Legend has Heracles as the originator of the Ancient Olympics. It is said that after completing his famous ‘twelve labours’ he built the ‘stadion’ [greek] , ‘stadium [roman] or ‘stage’ [English] to honor his father Zeus – the father of
all gods. He walked a distance of 400 strides in a straight line and called this distance a stadion. This is why a modern stadium is 400 metres in circumference.
The first Olympic games began in Olympia in 776 B.C. with Koroibos, a cook from nearby Elis winning the 600 feet long stadion race. Literary records show the ‘stadion’ as the only athletic event for the first 13 Olympics until 724 B.C.
The Olympics can be divided into two main periods. The Ancient Olympics from 776 B.C. through 393 A.D. – a period spanning almost 1200 years and the Modern Olympics reinstated in Athens, Greece after 1503 years in 1896 A.D. which continue till the present day.
A total of only 23 events were contested in the Ancient Olympics. They were divided into:
- Men’s track and field 8
- Equestrian 8
- Boys track and field 5
- Speciality events for heralds and trumpeters 2
In these categories, the pentathlon for boys (628 B.C.) and the Apene (mule cart race – 500 B.C.) were discontinued in 628 B.C. and 444 B.C. respectively. A few other sports deemed to be of great interest in those days have not been reinstated in the Modern Olympics. These include the Hoplitodromos (race in armor – 520 B.C.), Calpe (race for mares – 496 B.C.), Synoris (two horse chariot race – 408 B.C.) competitions for heralds and trumpeters (396 B.C.) and the Pankration for boys (200 B.C.).
The Ancient Olympics reached their peak around 5 B.C. as important religious festivals with contests alternating with sacrifices and rites in honour of Zeus and Pelops – a mythical King of Olympia famed for his chariot racing. Held every 4 years, the period between 2 celebrations became known as an Olympiad – used by the Greeks to count years. As the Romans gained power in Greece, the Olympics declined in importance. Emperor Theodosius I finally outlawed the festival in 393 A.D. citing the pagan rituals and nudity of the athletes – stemming from the ‘celebration of the achievements of the human body’ – as being in discord with Christian ethics
The Modern Olympic Games are the brainchild of French Baron Pierre de Coubertin who was searching for a reason for the French defeat in the Franco – Prussian War and Greek philanthropist Evangelos Zappas. These are now International multi-sport events. They include a few games from the Ancient Olympics such as the Pentathlon and the Stadion (now simply called races), while several new ones have been added over the years. Rule 48.1 of the Olympic Charter requires a minimum of 15 sports in the Summer Olympics. The IOC decided to limit the games to a maximum of 28 sports, 301 events and 10,500 athletes from 2002.
The first International Olympic Committee (IOC) games in 1896 had 241 athletes from 14 nations. Nine sports were included: athletics, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, weightlifting, shooting, swimming, tennis, and wrestling. The rowing event had to be cancelled due to bad weather.
The Summer Olympics used to feature figure skating and ice hockey before the beginning of the Winter Olympics. The recent 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy had 2633 athletes from 80 countries participating in 84 events in 7 sports. Within the sports of skiing and skating – cross country skiing, figure skating, ice
hockey, Nordic combined, ski jumping and speed skating events have featured
regularly at all Winter Olympics.
The Youth Olympic Games (YOG) is still being planned out after its approval in the IOC session in July 2007. It seems to be a reinstatement of the Boys events of the Ancient Olympics. The difference here is that both male and female athletes between ages 14 to 18 are envisioned to participate in games similar to their adult counterparts; the only difference being in duration with the summer version for 12 days and the winter version for 9 days.
Modern Olympics have seen changes in the inclusion criteria of sports. Rugby
was discontinued after the 1924 games wherein only 3 teams had participated.
Cricket met a similar fate to that of Rugby as IOC officials opined that Rugby and Cricket were too voluminous to fit into the already hectic timeframe of the Olympics. Baseball and softball will be discontinued from 2012 and there is speculation if games like the less popular modern pentathlon and the expensive white water canoeing would follow suit. Rugby 7s, squash and karate were submitted for the 2012 games but got voted out.
Some demonstration sports exhibited by the host country till 1992 were later
included as full medal events. Recent additions in Olympic sports include
snowboarding and beach volleyball.
Some unusual sports in the Summer Olympics include:
- Fencing is one of the only four sports found in all the Olympic Games.
- Taekwondo was a demonstration sport at the 1988 and 1992 Summer Olympic Games, and became a medal sport at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia
- Canoeing was a demonstration sport at the 1924 Paris Olympics with the USA winning all kayak events and Canada winning all canoeing events. It became an official sport in 1936
- Synchronized swimming was introduced in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
- Archery became an event in the Olympic Games in 1900 and was also featured in 1904, 1908 and 1920. Due to lack of international rules the sport was eliminated from the Olympic program until 1972 when it was reintroduced as outdoor target archery.
- Equestrian’s Dressage was first in the Olympics in 1912 limited to military riders for the next 40 years. Now everyone can compete.
- Water Polo was entered in the Olympics of 1900 with Britain and Belgium as the only participants. Women’s water polo was later introduced in the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
The winter specialities that are relatively recent and unusual include:
Winter Olympic Games.
- The Snowboarding: the IOC decided to make it official in 1994 and it made its appearance at the 1998Nagano,Japan Winter Olympic games.
- The Biathlon; combining cross country skiing with shooting with a 30 km relay was added in 1968. The 10 km sprint was added in 1980 and finally the women’s event in the biathlon was added in 1992
- Luge races that involved sleds were part of the Olympics in 1964 in Innsbruck, Austria.
The Beijing 2008 Olympics featured a total of 302 events in 28 sports. The major events included judo, modern pentathlon, archery, athletics, baseball, basketball,
boxing, canoe/kayak flatwater, canoe/ kayak slalom, equestrian, fencing, football, gymnastics artistic, gymnastics rhythmic, gymnastics trampoline, rowing, sailing, shooting, hockey, handball, badminton, shooting, softball, swimming, diving, synchronised swimming, table tennis, taekwondo, triathlon,
volleyball, beach volleyball, weightlifting, and water polo.
26 sports have been included in the programme for the London 2012 Olympics.