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The Olympic Games Explained: A Kids' Guide

Rhys Baker teaches science at Arthur Mellows Village College in Peterborough, UK.

The Tower Bridge of London was decorated with the Olympic Rings to celebrate the Games of the XXX Olympiad, held in London in 2012.

The Tower Bridge of London was decorated with the Olympic Rings to celebrate the Games of the XXX Olympiad, held in London in 2012.

When Was the First Olympics Held?

The Ancient Olympics were held in Greece between 776BC and 394 AD as a tribute to the Greek gods who lived on Mount Olympus. These games were very different to the ones we see today—for starters, the athletes competed naked! The Ancient Olympics began as a one-day event but was extended to last for five days with many different events:

  • Boxing: Not quite bare-knuckle, but no gloves either: the ancient Greeks wrapped their fists in stiff leather to maximise striking force.
  • Wrestling: No time limits, the fight is finished when one competitor passed out or admitted defeat.
  • Stadion Race: A sprint of around 200m, this was the first-ever Olympic event. The winner of this race would have the whole game named after him!
  • Armour Race: Exactly as it sounds: run as fast as you can whilst wearing full body armour!
  • Pankration: A brutal mix of boxing and wrestling with no weight classes, time limits or rounds. The only rules were no eye-gouging or biting. Everything else was allowed.
  • Tethrippon: A four-horse chariot race with no rules!

If this doesn't sound brutal enough, the referees were armed with whips and would lash any competitor breaking the rules. The Ancient Olympic Games were banned in 393 AD by Emperor Theodosius, who declared the games a heresy.

The idea of Olympic-style games was revived by William Brookes who founded the Much Wenlock Olympian Games in 1850. These included a mix of athletics and other sports such as cricket and football (soccer). Unusual events were not uncommon, with a wheelbarrow race being included one year! These games are still held every year in July.

The first modern Olympics were held in 1986 in Athens and involved 13 countries competing in 42 events over 9 different sports.

Olympic Facts

  • London is the only city to have hosted the Olympics 3 times: in 1908, 1948 and 2012.
  • Badminton, table tennis and handball are the only Olympic events in which the USA has never won a medal.
  • Twelve athletes have won Olympic medals while representing two distinctly different countries.
  • The medals awarded at London 2012 will be the heaviest summer Olympic Games medals.
  • Over 5,000 anti-doping samples will be taken during the Games.

How Many Sports Are There in the Olympics?

The number of sports in the Olympics has been changing ever since 1896. London 2012 will see 302 medal events across 39 disciplines in 26 sports. The 2012 Games will also see the introduction of handball into the Olympics for the first time. This is fewer sports than there were in Beijing in 2008—baseball and softball were cut from the Olympic programme, the first to be cut as Olympic sports since polo in 1936.

Are the Olympic Medals Made From Real Gold?

No! The last Olympics to have a gold medal made entirely from gold was in 1912. Since 1896, 29,216 medals have been awarded, and they have changed a lot in that time.

The medals awarded at the first modern Olympics in 1896 were made from silver and were 50mm in diameter. They were only awarded to the winners of each event. The London 2012 Olympic medals weigh 375-400g, are 85mm in diameter and 7mm thick:

  • The gold medal is made up of 92.5% silver and 1.34% gold, with the remainder copper (a minimum of 6g of gold).
  • The silver medal is made up of 92.5% silver, with the remainder copper.
  • The bronze medal is made up of 97.0% copper, 2.5% zinc and 0.5% tin.
London 2012 Olympic gold medal. The largest and heaviest medals to be awarded at a Summer Olympic Games, the 'gold' medal only contains around 6g of gold.

London 2012 Olympic gold medal. The largest and heaviest medals to be awarded at a Summer Olympic Games, the 'gold' medal only contains around 6g of gold.

How Many Countries Compete in the Olympics?

Over 10,500 athletes from 205 'National Olympic Committees' (countries) will compete at London 2012. These will be accompanied by 7,500 team officials and 3,000 technical officials... not to mention the 21,000 presenters, media and broadcasters providing coverage of the Games.

Putting all of the events together, LOCOG will need to use over 1million pieces of sports equipment including:

  • 600 basketballs
  • 510 adjustable hurdles
  • 2,700 footballs
  • 356 pairs of boxing gloves

To keep all of these competitors safe, there will be 375 doctors and 150 nurses dedicated to the Games.

Which Country Is the Most Successful in Olympic History?

The USA are way out in front in the all-time medal table, but the top five are probably not as you would imagine.

Yup... apparantly half a medal can be awarded. Numbers are accurate as of the start of London 2012. Source:







USSR (1952-1988)





Great Britain and N.I















Who Is the Most Successful Olympian Ever?

The most successful athlete in Olympic history, as measured by number of medals, is the Soviet Union competitor Larisa Latynina, who collected 18 medals. Arguably, however, this is eclipsed by the American swimmer Michael Phelps. Although Phelps only has 16 medals, he has won a whopping 14 gold medals, compared to 'only' 9 golds from Latynina.

The record held for most consecutive gold medals is held by Britain's Sir Steven Redgrave, who won gold at an unmatched 5 consecutive Olympic Games.

Here is a list of all the Olympians who have won 5 or more medals (correct at the start of London 2012). As you would expect, it is dominated by the U.S. and Soviet Union.

Measured by sheer number of medals, here are the 5 most successful Olympians since 1896.


Larisa Latynina

Soviet Union





Michael Phelps

United States





Nikolay Adrianov

Soviet Union





Edoardo Mangiarotti






Takashi Oni






What Are the Olympic Values?

The Olympic Values reflect the philosophy of the man generally attributed as the founder of the modern Olympic games, Pierre de Coubertin. All competitors in the games are to uphold a set of values:

  • Respect: Play fair, respect yourselves, each other and the officials, respect your environment.
  • Excellence: giving your very best at all times.
  • Friendship: Understand your competitors despite any differences.

On top of this, there are four Paralympic Values:

  • Courage: Face up to any challenge.
  • Determination: Never give up.
  • Inspiration: Set an example that others want to follow.
  • Equality: Treating everyone as equals.
The Olympic flag flying outside the Parliament Building in British Columbia.

The Olympic flag flying outside the Parliament Building in British Columbia.

What Does the Olympic Flag Represent?

  • The rings represent the five inhabited continents of the world (with North and South America counted as one).
  • The colours were chosen because, along with the white background of the flag, at least one of the six colours (white, blue, black, red, yellow and green) appears in all the flags of the competing nations.
  • The flag was designed by Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, and was first flown at the Games of the 7th Olympiad in Antwerp, Belgium.
The London 2012 Olympic Torch, as used by the 8,000 participants in the Olympic Torch Relay.

The London 2012 Olympic Torch, as used by the 8,000 participants in the Olympic Torch Relay.

How Does the Olympic Flame Not Go Out?

Before starting its round-the-world journey, the Olympic Torch is lit on the summit of Olympia by the rays of the sun. The Flame symbolises the pursuit of perfection, as well as the struggle for 'victory, peace and friendship' at the Games. The Olympic Flame is only extinguished when the Games are over for another four years.

Even before the main Olympic Torch is lit, the Olympic Flame is taken on a relay tour of the host country. The London 2012 Torch Relay has seen the torch pass over mountains, go through tunnels, fly on zip wires, and cross lakes on boats; it has to stay lit whether it is sunny, windy or pouring with rain. How do they manage it?

The torches are very sophisticated and burn on gas, which is very hard to put out unless you drop it in a bucket of water. Even if this happens, part of the original flame is kept safe at all times in a 'mother-flame lantern,' This will have been lit using the original flame from Olympia. This had to be used on day 3 of the London 2012 relay when a faulty torch went out.

Once the main Olympic Stadium Torch is lit, the flame is so large that bad weather will not be able to put out the flame. The torch also has several back-up gas supplies in case one of these breaks down.


Sami on November 12, 2016:


Pete on August 12, 2016:


Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on July 28, 2012:

Oh, what a terrific collection of details! The Olympic Opening Ceremony this year was incredible - I've never seen one so well-executed and full of amazing touches. Voted up and up!

DK from London on July 22, 2012:

Very interesting! I like things in such a simple way, even if it's supposed to be for 'kids'!