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The Olympic Rings at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia

History of the modern Olympics

With the world preparing to take part in Paris 2024 this summer, it's the perfect opportunity for you to learn about how the Olympic Games we know and love came to be.

Image: Olympic Rings at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia | Bryan Turner / Unsplash

Between 776 BC and 393 AD, the Ancient Olympics took place in Greece every four years. They then sat dormant for over 1,500 years before they were revived once more in 1896.

This is the history of the modern Olympic Games.


During the 19th century, various forerunners to the modern Games took place. It wasn’t until 1892 that a French aristocrat by the name of Baron Pierre de Coubertin proposed the idea of officially reviving the Games and playing them every four years.

In 1894, he co-founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the authority responsible for organising the modern Olympics. Just two years later, the world once again enjoyed the athletic festival that had captivated Greek audiences over a millennia before.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin instilled within the Games the original values of the Ancient Olympics; competitive sport played out with a sense of goodwill and honour amongst all nations. The Olympic Truce declared by the ancient Greeks to ensure safe passage for all to the Games was also resurrected for the modern Olympics. The powerful idea that sport can promote peace and reconciliation continues to be at the heart of the Games.

The 1896 Olympics

Returning to the country from which they heralded, the first modern Olympics took place in Athens, Greece. Over 200 male athletes from 14 nations competed in 43 events, whilst 60,000 spectators came to watch.

Some events had roots dating back to the Ancient Olympics such as running, wrestling and discus, whilst others were brand new like swimming, weightlifting and tennis.

It also featured the first marathon to ever take place at an Olympic Games. The 25-mile route paid homage to the legendary Greek soldier who ran from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC to declare victory over the invading Persians. The race was the highlight of the Games and was won by Greece’s very own Spyridon Louis.

Whilst we have become accustomed to seeing the winner of an Olympic event receive a gold medal, they were not introduced until the 1904 games in St. Louis. In 1896, the winner was awarded a silver medal, an olive branch and a certificate, whilst the runner-up got a bronze medal and laurel branches. Third place got nothing.

The evolution of the modern Games

After the success of the 1896 Games, they returned four years later in Paris. Women competed for the first time with English tennis player Charlotte Cooper becoming the first individual female Olympic champion.

The 1912 Olympics in Stockholm were the first to feature athletes from five continents. This inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin to design the Olympic rings. According to de Coubertin, the five interlaced rings represent ‘the five parts of the world now won over to the cause of Olympism’. The six colours present in the design reflect the colours found on the flags of all nations, with no exceptions.

In the years that followed, the modern Games grew with every iteration. The Olympic Village first appeared in the 1924 Games in Paris, the same year the Winter Olympics debuted at Chamonix in the French Alps. Featuring over 250 athletes from 16 nations, the Winter Games included events such as skating, ice hockey and ski jumping.

Just like their summer counterpart, the Winter Games were a roaring success and continued to be hosted in the same year as the Summer Games until they were alternated in 1994.

One week after the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, the first-ever Paralympic Games were held and included events such as archery, snooker and swimming. The term 'Paralympic' originated from the ‘parallel’ structure of hosting these games alongside the Summer Olympics.

Since 1896, only three Olympics have been cancelled, all due to the World Wars (1916, 1940 and 1944).

During the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, 206 countries will be represented and combined for a total of 10,500 athletes. The Games have certainly come a long way since 1896.

Famous Olympians

The modern Summer, Winter and Paralympic Games have witnessed some truly historic sporting achievements.

American swimmer Michael Phelps (who competed between 2004 – 2016) currently has the most Olympic medals with a total of 28, 23 of which are gold. 10 medals behind him is Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina (1956 – 1964) with 18 medals, nine of which are gold.

The fastest man to have ever lived is Jamaican Usain Bolt (2008 – 2016). Bolt not only has eight Olympic golds but is also the world record holder in the 100 and 200 metres, as well as the 4x100 metres relay.

The most successful athlete in the history of the Paralympics is American swimmer Trischa Zorn (1980 – 2004) who has won 55 medals, 41 of which are gold.

As for the Winter Olympics, Norwegian cross-country skier Marit Bjørgen (2002 – 2018) is the most decorated athlete in history with 15 medals, eight of which are gold.

Unusual Olympics

Perhaps the most bizarre iteration of the marathon took place at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, USA. Not only was the winner disqualified for hitching a ride in a car for 11 miles, but the actual victor crossed the line while hallucinating after ingesting a concoction of raw eggs, brandy and a pesticide given to him by his trainers. The man who finished fourth place managed to do so even after taking a nap mid-race.

Between 1912 and 1948, the Games included artistic events that saw painters, architects, writers, musicians and sculptors compete for medals.

Speaking of unusual events, during the 1900 Summer Olympics, hot air ballooning was on the programme, whilst in 1908 pistol duelling was a thing. Luckily for all involved, the guns were loaded with wax bullets and everyone wore protective gear. Also making an appearance in the 1900 and 1908 Games was motorboat racing, marking the only two times in Olympic history that motorised sports have been included.

Between 1900 and 1920, tug-of-war saw teams go head-to-head to pull one another over in the hope of Olympic glory. Meanwhile, the 100-metre running deer shooting event, which saw competitors fire at a deer-shaped target, was hotly contested up until 1956.