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The history of the Modern Olympics

Every four years, the Olympic Games are held. It’s a celebration – one of culture, of a defining moment in history, and of sporting accomplishment. With a rotating set of hosts and a list of sports that shrinks and expands as the world’s attention and interest shifts, the Olympic Games in both its Summer and Winter seasons capture our attention in a unique way.

What else sets the Olympics apart? Its history and mythology. The two, in many instances, become blurred. Not many sports or sporting occasions can cite a BC founding year, let alone one that begins in Olympia, a site of Ancient Greek religious sanctuary. Not many sporting occasions can credit heroes and gods with the creation of events and the dedication of the occasion as a whole.

But what lasts as mythology does require centuries to cement it. Contemporary athletes in games four years ago, twenty years ago, and even forty years ago have moments referred to as divine. The world is brought together in moments of widespread agreement every Olympiad (the name given to the four-year cycle) – and that’s the idea. The Olympiad marks history and life in no two ways.

This is why you’re here. This is why you’ve chosen this DAZN Bet guide to understand and, hopefully, appreciate what the Olympics is to lots of people and what it could be to you.

Three Runners Ancient Olympics

Olympics 101:

  •     The very first Olympic Games took place in Ancient Greece. They are traditionally dated to 776 BC. Writings on the games appear to end in 393 AD when Greece was under the Roman rule of Theodosius I. However, some evidence suggests the games endured, being held after 393 AD in some capacity.
  •     In the hope that sporting events could promote international understanding, a Frenchman by the name Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894. Following this, the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece – where else? – from the 6th of April to the 15th of April 1896.
  •     The Summer and Winter Olympic Games take place, respectively, every four years. Though, nowadays, these Games don’t take place in the same year as one another. Two years separate the Summer and Winter Games – for instance, the Tokyo Summer Games took place in 2020 and the Beijing Winter Games took place in 2022. 1992 was the year both these Games stopped taking place in the same year. 
  •     The Paralympic games always take place immediately after the closing ceremony of the Olympic games. There are several categories in which athletes can compete to account for the variety of disabilities.
  •     The number of events that comprise the Olympics has generally increased every Olympiad. While the Ancient Games had a limited – though varied – selection, the Games of 1896 had 43 events, featuring athletics, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting, and wrestling. By comparison, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics had 339 events, which included new-to-the-Games sports like freestyle BMX and 3×3 basketball.
  •     The United States of America dominates the medals table of the modern Olympics. Since winning the most golds in Athens (11), they’ve gone on to secure 1060 more. In total – Gold, Silver, and Bronze – Team U.S.A have 2629 medals to their name, making them the most decorated nation in Olympic history. They are 1519 medals clear of the Soviet Union (the nations of which now, obviously, compete as sole nations). Great Britain is third with 918 – likely overtaking the Soviet Union during the 2028 Los Angeles Games, unless they underperform.
  •     Unlike other sporting events where nations are hosts, a single city is responsible for the organisation of the games, including which events will take place. Each city ‘bids’ for the opportunity to host. To decide, a secret ballot is held by the IOC where each active IOC member has one vote (unless they are bidding for the Games). Whichever city receives the majority of the votes becomes the host for that Olympiad. 
  •     Athletes compete against their compatriots for the chance to represent their country. As such, there is no formal qualification process that the IOC requires (beyond complying with the drugs tests and other fair play rules and regulations). It’s entirely down to an individual country’s committee to decide what athletes represent them at the games. Team sports (basketball, football, handball, hockey, rugby sevens, beach volleyball and volleyball) are different, though. Each team sport has different rules, but the general approach is that to qualify a country must have performed well in that sport in organised, international tournaments outside of the Olympics. 


The Captivating History of the Olympics

The Olympics, as mentioned, bleeds mythology into history. 

In Peloponnese, there’s a sanctuary site in rural Olympia, which is a Temple of Zeus, God of the Sky. Olympia gets its name from Mount Olympus, home to the greatest Greek gods and goddesses. It is here that the Olympics were first held, in honour of Zeus.

That isn’t where the mythology ceases, though. There are conflicting accounts of which gods and goddesses are responsible for the Olympics’ birth and the creation of events. 

One account suggests that Heracles and his four brothers raced to entertain newborn Zeus.  Other Olympian gods kept Zeus amused and interested by running too, but also jumping and wrestling.

A similar story describes how Greek gods themselves competed in the very first Olympic Games at Olympia. Wrestling, running, boxing, and combat were involved. 

Another account follows the story of Pelops, who outran the king in a chariot – with some foul play – to prove he was right to marry the king’s daughter, who fell in love with Pelops. Chariot races were organised by Pelops to thank the gods but, also, to honour the king who died during his race with Pelops. The Olympics were inspired thus.

Another brings together Heracles, son of Zeus and not the same Heracles that possibly entertained newborn Zeus, who hosted a sports festival annually to honour his father.

Beyond the origin of the games, many athletes would style themselves on Greek gods, like Heracles by wearing a lion skin, as Milo of Croton did, to channel and express his and Heracles’s wrestling prowess.

From Myth to Memory

In 776 BC – the year believed to be when the Olympics were first held – male athletes came to Olympia representing various city-states of the Greek empire. A truce was enacted so athletes and spectators could travel safely to witness the games. This sense of peace and a pursuit of a better world is a key Olympic ideal to this day.

The very first Olympic champion on record is a man known as Koroibos of Elis. A cook by day, but for the Olympics he was the fastest in a 600-foot sprint. This was the only athletic event held at the inaugural Olympic Games. Koroibos was awarded the Olive Wreath. The branches were taken near Zeus’s Temple from a sacred olive tree. As the first Olympiad – the first Olympic champion – the people of Elis honoured him, and his grave was still known and kept into the second century AD.

One event specific to the ancient period was pankration, which was a no-rules combat sport. ‘No rules’ was not quite true, as fighters couldn’t gouge their opponent’s eyes or bite them. Nonetheless, to come as no surprise, it was a brutal event, which put the competitors lives at risk. Arrhichion is credited as the most famous pankratiast of all time. His moments in history came in 572 BC and 568 BC, the 52nd and 53rd Olympics. He has what is believed to be the oldest statue of an Olympic champion in the museum at Olympia. He died in the 54th Olympics, 564 BC, successfully defending his title. 

Discus, long-jump, and Pentathlon became staples of the Ancient Olympics, as were Equestrian events. Horse and chariot racing was the prestige competition. Cynisca is arguably the name to know from this period. She was a chariot racer and was the first woman to become Olympic champion, doing so in 396 BC. Breeding and training her own team of horses, she was victorious in the four-horse chariot race, following up at the 392 BCOlympics with another victory and Olive Wreath. Bronze statues depicting her, her horses, and her chariot are to be found in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia. 

Ancient Olympic history is long and full of characters, drama, and incredible sporting achievements. What we call the Ancient Olympic history ended – or at least we are yet to find recorded evidence they continued ­officially – though there is evidence they did continue in some capacity – under the rule of Theodosius I, also known as Theodosius the Great, Roman Emperor from 379 to 395 AD

By 394 AD, Theodosius I abolished the games. As the Roman empire overtook the Greek empire throughout the second century AD, the Games had taken on a different flavour. Greeks still held them in high regard, as moments in which heroism was birthed and recognised. However, Theodosius I had had enough, wanting to promote Christianity and do away with the paganism he felt the Olympic games upheld and represented.

Modern Olympics History

It took until the 1800s for the Olympic movement to be resurrected. In 1894, Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic movement, founded the International Olympic Committee. He’d been trying for many years to convene the right people to hold such an event. The initial idea was to launch the Olympics at the very beginning of the 20th Century in Paris. However, with the support of like minded individuals, connections with the Greek government, and the Greek Government itself, the 1896 Athens Olympics took place. Paris would get their Olympics the following Olympiad, in 1900, as de Coubertin had planned.

14 nations participated in the 1896 Athens Olympics. 10 of those nations won gold medals, which had initially been awarded as Silver, with second-place finishers receiving a copper medal. The IOC retrospectively awarded them Gold and Silver respectively. 

The majority of the athletes had hailed from Greece, contributing to what was the largest sporting event in history, both in terms of those competing and the crowd spectating. The USA won 11 golds and topped the medal table. Greece won the most medals overall with 47. Twelve athletic events, six cycling events on road and track, three fencing events, eight gymnastics events, five shooting events, four swimming events, two tennis events, two weightlifting events, and a wrestling event comprised these Games. The first recipient of a modern Olympic Gold was a USA triple-jump athlete by the name of James Brendan Connolly, who, after some fighting with Harvard to be released and join the USA Olympic team, won Gold (which was then Silver) with his overpowered technique which has been subsequently banned. He out jumped the field by a metre, which indicates how much he broke the event with his jumping style and technique. 

The Twentieth Century

Paris’s 1900 Olympics displayed the growth the Games had earnt since Athens. Over a thousand more competitors participated than they did four years prior. The Olympics were also held as part of the 1900 World’s Fair, also in Paris. 26 nations competed. The figures declined for the St. Louis Olympics in 1904 – though this was the first Olympics that Women could compete in – before returning to and surpassing Paris’s figures at the 1908 London Olympics. Stockholm hosted the 1912 Olympics before the 1916 Games to be held in Berlin were cancelled as World War I broke out. 

Antwerp, Paris (for the second time), Amsterdam, and Los Angeles all hosted the Olympics after the Games resumed. In 1936, Berlin hosted. These were the first Olympics to be televised. Jesse Owens won four golds in sprint and jumping events, becoming credited as the best and most famous track and field star in Olympic history. These accolades were hugely political, as Hitler saw the games as a chance to promote his ideology. Owens’ victories were seen as a crushing argument against such politics.

After two empty Olympiad cycles during World War II, the Games returned bigger than ever in London 1948. 59 nations competed, with the USA topping the table, unsurprisingly, in terms of both Golds won and medals won. The most successful athlete was Fanny Blankers-Koen, known as ‘the Flying Housewife’, who won golds in the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles, and 4x100m relay events.

The Mid-century Onwards…

As christened by the Fins, the 1952 Helsinki Olympics are known as ‘The Last Real Olympics’. While those beyond Finland don’t necessarily hold this view, it’s given this name as it’s seen as the last time the Olympics were held in its truest spirit. After that, it became much more commercialised, and enhancing drugs began to dwarf headlines during the games. Then, overshadowing political situations of the 1970s and early 1980s – including the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics, during which eleven athletes and coaches from Israel and a West German police officer were killed by the Black September Organization – clouded the original meaning of the games.

After the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, though, growth kick-started again. With Seoul, Barcelona, and Atlanta rounding out the twentieth century – and a century of the modern Olympics – more athletes and countries competed than at earlier Olympic games.

Sydney started the new millennium off with what critics and fans described as one of the best Olympics ever organised. Many praised the spirit in which it was held – the sportsmanship and the hospitality shown by the host nation. In what was an Olympics to forget for the Brits, the USA again topped the table for Golds and total medals. This was also the Olympics that Michael Phelps made his debut – not winning a medal, though he did finish fifth in the 200m butterfly.

The 2004 Athens Olympics and 2008 Beijing Olympics solidified Phelps’ growing prestige as an athlete, winning golds and breaking records. In Beijing, he broke the record for the most medals at a single Olympic games with 8. It was at this games Usain Bolt, another preeminent Olympian, made his debut, winning golds in the 100m and 200m and breaking both world records. China topped the medal table at their own Olympics, which was their first time doing so.

London 2012 and Rio 2016 were games in which both Phelps and Bolt cemented their legacies as the best Olympians of all-time, rounding out their medal collections and finishing their careers on the top of their games.

Tokyo 2020 was the first time an Olympic Games had been delayed, taking place a year later, in 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was an important games for the introduction of new events: freestyle BMX, 3×3 basketball, skateboarding, surfing, sport climbing, and karate, for instance.

Paris, a significant figure in Olympic history, will host the 2024 Olympics.

Olympic’s Timeline

  •     The Time of Greek Gods: Various accounts of how the gods inspired or directly created the Olympics take place. New-born Zeus, God of the sky, is entertained by Heracles, who ran, jumped and wrestled; the Greek gods themselves competed in the very first iteration of Olympic events; Pelops bested the King in a chariot race to wed his daughter, and held the Olympics as a celebration of victory and to honour the fallen king; and Heracles, son of Zeus, hosts the Olympics to honour his father.
  •     776 BC: the first human-participated Olympics is completed. Male athletes from city-states across the Greek empire come to Olympia to compete. Koroibos, a cook from Elis, becomes the first Olympic champion – winning a 600-foot sprint.
  •     720 BC: a significant moment of sartorial decision takes place. All athletes from here on run naked.
  •     572 BC, 568 BC, and 564 BC: Arrhichion wins back-to-back-to-back pankration titles, becoming the most famous pankratiast ever. He died winning his third title in 564 BC. 
  •     396 BC: Cynisca becomes the first woman to receive an Olympic Olive Wreath, winning the four-horse chariot race with a team of horses she bred and trained on her own. She defended her title at the following Games.
  •     394 AD: The Olympics Games are abolished by the decree of Emperor Theodosius the Great. A thousand-year history ends.
  •     1894: Pierre de Coubertin founds the IOC and ignites the modern Olympic movement.
  •     1896: the first modern Olympic games takes place in Athens, the home of the Olympics. James Brendan Connolly was the first modern Olympic champion, winning the Triple Jump.
  •     1914: Pierre de Coubertin turns his hand to graphic design, creating the Olympic Rings. The interlocking rings are all different colours, to present each competing continent.
  •     1928: a symbol of the Olympic spirit and its continuity, the Olympic Flame is first lit in Amsterdam. 
  •     1936: the first torch relay happens, in which the Olympic Flame is carried from Olympia to Berlin.
  •     1936: at the Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens is the most decorated Olympian, winning four golds, and setting a new athletic standard.
  •     1960: while Berlin 1936 had televised broadcasts, the 1960 Rome Olympics are the first to be broadcast to an international audience. This was also the first games to feature brand endorsements and the ushering in of commercial elements.
  •     1960: Muhammad Ali wins gold at the Rome Olympics, aged just 18.
  •     1972: Mark Spitz claims seven gold medals at the Munich Olympics, becoming record holder for most medals at a single Olympic games.
  •     1972: Olga Korbut wins three gold medals for the Soviet Union in Munich. She also completes the Korbut Flip – a move now banned from all competitions.
  •     1984: Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, earning a perfect score from every judge.
  •     1992: The USA Basketball’s Dream Team – featuring Michael Jordan and other huge NBA stars – win gold. This was the first time pro players were recruited by Team USA for the Olympic event. The Dream Team goes down in history as the greatest team ever put together.
  •     2008: Michael Phelps wins 8 medals at the Beijing Olympics, becoming the new record holder of the most medals at a single Olympic games.
  •     2012: women from every participating nation at the 2012 London Olympics compete at an Olympics for the first time.
  •     2021: the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics take place. This represents the first time an Olympics had been moved, cancelled, or delayed since WWII.

The Olympics: DAZN Bet’s Pop Quiz

Try your hand at DAZN Bet’s pop quiz now that you’ve been exposed to the Olympics’ long and storied history.

Which events have taken place during every modern Olympic Games?

Athletics, fencing, gymnastics, and swimming. These are the sports that have endured the century of change. Cycling, in general, can be considered part of this group too, as either (or both) road cycling or track cycling have been featured at every single Olympics. 

Which city has hosted the Olympics the most?

London has hosted the Olympics the most as of right now. 1908, 1948, and 2012 were the years. However, this record is due to be equalled over the next two Olympiad cycles. Paris in 2024 will equal London’s 3 times, and then Los Angeles will equal both London and Paris when it hosts in 2028.

What was the most attended Olympics?

In 1996, when Atalanta hosted the Olympic Games – a centennial anniversary of the first modern Olympics in Athens 1896 – a record 8.3m tickets were sold. Michael Johnson was the star of the Games, winning the 200m and 400m and breaking records.

The Olympics 2024

In 2024, the Olympics will arrive in Paris – city of lights, love, and, hopefully, a few sporting moments for the ancient halls of fame. You can expect 329 events spread across 32 different sports, including the relatively new additions of sport climbing, surfing, and skateboarding, which made their debut at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The list will also include one brand-new addition to the games: break dancing (known simply as ‘breaking’), introduced in a bid to boost interest from younger audiences.

As always, participating nations – of which there will be 206, with 10,500 athletes arriving in Paris – are playing their cards close to their chests, and it will be some time yet before Olympic teams are formally introduced. We expect to see plenty of defending champions, but, as always, the debuts of many athletes who will go on to define their generation.