games, in Seoul, South Korea, only six nations (including Cuba and North Korea) boycotted, and the focus returned to the athletes.The 1992 Winter and Summer Games (in Albertville, France, and Barcelona, Spain, respectively) were the first Olympics without the Eastern-bloc sports machine, were the last for the "Unified Teams" from the former USSR, and marked the return of South Africa to Olympic competition. The 1996 Summer Games, in Atlanta, Ga., were the largest ever; they were marred by a bombing that took the lives of two people. The 1994 and 1998 Winter Games transpired without incident. The 2000 Summer Games were held in Sydney, Australia, to great acclaim. In Sydney, politics took a back seat to the competition, although North and South Korea were temporarily reunited as their athletes marched as one country in the opening ceremonies. Athens, Greece — site of the first modern Olympics — was the site of  the Summer Games in 2004.  Though it has potential for political controversies due to its rapid modernization and its communist state-Beijing, China was selected for the 2008 Summer Games. 

Money and the Olympics

The biggest influence on the modern Olympic Games is money. Commercialism exists side by side with the outstanding athleticism and the spirit of friendship imbuing competitors from around the world. Since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, it has become clear that a city hosting the Games can anticipate a financial windfall, as spectators and sponsors converge for the event. Because of the tremendous potential for profit, the process of selecting host cities has become politicized, and there is a large potential for corruption. In fact, a scandal erupted in late 1998, when it was found that promoters involved with Salt Lake City's (winning) bid for the 2002 Winter Games had bribed IOC members, who were forced to resign; the Nagano and Sydney bids were also under suspicion of bribery.

Athletes, too, especially in the "glamour sports" such as gymnastics, ice skating, or track and field, can reap tremendous financial gains for winning performances, through product endorsements and personal appearances. Originally, Olympic athletes were expected to remain strictly amateurs and not earn money even for endorsing products. However, by the last decades of the 20th century, professionalism among competitors received official acceptance, as the IOC finally recognized that many world-class athletes were already functioning as professionals. At the elite level of competition in many Olympic sports, the athlete must devote him- or herself entirely to the sport, all but precluding the holding of a full-time job.

The end of amateurism began in 1960s in the Communist countries, where top athletes were supported by the state, but were officially considered amateurs. To counter this, in the 1970s and 1980s athletes in non-Communist countries sought out corporate sponsors, in effect becoming "employees" of the sponsor. By the late 1980s, restrictions were eased on athletes earning prize money at their sports, and professional athletes were permitted to represent their countries at the Olympics. This now includes the star athletes who play in the American professional leagues, such as the U.S. basketball "Dream Team" of National Basketball Association superstars who dominated the 1992 Olympic competition. In addition, with IOC rules concerning amateurism vacated, many medal-winning contestants have cashed in on their Olympic fame with product endorsements or performance tours.

Performance-Enhancing Drugs

Winning medals at the Olympic Games has always been considered the most prestigious mark of an athlete, and a source of glory for the athlete's country. This has led to the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes, intentionally or otherwise, despite the health risks to the athlete and IOC rules prohibiting the use of these substances. The types of drugs banned include stimulants (which can be found in common cold and cough medications; caffeine is also banned), narcotics, anabolic steroids, diuretics, certain hormones (such as human growth hormone), and in some sports, beta blockers. The testing of athletes for drug use began for the Olympics in 1968, at the Mexico City Games, but did not become widespread until the 1972 Games. Over the years, as drugs such as human growth hormone have been developed, tests have been added for newer drugs.

With such great rewards at stake, there are athletes and even national sports programs willing to use performance-enhancing drugs despite the risks to future health and the disgrace of getting caught. The best-known example of drug use is the East German sports federation, which had a systematic program for giving its athletes steroids from 1974 to 1989. During that time East German women suddenly dominated events such as swimming, winning medals in 11 of 13 events both in 1976 and 1980. Other swimmers suspected that the East German women were using steroids, because the drugs affected their physical appearance, but the team was never caught. After the reunification of Germany, the East German sports federation's records were opened and the program was exposed. In 2000 the former head of the federation and the doctor who developed and administered the drug plan were convicted of systematic and overall doping. The former athletes maintain that they never knew they were taking steroids, claiming that they were told that the various medications were vitamins. As drug testing procedures have improved, more athletes have been caught. In Seoul there was suspicion of widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs after Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive; he was stripped of his gold medal. In the mid-1990s, China's female swimmers and runners quickly rose to the top of elite competition, arousing suspicions of drug use; by the late 1990s many were caught through more diligent drug testing.

The IOC publicly decries the use of performance-enhancing drugs. However, it is commonly believed that even with out-of-competition testing, the drugs and masking agents available to athletes is far ahead of the tests used to detect these substances. A study released in September 2000 that was financed by the U.S. government accused the IOC of permitting drug use to persist in order to maintain the mystique of the Olympics and record-breaking performances. The IOC formed the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in late 1999 to test athletes at the upcoming Olympics and to increase drug testing standards, but how effective WADA will be in the long run is not yet known.

Jim Benagh

Bibliography: Finding, John E., and Pelle, Kimberly D., Historical Dictionary of the Modern Olympic Movement (1996); Greenberg, Stan, Guinness Book of Olympic Records (1992); Guttmann, Allen, The Olympics (1992); Henry, Bill, et al., An Approved History of the Olympic Games (1984); Hill, Christopher, Olympic Politics: Athens to Atlanta, 1896–1996, 2d ed. (1997); Swaddling, Judith, The Ancient Olympic Games, 2d ed. (2000); Wallechinsky, David, The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics: Sydney 2000 Edition (2000); Young, David C., The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival (1996).

  • Subjects:
    Ancient Civilizations, Sports
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