Olympic Games

Olympic Games


Olympic Games, international athletic competition, held every four years at a different city site. A modified revival of the Olympian Games, the Olympic Games were inaugurated in the spring of 1896, largely through the efforts of the French sportsman and educator Baron Pierre de Coubertin. This competition evolved into the Summer Olympics—the subject of this article. The Winter Olympics began in 1924 and were held in the same year as the Summer Olympics until 1994, since when the winter games have alternated with the summer games in even-numbered years.

Olympic Games

Planning for the modern games began in 1894, with the founding of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on June 23. Athens was selected as the venue for the first Games and they have been held every four years since (except in the case of the two world wars). The Olympics organization is headed by a president, elected by the IOC members for an initial period of eight years. The present office-holder is the Belgian Jacques Rogge, who succeeded Juan Antonio Samaranch in July 2001. The term of office for members of the IOC is also eight years. At the end of June 2005, there were 116 members, 20 honorary members, and 3 honour members.



The IOC maintains headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, and currently recognizes 202 national Olympic committees. In 1999 it was hit by the worst scandal in its history after finding six of its members guilty of accepting improper gifts from cities bidding to host the Games. The subsequent inquest, which uncovered a “culture of improper gift giving”, resulted in the members being expelled and new reform measures being adopted. The site of the games is chosen, usually six or seven years in advance, by the IOC.

The most recent Summer and Winter Olympics were held in Greece, Athens (2004) and Turin, Italy (2006) respectively. In July 2001 Beijing, China, was the controversial choice as the host city for the 2008 Summer Games. London received the vote in July 2005 to host the 2012 Summer Olympics.


The first modern games, held in April 1896 in Athens, Greece, attracted athletes from Great Britain, the United States, and 11 other nations. Only 42 events in 9 sports were scheduled for these games; women were not invited to compete. In contrast, 11,099 athletes from 202 countries attended the 2004 Athens Olympics.

A Politics

The Olympic Games of 1916, scheduled for Berlin, Germany, were cancelled because of World War I. They were rescheduled in 1936 and became the focal demonstration of the might of Nazi Germany. Hitler, expecting to showcase German athletic superiority, was overshadowed by the extraordinary exploits of the black American sprinter Jesse Owens, who won an unprecedented four gold medals. The Games scheduled for 1940 and 1944 were also cancelled because of World War II. The 1948 Games that followed were held in London, UK, and were known as the “Ration-Book” Games.

Political conventions have increasingly interfered with the avowed aim of the modern Olympics, that of fostering international unity. The 1972 games, held in Munich, West Germany (now part of the united Federal Republic of Germany), were marked by a tragedy growing out of political conditions in the Middle East. Members of an Arab guerrilla organization killed two Israeli athletes and took nine hostages, who were later killed, along with five of the guerrillas and a West German policeman, in a gun battle with police at a Munich airport. Olympic activities were suspended for a day to hold memorial services for the murdered Israeli athletes. The 1976 games, held in Montreal, Canada, were also marred by political issues. The host Canadian government refused to allow the Taiwanese team to carry its flag or have its national anthem played at the games. The Taiwanese thereupon withdrew. A second issue involved most of the black African nations. They demanded that New Zealand be excluded from the Olympics because one of its rugby teams had recently played in South Africa, whose racial policies these black African nations opposed. When their demand was refused, 31 nations withdrew their teams from the competition in support of the black African nations.

The United States, after much debate, withdrew from the 1980 games held in Moscow, in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. About 64 other nations also boycotted the 1980 games. The USSR, citing doubts about security measures, withdrew from the 1984 games in Los Angeles; 15 other nations followed suit. A record 160 nations participated in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea; the only political controversy at these games centred around North Korea’s unsuccessful bid to serve as cohost. The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, reflected a changed political landscape: the 172 participating nations and territories included the Unified Team (with athletes from Russia and 11 other former Soviet republics), a reunited Germany, and South Africa, which was allowed to compete for the first time since 1960. At Sydney, Australia, in 2000, political controversies were left behind: North and South Korea agreed to compete under a single flag and the newly emerging nation of Timor-Leste was given dispensation by the IOC to compete, marching at the opening ceremony under the neutral IOC flag.

B Sporting Achievers

Most of the memorable sporting achievers have come from the centrepiece of the Olympic Games—the athletics competition. Famous and successful competitors have included Harold Abrahams, Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Linford Christie, Michael Johnson, Sebastian Coe, Peter Snell, Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zatopek, Lasse Viren, Abebe Bikila, Dick Fosbury, Sergei Bubka, Bob Beamon, Al Oerter, Yuriy Sedykh, Bob Mathias, and Daley Thompson. Female athletes have included Fanny Blankers-Koen, Florence Griffith Joyner, Betty Cuthbert, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Swimming, one of the ever-present sports since 1896, is also considered one of the highlights of any Olympic meeting, with the events traditionally being dominated by American and Australian swimmers until the advent of eastern European swimmers in the 1970s. Famous participants have been Mark Spitz, Johnny Weissmuller, Roland Matthes, Kristin Otto, Dawn Fraser, Matt Biondi, and Aleksandr Popov.

Other notable competitors have included: Teófilo Stevenson, Cassius Clay, Sugar Ray Leonard, Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Lennox Lewis (all boxing); Chris Boardman, Jeannie Longo, Miguel Indurain, and Leontien Zijlaard (all cycling); Raimondo d’Inzeo, Liselott Linsenhoff, Richard Meade, and Mark Todd (all equestrianism); Larissa Latynina, Lilia Podkopayeva, Nadia Comaneci, Vitaly Scherbo, and Olga Korbut (all gymnastics); and Andre Agassi, Suzanne Lenglen, Helen Wills Moody, Steffi Graf, Lindsay Davenport and Venus Williams (all tennis).

C Professionalism

The Olympic Games were originally intended as amateur competitions, though over the years there has been increasing involvement by professional athletes. Today, the tennis, basketball, cycling, and baseball events are competed for by professionals, while even among the other sports payments for competing (though not at the Olympics themselves), endorsements, and other forms of advertising mean that the strict definition of amateur participation has long since gone.

In the early years of competition, amateur status was paramount and athletes such as Jim Thorpe who were caught receiving payment (Thorpe was paid to play baseball and was stripped of his gold medals) could be severely penalized. Amateur boxers regularly turn professional after participating at the Olympics and the early Olympics competitions were denied the spectacle of sprinters, in particular, who sought to earn cash payments for competing in their chosen sport and were thus barred from competition.

D Olympic Records

The competitor with the greatest number of Olympic medals is Larissa Latynina, the Soviet gymnast who competed between 1956 and 1964. She won 18 in a sport where six medals were available at each Games. Three yachtsmen, Paul Elvstrøm (Denmark), Magnus Konow (Norway), and Durwood Knowles (UK) appeared in Games that spanned 40 years along with the Danish fencer Ivan Ossier.

Other highlights include the seven gold medals won by American swimmer Mark Spitz in 1972, and the four athletics golds won in a single Games by Jesse Owens (1936), Fanny Blankers-Koen (1948), and Carl Lewis (1984). Al Oerter in the discus (1956-1968) won consecutive gold medals at four Olympic Games; British rower Steve Redgrave (1984-2000) exceeded that total with his fifth at the Sydney Olympics. Fencer Aladar Gerevich won six consecutive gold medals (1932-1960), and fellow Hungarian fencers to do likewise at five Olympics are Pal Kovacs and Ildiko Sagine-Uljakine-Rejto. Canoeist Birgit Fischer won eight gold medals between 1980 and 2004.


Since the first Olympics of the modern cycle, the number of women and the number of sports and events open to competition at the Games have increased. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens the following sports were part of the Games: Archery, Athletics, Badminton, Baseball, Basketball, Boxing, Canoeing, Cycling, Diving, Equestrian, Fencing, Football, Gymnastics, Handball, Hockey, Judo, Modern Pentathlon, Rowing, Sailing, Shooting, Softball, Swimming, Synchronized Swimming, Table Tennis, Taekwondo, Tennis, Trampolining, Triathlon, Volleyball (beach and indoor), Water Polo, Weightlifting, and Wrestling.


An elaborate ceremony traditionally opens the Olympic Games. The athletes parade into the stadium in alphabetical order, though traditionally led by the Greek team, in honour of the founding of the Olympic Games, and with the host nation marching in last. The Olympic Hymn is then played and the official Olympic flag (five interlocking rings—of blue, black, red, yellow, and green—on a white background) is raised. At the end of each Olympics, the flag is traditionally given to the mayor of the city that will next host the Olympics for safe-keeping. A runner then enters the stadium bearing the Olympic torch, initially lit by rays of the Sun at Olympia, Greece, and carried to the present site by a relay of runners.

During the games, medal ceremonies are held to honour the medal winners in each event. The first-, second-, and third-placed finishers stand on a podium and receive gold, silver, and bronze medals, respectively. Flags from the athletes’ countries are raised, and the national anthem of the country of the gold medallist is played. An elaborate closing ceremony ends with the release of doves, symbolizing the peaceful spirit of the Games. Other associations with the Games include the Olympic Motto: “citius, altius, fortius” (“swifter, higher, stronger”) to represent the greatest athletic achievements; and the Olympic Creed, oft repeated at the ceremonies, of “The important thing in these Olympics is not so much winning as taking part”.


The Olympic Games are competitions of individual athletes, not of nations, and the IOC does not keep national scores. However, the media of all nations report national standings according to one of two scoring systems. In the point system of scoring, ten points are credited for first place in the various events, five points for second place, four points for third place, three points for fourth place, two points for fifth place, and one point for sixth place. The other scoring system lists the number of medals won by each nation.

Although early records of the winners of medals are scarce, the following list of medals per country is a fair representation of how the various nations (under different guises) have fared. The overall medals table is dominated by American competitors, who have won 897 gold medals at the Summer Olympics since 1896. This total is followed by the USSR (latterly Russia) with 526, Germany with 231, Great Britain with 189, and France with 183.