Olympic Games

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The modern Olympic Games (commonly referred to as the Olympics), which began in Athens in 1896, are quadrennial sporting extravaganzas which currently exist in both a summer and a winter version. The Summer Games are held every leap year and recent such events have featured over 10000 athletes from nearly 200 countries competing in 300 sports events in 28 different sports. The Winter Games are held in the even numbered years between the Summer event and typically approximately 2400 athletes from nearly 80 countries competing in 80 events in 7 different sports. Specific Games are informally referred to by the name of the host city (and year, especially if the same city has hosted more than once) i.e. Berlin, 1936.

The Games are organized and governed by the International Olympic Committee which determines which sports are to be included and where the Games are to be held. The modern games began as a revival of the ancient Olympics through the organizing efforts of Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

Over the years since its inception, the Games have come to occupy a position of increasing significance not only in a sporting sense, but also in terms of their function in society. And they have also shared in the general problems of society as a whole, which includes political exploitation (the Berlin games of 1936), political controversy (Soviet bloc, African and United States boycotts), terrorism (Munich 1972), and issues such as amateurism, the role of women in sports, commercialization, and doping in sports.

The next Summer Games are scheduled for Tokyo, Japan, beginning in July 2020, while the next Winter Games are scheduled for Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February 2018. The most recent Summer Games took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in August 2016, and the last Winter Games were held in Sochi, Krasnodar Krai, Russia, in February 2014. The host city for the 2024 Summer Olympics will be decided in 2017.

Genesis of the modern Games

The 19th century witnessed a boom in organized sports of all kinds. It was during this era that many of the most important present-day sports came into being. For example, baseball and basketball in the United States were invented in the latter half of the 19th century. At the same time, older sports were revamped with rules changes (or just the first set of standardized rules). Football (to use its official Olympic name - it is commonly known as soccer in the United States and Australia), as just one example, owes its first set of standardized rules, along with significant rules changes, to the 19th century.

For all sports, increased popularity was also the norm and the first continuous, organized competitions were held while at the same time the first sports clubs and associations were founded. This was the century that, for example, saw the development and spread of the Scottish Highland games. Likewise, it was during the 19th century that the Amateur Athletic Association was formed in the United States and intercollegiate sports competitions first became established and popular.

Sport in this era was, however, mainly an upper class, aristocratic phenomenon as here was the only element of society with the leisure time to pursue such activities.

In the late 19th century, the site of the Ancient Olympic Games was, a century after it had first been discovered, finally unearthed by the German archaeologist Ernst Curtius. Inspired by this event, as well as by his idealization of physical activity as part of a well-rounded education, Pierre de Coubertin, a Frenchman with a lengthy noble heritage, resolved to revive the Ancient Games in modern form.

There had been other attempts in the 19th century to revive the ancient Olympic Games in some form. Beginning in 1849, for example, Dr. W.P. Brooks instituted what he called Olympian Games at Much Wenlock, in England. These Games were held annually for over 40 years following that. Another serious revival was attempted in Greece, beginning in 1859. However, these events were Pan-Hellenic in nature and, being restricted to Greek athletes, they attracted little attention outside of Greece. The series ceased in 1889.

When de Coubertin first proposed reviving the ancient Games in a lecture in 1892, he met with little success, but two years later, he convened an invitational sports congress in Paris (June 1894) at which time the participants founded the International Olympic Committee and set about to organize the first modern Olympic Games which they scheduled for Athens, Greece, two years later, planning to hold similar events every 4 years thereafter.

Those first games featured the participation of ca 200 athletes (all male) from 14 countries participating in 43 events in 9 different sports.

Growing pains

After the initial success of the first Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, the Olympic movement struggled. In contrast to the present day where potential sponsors compete for the right to host the Olympics, in the early years of the 20th century, there was no line up of bidders desirous of organizing the Games. Instead, the IOC had to search for sponsors and organizers, generally meeting with indifference or worse.

The Games of the 1900 Olympics in Paris, France and those of the 1904 Olympics, eventually held in St. Louis, Missouri (USA) after the first organizers in Chicago bowed out, were held in conjunction with world's fairs and occupied a decidedly secondary role by comparison to their host expositions. Nor was the participation of athletes up to the desired level for a truly worldwide event as the Games aspired to be. The 1904 Games in St. Louis attracted competitors from only 12 countries (fewer than at Athens 8 years earlier) and although there were over 600 entries, nearly 80% of them were from the United States. In addition, at both Paris and St. Louis, the IOC had to battle the local organizing committee for control over the Games.

Things took a turn for the better with the 1908 Olympics in London, England.

Issues in Olympism: the concept of amateurism

Olympism is the term coined by Baron Pierre de Coubertin to describe the ideals of the Olympic movement which he founded. It encompasses several idealistic goals regarding the nature of sport and its relation to society and is described in the Fundamental Principles of Olympism in the Olympic Charter.

In the 19th century, sporting activity was considered to be primarily a leisure-time activity or pastime, the proper concern only of the leisure class. In the latter part of the century, many sport clubs restricted their membership to those of the upper classes by explicitly barring from membership all those who earned their livelihood from wages or any kind of gainful employment whatsoever, whether sport related or otherwise.

When the modern Olympic Games were inaugurated, such explicit class bias was not considered in keeping with the Olympic ideals, yet it was still felt that professionalism would sully the game by compromising the concepts of fair play and sportsmanship. As a result, the concept of amateurism was presented in a revised form, one which still, however, exhibited a clear class bias. Participation in the Games was to be restricted to those who derived "no material benefit, directly or indirectly, from any sport". In the parlance of the day, sport was to be "an avocation, not a vocation".

Inter-war years

The 1916 Games were scheduled for Berlin, but the outbreak of World War I resulted in their cancellation. One other result was that de Coubertin decided, in the spring of 1915, to move IOC headquarters to Lausanne in neutral Switzerland, where it has been headquartered ever since.

Issues in Olympism: nationalism

Issues in Olympism: women's participation in the Games

The first Games in the modern era, those at Athens in 1896, featured no women participants although, in contrast to the Ancient Olympic Games, women were allowed as spectators. The founder of the modern Games, Baron de Coubertin, felt that in reviving the Ancient Games, he should follow their lead and restrict the competition only to males and this was also in keeping with his overall hostility towards the participation of women in the Games and in sports generally. He felt, along with most of his Victorian contemporaries, that such activities as sport were unsuitable for women.

In subsequent versions of the Games, a few women were allowed to participate in selected events - those considered sufficiently "feminime" so as not to upset Victorian sensibilities. Thus, in 1900, women were allowed to participate in golf and tennis and some swimming and diving events for women were allowed by 1912. But women's participation in the track and field events, considered the heart and soul of the Games, was fiercely resisted.

Cold War rivalries (1948-64)

Time of troubles (1968-84)

Issues in Olympism: politics, violence, and boycotts

Munich 1972

On September 5th, 1972, members of the terrorist group Black September kidnapped and ultimately murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches. A German police officer was also killed, making this the worst incidence of violence at the modern Olympic Games.

African nations boycott

United States boycott (Moscow 1980)

Soviet bloc boycott (Los Angeles 1984)

Struggling with success (1988 to present)

Issues in Olympism: commercialization of the Games

Issues in Olympism: doping in sport

Doping or other attempts at artificially enhancing athletic performance have been a feature of competitive sports from its inception, even in ancient times. But with the development of modern pharmaceutical techniques, including a number of new and powerful drugs and masking agents, the phenomenon assumed an extra dimension, threatening to subvert the very concept of fair competition itself. But it took some dramatic and high profile events to spur authorities to act.

During the 1960 Olympic Games cycling competition, Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen died following a crash. The immediate cause of death was a fractured skull, but when an autopsy revealed traces of amphetamines in his blood, it was widely held (though subsequent analysis cast doubt on this) that doping was a contributing factor, if not the ultimate cause, of his death.[1] As a result, there was considerable pressure on sports organizations to adopt measures to combat the use of drugs in sports, if for no other reason than to protect the health of the athletes.

After drawing up a list of banned substances, the IOC first began full scale drug testing at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s there were suspicions of large scale state sponsored doping programs involving a number of countries. These suspicions were substantiated in the case of the former German Democratic Republic, thus revealing the full extent of the problem facing the Games, and sport as a whole.

Another problem was the fact that the IOC only has jurisdiction during the Games themselves. Without the cooperation of the affiliated International Federations (IFs) throughout the rest of the year, and between Olympiads, those athletes who resorted to banned substances in an attempt to gain a performance edge could simply design their doping programs around the schedule of the testers. In addition, until the late 1990s, even in those cases where the IF was involved in the antidoping fight, when an athlete tested positive for a banned substance the matter was turned over to the athlete's National Governing Body (NGB) for disposal. In many cases, the NGB was reluctant to take meaningful action against one of their star athletes. To do so, in some cases, would even jeopardize their funding.

The problems were highlighted in the summer of 1998 when a routine checkpoint at an out of the way border crossing uncovered a large quantity of Erythropoietin (EPO) and other prohibited substances being transported in a Team Festina car at the Tour de France. Several riders and team support crew were charged with doping. But the incident highlighted the fact that doping was widespread and that the users of banned substances were not being detected by the antidoping procedures then in place.

Following these events, a major reappraisal took place regarding the role of public authorities in the antidoping fight. The IOC convened the World Conference on Doping in Sport in 1999 in order to address a wide range of problems and possible solutions. As a result of this Conference, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was established later in the year to develop uniform policies and procedures and generally to coordinate the antidoping fight.

Theme music

For the Olympic Games in Grenoble, France, ABC bought the rights for “Bugler’s Dream”, a composition by French composer Leo Arnaud from a larger composition “The Charge Suite”. This is the familiar seven note theme associated with the Olympics, the Olympic theme song. For the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the organising committee commissioned John Williams to update the fanfare and theme for the Olympics. His composition, “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” encompasses “Bugler’s Dream” arranged by a full orchestra, rather than the simpler original version which only included tympani and horns. Williams’ composition starts with Arnaud’s original composition with an added cymbal crash at the start, and then replays the theme with a full orchestra.

After the success of the 1984 theme, William’s went on the write additional music for the Olympic Games in Seoul (1988), Atlanta (1996) and Salt Lake City (2002). Although his dissonant composition “Summon the Heroes” was heavily played during the Atlanta games, it fell short of the patriot fervour that was generated by “Olympic Fanfare and Theme”.

See also


  1. In an article published in the journal Sport in History (Volume 25, Issue 3, December 2005) in which Jensen's death at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games is examined, author Verner Møller states: "While evidence suggests that the incident did prove something of a catalyst for firming up anti-doping policy, it will be shown here that the oft-repeated claim that Jensen's death was doping-related is in fact unfounded."