A Brief History of the Olympic Games

Updated on March 30, 2020

Earliest Record of the Olympics

The first records of competition in the Olympic Games come from 776 BC when only one event—a foot race over the length of the stadium—was contested. Although the history of the Games before this time is sketchy at best, several stories, or myths, suggest that the Olympic Games originated earlier. Of these stories, the two most well known are those that recount the exploits of Hercules and Pelops.

Two Brief Stories: Hercules and Pelops

The first story tells of Hercules, who was made to clean out the stables of his king, Augeias of Elis, in one day. Hercules made Augeias promise that if he was able to complete this huge task, he would receive one-tenth of Augeias's herds in return. The king reneged on this promise, so Hercules slew him, took all the herds, and instituted the Games in Olympia as a celebration.

The other story tells of Pelops who, after winning a rigged chariot race, was said to have founded the Olympic Games as a way to honour the gods for his victory.

Mosaic flooring depicting the winners of various events wearing wreaths.
Mosaic flooring depicting the winners of various events wearing wreaths. | Source

Past to Present

Whatever the truth of their origin, historical records from 776 BC onward show that the Games flourished in ancient Greece, with an increasing number of events being held over periods of time up to a week. Events included a chariot race and the Pankration, a fight in which only gouging and biting were forbidden. At this time, not only were women banned from competing in the Games, but they were not even allowed to watch.

When Greece fell to Rome, the popularity of these ancient Games declined. They were finally abolished after the Roman emperor Theodosius I banned all "pagan" events, including sports, in AD 393, and the site of Olympia was later buried by earthquakes and floods.

19th. Century

The nineteenth century saw a great revival of interest and participation in sports. The discovery of Olympia (and its heritage as host for the Games) by archaeologists led to enthusiasm and support for recreating the ideals of freedom and fellowship through sport on an international scale.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin c. 1915.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin c. 1915. | Source

Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin believed the success of the ancient Greek civilization was partly due to the reverence paid to these ideals, symbolically represented by the Games. He organized a meeting, which was held at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1894, where the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was formed to preside over the first modern Olympic Games at Athens in 1896, and all subsequent Games.

Modern Games

The modern Olympic Games were intended to be an event where all nations could meet in friendly competition and international harmony. All differences of status, religion, race and politics were supposed to be left outside the Games.

Unfortunately, the history of the modern Olympic Games has been marred on numerous occasions by the intervention of governmental or other bodies not connected with the sport itself. What follows is by no means a complete list but just a few brief examples.

Controversies, Politics, and Violence

Berlin 1936

Hitler attempted to make the 1936 Berlin Games a monument to the superiority of the German race. However, the remarkable feats of black sprinter and jumper, Jesse Owens, contradicted Hitler's claim, causing the German leader to react strongly in public at the Games. No Olympic Games were held during World War II.

Mexico 1968

The bitterness of the internal struggle in the U.S. over black rights was illustrated at the 1968 Mexico Games by the actions of black sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, after the 200 meters final. Smith won in world record time, with Carlos finishing third, but both athletes bowed their heads and raised black gloved hands in the salute of the 'black power' movement whilst the American national anthem was played.

Munich 1972

The 1972 Munich Olympic Games were marred by the tragic murder of several athletes because of a political dispute that related only indirectly to the victims, the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict.

Moscow 1980

The Moscow Games of 1980 were boycotted by many Western countries, most notably the USA, because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and several other Olympic teams went to the Games without the approval of their national governments.

Atlanta 1996

During the 1996 Olympic Games held in Atlanta, a bomb was detonated in the Centennial Olympic Park, killing 2 and injuring 111 other spectators.

Countries Have Been Excluded

Throughout the history of the modern Olympic Games, some countries have not been allowed to participate for political reasons. For many years, the USSR was in this category because it was seen as being the head of the communist world, which was the ideological contradiction of all the Games supposedly stood for.

The People's Republic of China was not permitted to represent China at the Olympics following the 1949 revolution. To this day, Taiwan still attends the Games, even though many countries and the United Nations now recognize the People's Republic of China's claim to represent all of China.


During the twentieth century, the Olympic Games greatly increased in size, and events now run over two weeks, with many being staged simultaneously at a number of purpose-built venues. The first Winter Olympics were staged in 1924, and are now held in the second year of each Olympiad.

Amateur vs. Professional

The strict amateur status of competition at the modern Olympic Games adhered to by the International Olympic Committee until quite recent times, was not inherited from the ancient Games. By 450 BC, athletes competed for substantial prizes in money or kind at the Olympics. They were also given enough to enable them to train and compete on a full-time basis without requiring employment to survive.

Host Cities

In order to allow a host city to adequately prepare for the events and the influx of participants and spectators, the International Olympic Committee allocates the venue for the Games up to six years before they are to be held.

Even though the cost of hosting the Games is prohibitive, many cities vie for the honour of being selected as the site for the Games. The fact that several billion people now view the Games via a worldwide satellite television system is sufficient to ensure a host country receives immense exposure, and, provided all goes well, important international accolades.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image


      7 years ago

      i am a new reader and i understand very much about olympics thanks

    • hhunterr profile image


      7 years ago from Highway 24

      Nice read. In ancient days, "pagan" events had become so numerous as to become meaningless. The Olympics weren't singled out as an enemy. It was just that no one cared. When Olympia fell into disrepair, the statue of Zeus wasn't rescued (moved to Istanbul) by worshippers - who may not have cared themselves - but a Christian who believed in historical preservation even then. All this came out of grad-school research on the ancient Games. thanx.

    • profile image


      7 years ago


    • profile image


      7 years ago

      it is fantastice

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 

      10 years ago from Georgia

      Excellent read! I was so proud when Atlanta hosted the Olympics!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      10 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Whoops. Hope I am not doing this 2X. I love the Olympics and so enjoyed reading this history. It helped to get me in the mood for the Winter Games that are coming up soon.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      10 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Thanks for the history of the Olympics. I love the Olympics and am so looking forward to the Winter Games coming up. I get so excited!


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, howtheyplay.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)