Road to the Olympic Games: A 120-year history of sporting excellence

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The Olympic Games stand as one of the greatest sporting events in human history, bringing together athletes from around the world to compete at the highest levels of physical achievement.

As the world prepares for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, France, it marks more than 120 years of evolution of a global celebration of athleticism.

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Ancient origins and revival in 1896

The Olympic Games originated in Ancient Greece, with the earliest recorded competition taking place in 776 BC. The Ancient Olympic Games were held every four years in Olympia, Greece, in honor of Zeus. They were open only to male Greek citizens and included events like wrestling, boxing, pankration, chariot racing, and various track and field events.

The Ancient Olympic Games continued for nearly 12 centuries until Emperor Theodosius I banned them as part of a campaign to impose Christianity across the Roman Empire in 393-394 AD.

It wouldn’t be until the late 19th century when efforts to revive the Olympic Games for the modern era began. French educator Pierre de Coubertin was central to these efforts, founding the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894 to oversee the revival of the Games.

Olympic Games - The 1896 Olympic Gold Medal - Athens. (Reuters)
Olympic Games - The 1896 Olympic Gold Medal - Athens. (Reuters)

Athens, Greece was selected to host the first modern Olympics in 1896, with 241 athletes representing 14 nations competing in 43 events. The 1896 Games were a major success and cemented the future of the modern Olympic movement.

1896 Olympic Games - Athens - Greece Start of the Men's 100m. (Reuters)
1896 Olympic Games - Athens - Greece Start of the Men's 100m. (Reuters)

Early 20th-century growth, world wars

In the early 20th century, the Olympic Games continued to grow in scope and popularity. New sports like golf, rugby, lacrosse, polo, and basketball were added to the program during the 1904 Games in St. Louis. Women were allowed to compete for the first time at the 1900 Olympics in Paris, with 22 women among 997 total athletes.

The 1906 Intercalated Games, held in Athens, introduced the Opening and Closing Ceremonies that have become a beloved Olympic tradition. The 1908 London Games marked the first time athletes marched into the stadium behind their nation’s flag during the Parade of Nations.

World War I and World War II forced the cancellation of the 1916, 1940, and 1944 Olympic Games. But the Games resumed soon after each war, demonstrating their role in helping heal the wounds of global conflict.

Modern Olympics: TV, politics and scandal

The advent of television broadcasts dramatically increased the global viewership and prestige of the Olympics. The 1936 Berlin Games were the first to be televised, with broadcasts reaching viewing halls in Berlin and Potsdam. Television expanded the reach and popularity of the Olympics throughout the second half of the 20th century.

With the Cold War underway, the Olympics also became a stage for politics and protest in the postwar era. African nations boycotted the 1976 Montreal Games due to New Zealand’s participation, as New Zealand’s rugby team had been touring apartheid South Africa. The US and many allies boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union and other communist nations retaliated by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

The Olympics have also faced their share of scandal and controversy over issues like judging controversies, performance-enhancing drugs, and even terrorism. At the 1972 Munich Games, members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took Israeli athletes and coaches hostage, eventually killing 11 of them along with one West German police officer.

Despite the many challenges, the Olympic Games have persevered as a powerful force for international unity and cooperation through sports.

Growth and evolution

Women’s participation in the Games has steadily grown since 1900. Today, women compete in almost every Olympic sport, including boxing, wrestling and weightlifting. The Winter Olympics were established in 1924, opening up more sports like figure skating, ice hockey, bobsledding, and ski jumping.

Marie Jose Perec of France starts out of the blocks in the women's 200 metres event at the Paris athletics meeting at Charlety stadium, June 25. Olympic 200 and 400 gold medallist, Perec finished in seventh placed. (Reuters)
Marie Jose Perec of France starts out of the blocks in the women's 200 metres event at the Paris athletics meeting at Charlety stadium, June 25. Olympic 200 and 400 gold medallist, Perec finished in seventh placed. (Reuters)

Recent decades have seen the Olympics adopt more contemporary sports with global appeal. Soccer, tennis, BMX cycling, and beach volleyball have all joined the program and become highly anticipated events. The IOC has also added more youthful, urban sports like skateboarding, sport climbing, and surfing that will debut in Paris in 2024.

The Olympics have increasingly emphasized environmentalism. The 1994 Lillehammer Winter Games used renewable energy sources and showcased energy conservation. Recent Games have also reduced waste and plastic consumption while utilizing existing and temporary venues over costly new infrastructure.

While the Olympics grapple with challenges around costs, size, and politics, they remain supremely popular, with billions tuning in on television worldwide. The Olympic ideals of excellence, friendship, and respect continue to inspire new generations of athletes and fans.

Back to the birthplace of modern Olympics

When Paris hosts the 2024 Summer Olympic Games, it will mark the third time the iconic French city stages the event. Paris previously held the second modern Olympics in 1900 and the eighth in 1924.

Tourists stand on the Sacre-Coeur Basilica stairs painted with the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games design at the Butte Montmartre in Paris, France, April 17, 2024. (Reuters)
Tourists stand on the Sacre-Coeur Basilica stairs painted with the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games design at the Butte Montmartre in Paris, France, April 17, 2024. (Reuters)

Paris 2024 will make distinctive use of iconic venues like Champ de Mars, Roland Garros Stadium, the Palace of Versailles, and the Seine River. A fleet of boats will ferry athletes and visitors between venues on the river. Paris also plans to emphasize the city’s history, architecture, art, food, and culture during the Games.

The 2024 Paris Olympics will feature 28 sports, including four new additions – surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing, and breakdancing. With over 10,000 athletes expected from more than 200 nations, Paris 2024 promises to be a grand global celebration of unity, excellence, and achievement continuing the storied 120-year modern Olympic tradition.

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