The Summer Olympics are the biggest sporting festival in the world, with over 11,000 athletes, 200 countries, and 300 events featuring at the last edition in Rio de Janeiro five years ago. Where did the Olympics originate from, how they did evolve into the event enjoyed around the globe today, and which important moments and individuals marked its history? Read on to find out.
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The Olympics' Ancient Greek origins
The format of the Olympic Games originates from ancient Greece when festivals were held at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia. According to legend at the time, the Games were devised by Heracles, who also built the Olympic Stadium and declared that they should be staged every four years.
The Games featured nominated athletes from numerous states and kingdoms contesting sporting events, including running competitions, wrestling, boxing, throwing contests, and horse and chariot races. Inscriptions at Olympia detail the winners of a footrace staged every four years starting as far back as at least 2,800 years ago.
While the ancient Olympics were regularly enjoyed by large crowds, their status and importance were gradually curtailed by the growing Roman influence in Greece during the 4th and 5th centuries. It is thought they were banned after emperor Theodosius I designated them a pagan celebration in 393 AD and his successor Theodosius II then commanded the destruction of all Greek temples.
Reviving the Olympics
Beginning in the 17th century, various sporting events began to refer to themselves as ‘Olympic’. The first is believed to be the Cotswold Olimpick Games, an annual event that started in 1612 in England which featured numerous sports. Others included the L'Olympiade de la République festival in France and the Olympiska spelen i Ramlösa in Sweden.
In Greece, the idea of reviving the Olympic Games began to earn prominence in the 19th century. It was spearheaded by newspaper editor Panagiotis Soutsos, who gathered public support for its return, and philanthropist Evangelos Zappas, who funded the restoration of the ancient Panathenaic Stadium that went on to host Olympic festivals in 1870 and 1875.
A historian named Pierre de Coubertin created the International Olympic Committee (commonly referred to today as the IOC) in 1894. His intention was to stage an Olympic Games every four years in cities around the world. The first Olympic Congress was held on June 16-23, 1894, at which it was decided that the first-ever official international Olympic Games would be held in Athens two years later.
Early success and issues
The Games of the First Olympiad were held in the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens from April 6-15, 1896, attracting 241 athletes from 14 nations competing in 43 events. The United States won the most gold medals with 11, setting a trend of dominance in the medal table that they have preserved to this day.
Athens hosted what was the first and only edition of the Intercalated Games in 1906.
The Games were funded by a combination of Zappas, his associate George Averoff, and the Greek government, and proved so popular that there were calls for Athens to be the permanent host of the Olympics. However, the IOC maintained their original policy of hosting the Games in rotating locations and Paris was announced as the host of the second Olympics to be held in 1900.
Both Paris 1900 and the subsequent 1904 Olympics in St. Louis did not enjoy the same levels of support. This was partially because they were held as side shows for larger festivals and organisational issues resulted in the events being contested over several months as opposed to the 10-day window achieved in Athens.
In a bid to rescue the Olympics’ ailing popularity, the IOC devised the Intercalated Games to be held in Athens every four years between each edition of the Olympics, starting in 1906. This generated considerably more public interest, culminating in 854 athletes from 20 nations participating in 78 events and providing newfound optimism ahead of the planned 1908 Olympics in Rome.
Rome was forced to resign as host due to financial issues, meaning the Games were moved to London. Although they were again held over a long span of 187 days, a total of 2,008 athletes competed, more than double that of any preceding Olympics, and over 100 events were contested for the first time.
The 1910 Intercalated Games were cancelled and they were ultimately never staged again. However, this didn’t prevent the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm from being a success, as reflected by the fact that they witnessed Japan become the first ever Asian nation to participate. The 1916 Olympics originally awarded to Berlin were cancelled as a result of World War I.
Milestones and controversy
Antwerp staged the next Olympics in 1920 when the Olympic flag displaying the iconic logo featuring five interlocked rings debuted. Paris then became the first city to host the Olympics twice in 1924. The Winter Olympics were held for the first time in the same year and continued to follow the same schedule as the Summer Games until 1994.
The Olympics moved to Amsterdam in 1928, where they took place between July 28 and August 12. This established the custom of holding the Games for a two to three-week period between July and August, which has predominantly been upheld since. The United States became the first country to hold the Olympics in two different cities when Los Angeles did so in 1932, although only 1,332 athletes attended primarily as a result of the Great Depression.
The 1936 Games in Berlin were arguably the most controversial in Olympics history. While they enjoyed much-increased exposure via being broadcast on television for the first time and the purpose-built 100,000-seater Olympiastadion, Adolf Hitler employed the Games as a thinly veiled opportunity to exhibit his Nazi ideologies to the world.
As a result, Jewish and black athletes from Germany and numerous other countries were prohibited from or advised not to participate. Despite this, the black American Jesse Owens became the first household name to emerge from the Olympics when he won four gold medals in the long jump and sprint events.
Expanding horizons and fierce rivalries
World War II prevented the Olympics from being held again until London hosted the ‘Austerity Games’ in 1948, so nicknamed due to the difficult economic climate they were staged in. Helsinki hosted the 1952 Games, at which the Soviet Union made their Olympics debut.
The 1980 and 1984 Olympics were marred by US and USSR-led boycotts respectively, prompting unpredecented medal hauls.
While Rome finally hosted the Games in 1960 (also staging the first Paralympics in the same year), the IOC primarily utilised the 1950s and 1960s to expand the horizon of the Olympics beyond Europe and the US.
Indeed, they moved to Oceania for Melbourne 1956, made their Asian debut with Tokyo 1964 and were held in Mexico City in 1968. The latter broke the 100-country benchmark for the first time, as 112 nations were represented among the 5,516 athletes.
The following decades witnessed fierce competition develop between the US and Soviet Union, as the Olympics became a sporting metaphor for the ongoing Cold War. The latter topped the medal table at Munich 1972, despite the efforts of American swimmer Mark Spitz, who won a record seven gold medals.
The Soviets repeated the feat at Montreal 1976, when East Germany also prevented the US from finishing in the top two for the first time ever. The rivalry escalated when the US led a boycott of 66 countries that withdrew from Moscow 1980 in opposition to the Soviet-Afghan War.
When Los Angeles then hosted the Games in 1984, the Soviets retaliated by heading a boycott of 14 Eastern Bloc countries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a consequence the respective host nations recorded two of the most dominant medal hauls in Olympics history.
Recent decades and Tokyo 2020
The Soviet Union led the medal table for a final time at Seoul 1988 before its dissolution, with 12 former Soviet republics competing as the Unified Team at Barcelona 1992. Since then, the Games have cemented their status as the biggest sporting festival in the world, with the number of athletes, countries and sports involved persistently hitting new milestones.
Indeed, over 10,000 athletes competed at Atlanta 1996, the number of events hit 300 at Sydney 2000, and 201 countries participated at Athens 2004.
While London became the first city to host the Olympics three times in 2012, they continued to tread new ground by moving to South America for Rio 2016. The Games five years ago set records across the board, with 11,238 athletes from 207 nations contesting 306 events.
Tokyo were announced as the hosts for this year’s Olympics in 2013, and they were originally scheduled for July 24 to August 9, 2020, before being postponed for the first time since 1944 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, the Games will grow in size once again, with karate, sport climbing, surfing, and skateboarding all set to make their Olympics debut and increase the total number of events to an all-time high of 339.
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