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The Olympic Games: History & Developments

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Everyone loves the Olympics, but where did this tradition come from? In this lesson we'll cover the creation of these modern games and how they have developed over the last century.

The Olympics

The Olympics are loved by many. The celebrations, the national costumes, the hype, the traditions, the opening ceremonies, the athletes. Whatever the reason, millions of people tune in every two years to watch the Olympic Games, a modern take on a Greek tradition of athletic competition. But where did the modern games come from, and what have they meant throughout the years? Well, how about a little race through history?

The Olympic Games have become major international events
Olympics

Development of the Modern Games

In order to understand the modern games, we have to take a peek into the ancient past. The ancient Olympic Games ran from roughly 776 BCE-393 CE, which is a very long time. The ancient Greeks were obsessed with the concept of perfection in all things, and the games were a chance for Greek champions to prove themselves as the most perfect athlete in the land. Now, athleticism was just one part of perfection, and these champions were also expected to be perfect in the arts as well, from poetry to sculpture. This competition was so important to the Greeks that they initiated the Olympic Truce, a formal cessation of hostilities during the games.

Chariot racing was a popular event in the ancient games
Olympics

Race ahead a millennium or so and we arrive in the late 19th century. With various international, cultural and technological expositions becoming major events, the concept of peaceful cooperation between powerful nations was very much in vogue. After witnessing a local Olympic revival competition in Greece, a French educator and historian named Pierre de Coubertin felt inspired to turn this idea into an international athletic competition and so he founded the International Olympic Committee. He had originally intended the first games to occur in 1900 in Paris, but the international community was so excited by the prospect that they moved the games up to the year 1896, and hosted them in the home of the original games in Athens, Greece. The 1896 Olympics were attended by 241 athletes from 14 nations, competing in 43 events. They were an instant hit.

Pierre de Coubertin
Coubertin

Development throughout the 20th Century

From their beginning, the modern Olympic Games have become a major international event, and this attention has changed the games several times. In 1900, the committee broke from Greek traditions and allowed women to compete. In 1912, they started hosting art, literature, and music competitions to mirror the Greek value of art and athleticism as two parts of ideal human achievement. The cultural programs and highly-advanced opening and closing ceremonies are tributes to this. In 1924, the Olympics were expanded to include winter sports, and 1928 saw the first presentation of the Olympic flame, a tradition with no actual Greek precedent. Throughout the 20th century, the games changed with the times, but they also grew in importance.

As happened in this famous photo from 1968, the Olympic Games were often used as a political platform
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