Olympic games, premier athletic meeting of ancient Greece, and, in modern times, series of international sports contests.
The Olympics of Ancient Greece
Although records cannot verify games earlier than 776 BC, the contests in Homer's Iliad indicate a much earlier competitive tradition. Held in honor of Zeus in the city of Olympia for four days every fourth summer, the Olympic games were the oldest and most prestigious of four great ancient Greek athletic festivals, which also included the Pythian games at Delphi, the Isthmian at Corinth, and the Nemean at Argos (the Panathenaea at Athens was also important). The Olympics reached their height in the 5th–4th cent. BC; thereafter they became more and more professionalized until, in the Roman period, they provoked much censure. They were eventually discontinued by Emperor Theodosius I of Rome, who condemned them as a pagan spectacle, at the end of the 4th cent. AD
Among the Greeks, the games were nationalistic in spirit; states were said to have been prouder of Olympic victories than of battles won. Women, foreigners, slaves, and dishonored persons were forbidden to compete. Contestants were required to train faithfully for 10 months before the games, had to remain 30 days under the eyes of officials in Elis, who had charge of the games, and had to take an oath that they had fulfilled the training requirements before participating. At first, the Olympic games were confined to running, but over time new events were added: the long run (720 BC), when the loincloth was abandoned and athletes began competing naked; the pentathlon, which combined running, the long jump, wrestling, and discus and spear throwing (708 BC); boxing (688 BC); chariot racing (680 BC); the pankration (648 BC), involving boxing and wrestling contests for boys (632 BC); and the foot race with armor (580 BC).
Greek women, forbidden not only to participate in but also to watch the Olympic games, held games of their own, called the Heraea. Those were also held every four years but had fewer events than the Olympics. Known to have been conducted as early as the 6th cent. BC, the Heraea games were discontinued about the time the Romans conquered Greece. Winning was of prime importance in both male and female festivals. The winners of the Olympics (and of the Heraea) were crowned with chaplets of wild olive, and in their home city-states male champions were also awarded numerous honors, valuable gifts, and privileges.
The Modern Olympics
The modern revival of the Olympic games is due in a large measure to the efforts of Pierre, baron de Coubertin, of France. They were held, appropriately enough, in Athens in 1896, but that meeting and the ones that followed at Paris (1900) and at St. Louis (1904) were hampered by poor organization and the absence of worldwide representation. The first successful meet was held at London in 1908, where 22 countries were represented, more than 2,000 athletes participated, and medals were presented for the first time. Since then the games have been held in cities throughout the world (see Sites of the Modern Olympic Games, table). World War I prevented the Olympic meeting of 1916, and World War II the 1940 and 1944 meetings. The number of entrants, competing nations, and events have increased steadily.
To the traditional events of track and field athletics, which include the decathlon and heptathlon, have been added a host of games and sports—archery, badminton, baseball and softball, basketball, boxing, canoeing and kayaking, cycling, diving, equestrian contests, fencing, field hockey, gymnastics, judo and taekwondo, the modern pentathlon, rowing, sailing, shooting, soccer, swimming, table tennis, team (field) handball, tennis, trampoline, the triathlon, volleyball, water polo, weight lifting, and wrestling. Olympic events for women made their first appearance in 1912. A separate series of winter Olympic meets, inaugurated (1924) at Chamonix, France, now includes ice hockey, curling, bobsledding, luge, skeleton, and skiing, snowboarding, and skating events. Since 1994 the winter games have been held in even-numbered years in which the summer games are not contested. Until late in the 20th cent. the modern Olympics were open only to amateurs, but the governing bodies of several sports now permit professionals to compete as well.
As a visible focus of world energies, the Olympics have been prey to many factors that thwarted their ideals of world cooperation and athletic excellence. As in ancient Greece, nationalistic fervor has fostered intense rivalries that at times threatened the survival of the games. Although officially only individuals win Olympic medals, nations routinely assign political significance to the feats of their citizens and teams. Between 1952 and 1988 rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, rooted in mutual political antagonism, resulted in each boycotting games hosted by the other (Moscow, 1980; Los Angeles, 1984). Politics has influenced the Olympic games in other ways, from the propaganda of the Nazis in Berlin (1936) to pressures leading to the exclusion of white-ruled Rhodesia from the Munich games (1972). At Munich, nine Israeli athletes were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which sets and enforces Olympic policy, has struggled with the licensing and commercialization of the games, the need to schedule events to accommodate American television networks (whose broadcasting fees help underwrite the games), and the monitoring of athletes who seek illegal competitive advantages, often through the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The IOC itself has also been the subject of controversy. In 1998 a scandal erupted with revelations that bribery and favoritism had played a role in the awarding of the 2002 Winter Games to Salt Lake City, Utah, and in the selection of some earlier venues. As a result, the IOC instituted a number of reforms including, in 1999, initiating age and term limits for members and barring them from visiting cities bidding to be Olympic sites.
See also Paralympic games.
See R. Mandell, The First Modern Olympics (1976); J. Lucas, The Modern Olympic Games (1980); J. J. MacAloon, This Great Symbol (1981); A. Guttmann, The Games Must Go On (1984); A. Kitroeff, Wrestling with the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics (2004); S. G. Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics (2004); T. Perrotet, The Naked Olympics (2004); N. Spivey, The Ancient Olympics (2004); J. Swaddling, The Ancient Olympic Games (rev. ed. 2008); N. Faulkner, A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics (2012).