At this writing, the focus of the athletic world is in Tokyo for the 32nd Summer Olympic Games. While most of the attention will be on the winners of this year’s various events, the history of the Olympics dates back nearly 3,000 years, generating more than a few surprising and fun facts.
Although this year’s games are labeled as the 32nd Olympics, that only refers to the modern era. The first written record of the ancient Olympic Games dates back to 776 BC. The only recorded event was a 192-meter footrace called the stade. It is from this event that the word “stadium” derived. The winner of the race was a cook by the name of Coroebus, who has the distinction of being the first official Olympic champion.
The roster of competitions has changed many times over the centuries. About fifty years after Coroebus’ inaugural championship, two more races were added: the dolichos, which was possibly either a 1,500-meter or 5,000-meter event; and the dialulos, which was comparable to today’s 400-meter race. In time, organizers would add the pentathlon, consisting of a race, long jump, discus and javelin throws, and wrestling. Also making it into the roster were chariot races and a fighting free-for-all called pankration. (Read this article to learn about the Olympian who won the pankration after dying during the match.)
The rules were somewhat lax in the ancient games. In A.D. 67, for example, Emperor Nero entered as a competitor in the chariot races. Despite the fact that he fell off his chariot during the event, he nonetheless was deemed the winner. Perhaps his official imperial declaration that he was the champion had something to do with that.
Some of the more unusual competitions over the years included pigeon shooting, which was exactly what it sounds like; pistol dueling (in which the contestants fired at mannequins); and poodle clipping, which was technically just a test event in the 1900 games, but it bears mentioning.
One of the most recognizable Olympic events is the marathon. It honors the Greek messenger Pheidippides who ran to Athens from Marathon, covering the distance of nearly 40 kilometers (nearly 25 miles), announcing the Greek victory over the Persians. Upon making his announcement, he collapsed and died.
That first marathon run took place in 490 B.C. It would not be until the Olympics were reborn in 1896 that a race of that distance became part of the competition. Appropriately, the first champion was from Greece. Spyridon Louis earned Greece its only victory during the Games with a time of 2 hours, 58 minutes, and 50 seconds.
The race has remained popular and has become a staple of the Olympic Games. It remained at its 40-kilometer distance until the 1908 London Games, when it was extended to 42.192 kilometers (26.2 miles). The reason for the change, allegedly, was so it could start at Windsor Castle and finish in front of the royal box at the Olympic stadium. In 1921, the length of the marathon was formally standardized at the longer distance.
The Olympic record for the marathon was set in 2008 by Samuel Wanriju of Kenya, who finished in 2 hours, 6 minutes, and 32 seconds
Competition in the ancient Olympic Games was limited to freeborn male Greek citizens. Married women were prohibited from attending, even as spectators. The athletes competed in the nude, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained to us.
The competition took place every four years between August 6 and September 19 during a festival that honored Zeus. The location of the games was Olympia, located near the western coast of Greece.
The ancient Olympics were held regularly after 776 B.C. until A.D. 393, when Emperor Theodosius I banned the events, deeming them too pagan for his Christian beliefs.
It would be 1,500 years before the Olympics returned to the world stage. France’s Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) championed the creation of an international commission to oversee the games. In 1894, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was created to fulfill this role.
The first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens, Greece, in 1896. Twelve nations sent a total of 280 athletes to compete in 43 events.
All subsequent Olympiads have been numbered, even on the rare occasions when the games were canceled, such as 1916, 1940, and 1944. Consequently, the 1914 games in Stockholm are known as the Games of the 5th Olympiad, and the next time the event took place, in Antwerp in 1920, they were called the Games of the 7th Olympiad.
Ceremonies and Flag
The 1920 Antwerp Games were the first to take place under the newly-commissioned Olympic flag. The five interlocking rings represent the five continents that send athletes. The colors of the rings were chosen because all of the countries that send athletes have a national flag consisting of at least one of those five colors.
The 1924 Games in Paris were the first to feature a closing ceremony. It was also that year that the Winter Games were held.
Delayed, But Not Canceled
The Tokyo Games were originally scheduled to take place from July 24 to August 9, 2020. COVID-19 interfered with those plans, however, and the Games were pushed back for a year. Despite the fact that they are taking place in 2021, the event retains the brand name “Tokyo 2020.” This is the first time the Olympic Games have been rescheduled, rather than canceled.
Longest Remaining Record
When Bob Beamon won the gold medal for the long jump in 1968, he set an Olympic record. His jump of 8.90 meters has yet to be broken, making it the longest remaining record in the modern games.
In terms of overall success, the United States takes the top prize, having won 2,827 medals in all the years leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Games. This includes 1,127 gold medals, 90 silver medals, and 793 bronze medals. The next highest country is the United Kingdom, with a total of 883.
There are 60 countries that have yet to win their first medal.