The Olympic Games are the world’s biggest sporting spectacle. They are divided into a summer and winter Games, held every four years by a single city. Athletes with disabilities compete at the Paralympics. More than 10,000 athletes take part in the summer events alone.
In the 19th century, archaeological discoveries revived interest in the ANCIENT OLYMPICS. The Greeks tried to recreate the Games in Athens in 1859 and 1870. However, the major force behind the modern Olympics was the French aristocrat Baron de Coubertin (1863–1937). In 1894 he organized an international conference in Paris to support a revival of the Games.
De Coubertin’s 1894 conference created the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has run the Games ever since. The IOC chooses the host cities and sets the rules for competing. In recent years, its reputation has been hurt by scandals over corruption and bribery in the selection of the host cities.
Baron de Coubertin saw the Olympics as a place in which sporting excellence could be celebrated. The ideal was to build international understanding and cooperation. The Olympic code promotes amateurism, or performance without payment, and professionals are allowed to participate only under certain rules.
The ancient Olympics celebrated the god Zeus and were held every four years at Olympia, Greece. Winners received an olive wreath. The date of the first Games is unclear, but the first recorded Olympic champion was Koroibos, who won a sprint in 776 BC.
The events at Olympia in 776 BC were sprints and horse races. Later, longer races were added, including sprints wearing full armor. Chariot racing and combat sports such as boxing and wrestling were soon regular features. All events were held in a stadium. The open-air track for horse racing was called a hippodrome.
The Romans invaded Olympia in 85 BC. The Games continued under Roman rule, but were disrupted by a Germanic invasion around AD 300. The Games became part of a pagan festival until the Christian emperor Theodosius I ordered the closure of all pagan events in 393.
The summer and winter Games each cost around $3 billion to host. Cities must house hundreds of thousands of visitors and provide security and transportation for them. The host city must also build world-class stadiums and facilities. All this bankrupted the 1976 host, Montreal. Costs are met by the income from television sponsorship and tourism.
The Olympics have changed a great deal since 1896, when there were no women’s events at all. The winter Games only began in 1924. TRACK AND FIELD is the focus of the summer Games, but many events have come and gone, such as the tug-of-war. Recent additions include volleyball, canoeing, and cycling.
Track and field events were the core of the ancient Olympics and included running, throwing, and jumping, which combined into multi-event competitions—the pentathlon (five events) and the decathlon (ten events). Today, track and field also includes pole-vaulting, hurdling, and relay racing.
Great athletes, like all great sports competitors, require fitness, dedication, natural ability, and luck. What lifts some athletes above others is a relentless will to win, psychological strength, and the capacity to produce their best performance under any circumstances.
With sponsorship, athletes have more resources and time to devote to sports. High-tech running tracks, clothing, and shoes have improved performance. So have new techniques such as the flop in high jumping. However, performance-enhancing drugs damage the Olympic ideals and the competitors’ health.