History of the Olympic Games

Hannes Kolehmainen of Finland draped in the Finnish flag and crowned with a wreath of laurels after winning the Marathon in 1920
Hannes Kolehmainen of Finland draped in the Finnish flag and crowned with a wreath of laurels after winning the Marathon in 1920 Photo: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Images

The Ancient Games

The Olympic Games began over 2,700 years ago (in 776 BC) in Olympia, in southwest Greece.

They formed a part of a religious festival in honour of Zeus, king of the gods and were staged every four years at Olympia, a valley near a city called Elis. People from all over the Greek world came to watch and take part.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus today
The Temple of Olympian Zeus today Credit: Nick Potts/PA Archive/Press Association Images

They continued for nearly 12 centuries, until Emperor Theodosius decreed in 393 A.D. that all such "pagan cults" be banned.

1896: USA's Robert Garrett, gold medallist in the discus and shot put
1896: USA's Robert Garrett, gold medallist in the discus and shot put Credit: S&G/S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

The ancient Games began as a single day but as the popularity and events grew so did the Games, they were extended at first to three days and finally, before it was banned, five days - the London 2012 Games will last 19 days.

Any free man could compete in the Games, from princes to farmers. Women were not allowed to compete, however unmarried women could watch the Games - but were not allowed to witness them after they were married.

Kyniska, daughter of King Archidamos of Sparta, was the first woman to be listed as an Olympic victor due to a quirk of the rules.

Her chariot won in the four-horse chariot race in both the 396 B.C. and 392 B.C. Olympiads. Kyniska broke with tradition with her wins, since, in the equestrian events, the victory wreath was won by the owner, not the rider, of the horse.

Hannes Kolehmainen of Finland draped in the Finnish flag and crowned with a wreath of laurels after winning the Marathon in 1920
Hannes Kolehmainen of Finland draped in the Finnish flag and crowned with a wreath of laurels after winning the Marathon in 1920 Credit: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Images

In the original Games there were two award ceremonies. The first immediately after the event, where the winner received a palm branch and had red ribbons tied around their heads and wrists. During the second ceremony the winner was crowned with an olive wreath.

The Modern Olympics

More than 1500 years later, a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin decided to create the modern Olympic Games. He believed the Olympic Games could bring together sport, culture and education.

In 1894, he founded the International Olympic Committee and together they started to organise the first Olympic Games of modern times.

In 1896 the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens. A total of 241 athletes from 14 countries took part and the winners received a silver medal and an olive branch.

1896: France's Leon Flameng, gold medallist in the 100km, and Paul Masson, gold medallist in the Sprint, 2000m and 10000m
1896: France's Leon Flameng, gold medallist in the 100km, and Paul Masson, gold medallist in the Sprint, 2000m and 10000m Credit: S&G/S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

Women did not compete in this first modern Olympics just as they were banned for the original ancient Games.

However they were not far behind and did compete in the next Games four years later in Paris.

The Games have continued to grow in size and ambition, the Beijing Games lasted for 16 days and the London 2012 Games will be 19 days.

Kelly Sotherton competes in the heptathlon high jump at the National Stadium during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games
Kelly Sotherton competes in the heptathlon high jump at the National Stadium during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Credit: Gareth Copley/PA Wire

The same is true for the events that make up the Games. When they began in ancient Greece there was just one event, a foot race, this year London will host athletes competing in 26 Olympic sports and 39 disciplines.

You can find information on the history of the Games in London here.