The world's oldest sports spectacular, the first known Olympiad was held in 776 B.C.E. in Olympia, Greece. It is believed the festivals began before 1400 B.C.E. The modern games, which until recently were held roughly every four years in different countries, were revived in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France. Those 1896 summer games took place in Athens, with 13 nations sending about 300 male athletes to compete in 42 events and 10 different sports. Now nearly 200 nations send thousands of male and female athletes to the Olympics, and hundreds of millions watch the events on television. Some winter sports were included in early years of the modern Olympics, but the Winter Games as a separate event didn't begin until 1924.
In ancient Greece, four national religious festivals—the Olympic Games, the PYTHIAN GAMES, the NEMEAN GAMES, and the ISTHMIAN GAMES—were major events; the Olympic Games, honoring Zeus, were especially famous. Records tell of Olympic Games every four years from 776 B.C.E. to 217 C.E. when, with Greece under Roman domination, the games had lost their religious purpose and the athletes vied only for money.
They were abolished by the Roman emperor, Theodosius I. It is generally believed, however, that the festival consisted not only of sporting contests, but of the presentation of offerings to Zeus and other gods. At first, these were simple foot races; later the long jump, discus and javelin-throwing, wrestling, boxing, pancratium (a ferocious combination of boxing and wrestling), and chariot racing were added. Poets and dramatists also presented works. The games opened with trumpet fanfares and closed with a banquet.
Modern Olympics comprise Summer Games, held in a large city, and Winter Games, held at a resort. Since 1994, the games are still on a four-year cycle, but two years apart: Winter Games in 2014, 2018, 2022, etc., and Summer Games in 2012, 2016, 2020, etc. There are 41 approved sports for the Summer Games. The Winter Games consist of 15 approved sports.
Today, the opening ceremonies highlight a parade of the athletes led by those from Greece, in honor of the original
Games, followed by the athletes from the other nations, in alphabetical order according to the spelling in the country's language; the host country enters last.
After the Games are declared open, the dramatic lighting of the Olympic flame occurs. A cross-country relay runner carries a torch first lit in Olympia, and ignites the flame that burns for the 15-16 days of the games. Thousands of runners, representing each country between Greece and the host country, take part in the four-week torch relay. This is followed by a spectacular production of fireworks, strobe lights, fly-overs, music, dance, and assorted entertainment.
The Winter Games of 1992, held in Albertville, France, were historic in their reflection of dramatic political changes. The Soviet Union had broken up in August 1991, and athletes from five former Soviet republics competed as representatives of the Commonwealth of Independent States or United Team, and the Olympic flag, not that of the U.S.S.R., was raised for the winners.
The first and second-place medals are both made of silver but the first place has a wash of gold; the third-place medal is bronze.
The Olympics are supposed to be nonpolitical but have been marked (and marred) by politics. In 1936, Adolf Hitler, who called blacks an inferior race, opened the Olympics in Berlin, Germany, as a propaganda show. It was thus a great triumph for humanity when Jesse Owens, a black man from Ohio State University, won four gold (first place) medals. He won the 100- and 200-meter dashes and the running broad jump, and was on the winning 400-meter relay team. Hitler ducked out of the stadium so he wouldn't have to congratulate Owens.
In 1972, the Games in Munich, Germany, were struck with horror when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Arab terrorists.
The 1980 Games were opened in Moscow by Communist Party chairman Leonid I. Brezhnev, but athletes from the United States, Canada, West Germany, Japan and 50 other countries didn't participate. Their countries boycotted the event in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Terrorism again struck the Games in Atlanta in 1996.
Prominent Olympics participants have included:
Jim Thorpe, an American Indian and one of the greatest all-round athletes of all time, won gold medals for the decathlon and pentathlon in 1912. The following year, he was stripped of the medals when an investigation showed he had played semiprofessional baseball. He died in 1953, and the medals were restored to his family in 1982.
Paavo Nurmi, known as the “Flying Finn,” won nine gold medals in long-distance running in three Olympics—in 1920, 1924, and 1928. On an extremely hot day at the Paris Summer Games in 1924, Nurmi set Olympic records in the 1,500-meter and 5,000-meter runs. Two days later, he won the 10,000-meter cross-country race. In 1928, he set a record for the one-hour run, covering 11 miles and 1,648 yards. His
1924 wins were considered the greatest individual performance in the history of track and field.
The Norwegian skater Sonja Henie won three gold medals— in 1928, 1932, and 1936. In 1924, at the age of 11, she was the youngest Olympian contestant ever (she finished last that year). She thrilled crowds by incorporating balletic moves into what had been standard skating exercises.
Emil Zatopek, a Czech long-distance runner, won three gold medals in 1952 and set Olympic records for the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races and for the marathon.
Larisa Latynina, a gymnast from the Ukraine, won 18 Olympic medals over the course of three consecutive Olympics (1956, 1960, 1964) and held the record for most medals for 48 years until surpassed by American swimmer Michael Phelps in 2012. With her nine gold metals, Latynina stands among the greatest Olympians. Her record for individual event medals still stands at 14.
Jean-Claude Killy, known as “Le Superman” in his native France, won three gold medals in Alpine ski events at Grenoble, France, in 1968.
Mark Spitz, a swimmer from California, became the first athlete to win seven gold medals in a single Olympics (1972).
He set world records in four individual men's events, and won the remaining medals in team events. These teams also set world records. Spitz, 22 at the time, was so popular for a while that his photo was a pinup poster.
Michael Phelps turned in an even more spectacular performance. At the 2004 Olympics he won six gold medals, but that was just the warm up. In 2008, he set a new record by winning eight gold medals—in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly; the 200-meter freestyle; the 200- and 400-meter individual medley; the 4x100-meter medley relay; and the 4x100-and 4x200-meter freestyle relay. He set new world records in seven of those events, all but the 100-meter butterfly. At this third Olympics in 2012, Michael Phelps won four more gold medals, one each for the 100-meter butterfly, the 200-meter medley, the 4x200-meter freestyle, and the 4x100-meter medley. His total of 22 Olympic medals, including 18 gold medals, earned him the distinction of being the most decorated Olympian of all time.
Also in 2012, Usain Bolt helped his Jamaican relay teammates breaking the world record for the 4x100-meter for the second time-the first was in 2008. The legendary sprinter set an Olympic record for the 100-meter, with a time of 9.63 seconds, and increased his medal total to six gold medals won in two Olympic appearances.
See also CULTURAL OLYMPIAD.
International Olympic Committee Chateau de Vidy Case postale 356 Lausanne, 1001 Switzerland 41-21-621-6111;
Olympic Museum 1, quai d'Ouchy Lausanne, 1006 Switzerland 41-21-621-6511
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