The Summer Olympic Games are an international multi-sport event held every four years, organised by the International Olympic Committee. The Olympics are the most prestigious such event in the world, with a larger range of sports than other such events, and most of those considering Olympic victory the most prestigious achievement in their field. However, to claim it as the largest or most prestigious sporting event in the world is (often Amerocentric) exaggeration, as the football World Cup attracts far wider global interest, indicated for example by the far wider global television audience. Competitors represent their countries of origin, with Gold medals being awarded for first place, silver for second and bronze for third, a tradition which started in 1904.
The modern Olympic Games were founded in 1894 when Pierre Fredi, Baron de Coubertin, who sought to promote international understanding through the sporting competition. The first games held in Athens in 1896 attracted just 245 competitors of whom more than 200 were Greek, and 14 countries were represented. However, no international events of this magnitude had been organised before.
Four years later (in 1900) the Paris games attracted more than four times as many atheletes, including 11 women, who were allowed to compete for the first time, in croquet and tennis. The Games were integrated with the Paris World's fair and lasted over 5 months. It is still disputed which events exactly were Olympic, since few or none event were advertised as such at the time.
Although numbers fell again for the 1904 Games in St. Louis, USA, due in part to the lengthy transatlantic boat trip required of the European competitors and the integration with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World's fair, which again spread the event out over an extended period. In contrast with Paris 1900, the word Olympic was abused for many contests, such as those for school boys or Irish Americans.
There followed a smaller "tenth birthday" games in Athens in 1906. This celebration is not commonly accepted as being Olympic Games, but they certainly positively contributed to the success of future games after the less successful 1900 and 1904 Games.
The 1908 London Games saw numbers rise again, as well as the first running of the marathon over its now-standard distance of 26 miles 385 yards. The final yards were added on at the request of British royal family in order to improve the view of the finish from their box. The finish itself was worth seeing. The Italian runner Dorando Pietri was first to enter the stadium but he was clearly in some distress and collapsed of exhaustion before he could complete the event. Helped over the finish line by concerned race officials, he was later disqualified and the gold medal awarded to John Hayes, who had trailed him by around 30 seconds.
The Games continued to grow, attracting 2,500 competitors to Stockholm in 1912, including the great all-rounder Jim Thorpe who won both the Decathlon and Pentathlon. Thorpe, however, had played professional baseball and later had his medals stripped for this breach of amateurism. They were reinstated in 1983, 30 years after his death.
The 1920 Antwerp Games, in war ravaged Belgium were a subdued affair but again drew a record number of competitors. It was a record which would only stand till 1924 when the Paris Games would involve 3,000 competitors, the greatest of whom was undoubtedly Paavo Nurmi. Nurmi, known as "The Flying Finn", won three team gold medals and the individual 1,500 and 5,000 metres, the latter two on the same day.
The 1928 Amsterdam Games were notable for being the first games which allowed females to compete at track & field athletics and benefitted greatly from the general prosperity of the times. This was in stark contrast to 1932 when Los Angeles' games were affected by the Great Depression, which contributed to the fewest competitors since the St. Louis games.
The 1936 Berlin Games were seen by the German government as a golden opportunity to promote their fascist ideology. The ruling Nazi Party commissioned film-maker Leni Riefenstahl to film the games. The result was a masterpiece of propaganda, despite Hitler's theories of Aryan racial superiority being repeatedly shown up by non-Aryan athletes. In particular, the black sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals. The tale of Hitler snubbing Owens at the ensuing medal ceremony is, however, apocryphal.
The first postwar Games were held in 1948 in London, with both Germany and Japan excluded. Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals on the track, emulating Owens' achievement in Berlin.
The 1952 Games, in Helsinki made a legend of an amiable Czech army lieutenant named Emil Zátopek, who was intent on improving on his single gold and silver medals from 1948. Having first won both the 10,000 and 5,000 metre races he also entered the marathon, despite having never previously raced over the distance. Calculating his pace by chatting with the other leaders, Zátopek led from about half way, slowly dropping the remaining contenders to win by 2 and a half minutes, and complete a trio both of wins and Olympic records.
The 1960 Rome Games saw the first arrival on the world scene of a young light heavyweight boxer named Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, who would later throw his gold medal away in disgust after being refused service in a "whites only" restaurant in his home town. Other performances of note included Wilma Rudolph, a gold medalist in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay events.
Performances at the 1968 Mexico City games were affected, to a greater or lesser extent by the altitude of the host city. No event was affected more than the long jump. In a previously tight competition US athlete Bob Beamon jumped 8.90m, destroying the world record and, in the words of fellow competitor and reigning champion Lynn Davies "making the rest of us look silly." Beamon's World Record would stand for 23 years. Also of note was the medal ceremonies of Tommie Smith and John Carlos who each gave the "Black Power" salute on the podium. Their protest brought rapid condemnation from the US Team and the International Olympic Committee, but generated much sympathy elsewhere.
Politics again intervened at Munich in 1972, but with far more lethal consequences. An extreme Palestinian terrorist group named Black September invaded the Olympic village and held several members of the Israeli weightlifting team hostage, and killed two of them. The terrorists demanded that Israel release numerous Arab prisoners and when the Israelis refused to make concessions a tense stand off ensued while negotiations continued. Eventually the captors, still holding their hostages, were offered safe passage and taken to an airport, where they were ambushed by German security forces. In the firefight that followed 15 people, including the remaining 9 Israeli athletes and all but one of the terrorists were killed. After much debate, it was decided that the Games continue, but proceedings were obviously dominated by the earlier events. Some memorable athletic achievements did occur during these game, notably winning of a record seven gold medals by United States swimmer Mark Spitz, and the winning of three gold medals by 16-year-old Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut.
There was, fortunately, no such tragedy in Montreal in 1976. However, bad planning led to the games cost far exceeding the budget and it looked for a time that the Olympics may no longer be a viable financial proposition. There was also a boycott by African nations protesting a recent tour of apartheid South Africa by a New Zealand rugby side. The Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci won every individual women's artistic gymnastics gold medal with a succession of perfect scores.
Following the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan many western nations, most notably the United States boycotted the games held in Moscow. This contributed to the 1980 Games being slightly low key affair, dominated by the host country.
In 1984 the Soviet Union, and much of Eastern Europe, reciprocated by boycotting the Los Angeles games. These games were, perhaps, the first games of the new era. The replacement of de Coubertin's original idealism by Tinseltown's commercial concerns would set the tone for all the later Games. Again, however, the games inevitably lost a deal of their appeal by the omission of a one of the world's superpowers.
Sadly, abiding memories of the 1988 Seoul games were negative, while many competitors' drug tests were not. Despite many splendid drug-free individual performances, the shadow of the number of people who failed screenings for illegal performance-enhancing chemicals fell over the games. The outcry reached its zenith when Ben Johnson, the Canadian winner of the men's 100m sprint, was discovered to be a steroid user and disqualified. There was an additional scandal in the boxing ring, over Korean fighters being given dubious decisions by the judges, culminating in local light middleweight Park Si-hun being shamefully awarded the gold medal despite being comprehensively outboxed in the final by American Roy Jones. This decision in particular would lead to a total overhaul of the judging process before the next games.
On the bright side it did, however, seem that the drug testing and regulation authorities were at last catching up with the cheating that had been widely to be endemic in athletics for some years, and it was generally held that the 1992 Barcelona Games were cleaner, although not without incident. Also in evidence was increased professionalism amongst Olympic atheletes, exemplified by US basketball's "Dream Team". 1992 also saw the reintroduction to the Games of many smaller European states, which had been subsumed inside the USSR since the War, but were again independent since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
By now the process awarding of the games themselves had become a commercial concern and allegations of corruption rocked the International Olympic Committee, in particular with reference to Salt Lake City's bid to host the Winter Olympic Games. It was also widely rumoured that the Coca-Cola company was highly influential in the 1996 Games being hosted by their home city of Atlanta, Georgia. In the stadium, the highlight was probably 200m runner Michael Johnson annihilating the World Record in front the home crowd. There were also emotional scenes when Muhammad Ali, clearly affected by Parkinsons Disease lit the Olympic torch and received a replacement medal for the one he had discarded in 1960. It is worth noting the latter event took place not at the boxing ring but the basketball arena, at the demand of US television. The atmosphere at the Games was marred, however, after a bomb exploded during celebration in Centennial Park. In June 2003, the principal suspect, Eric Robert Rudolph, was captured.
The most recent Games, in Sydney, Australia in 2000 were widely held to be the best yet. Supremely well organised by the hosts, no-one personified the Games better than Ian Thorpe, whose dominating performances in the pool set the tone for the Games, Briton Steven Redgrave who won a rowing Gold medal in an unprecedented fifth consecutive games and Cathy Freeman, whose triumph in the 400m united the packed stadium and seemed to symbolise a new understanding between white and aboriginal Australians. No-one except, perhaps, Eric Moussambani, a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, whose memorably slow 100m freestyle swim showed that even in the commercial world of the twentieth century some of de Coubertin's original vision still remains.
A list of modern Summer Olympic Games:
- 1896 Summer Olympics, Athens, Greece (Games of the I Olympiad)
- 1900 Summer Olympics, Paris, France
- 1904 Summer Olympics, St. Louis, United States
- 1908 Summer Olympics, London, United Kingdom
- 1912 Summer Olympics, Stockholm, Sweden
- 1920 Summer Olympics, Antwerp, Belgium
- 1924 Summer Olympics, Paris, France
- 1928 Summer Olympics, Amsterdam, Netherlands
- 1932 Summer Olympics, Los Angeles, United States
- 1936 Summer Olympics, Berlin, Germany
- 1948 Summer Olympics, London, United Kingdom
- 1952 Summer Olympics, Helsinki, Finland
- 1956 Summer Olympics, Melbourne, Australia and Stockholm, Sweden (equestrian events)
- 1960 Summer Olympics, Rome, Italy
- 1964 Summer Olympics, Tokyo, Japan
- 1968 Summer Olympics, Mexico City, Mexico
- 1972 Summer Olympics, Munich, West Germany.
- 1976 Summer Olympics, Montréal, Canada
- 1980 Summer Olympics, Moscow, Soviet Union
- 1984 Summer Olympics, Los Angeles, United States
- 1988 Summer Olympics, Seoul, South Korea
- 1992 Summer Olympics, Barcelona, Spain
- 1996 Summer Olympics, Atlanta, United States
- 2000 Summer Olympics, Sydney, Australia
- 2004 Summer Olympics, Athens, Greece
- 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing, China
- 2012 Summer Olympics, Bids are being made.