First Summer Olympics
After a hiatus of hundreds of years, the Olympics returned to Athens in 1896. There had not been a sporting event specifically called the Olympics since they had been banned in 393 as part of the early Christian Church’s attempts to destroy paganism. The games were called the ‘I Olympiad’, and held as a two-day-event in the middle of June.
The reason behind the re-creation of the Olympics, after so many centuries, was the obsession of one man, Pierre Fredi. He admired the pseudo-Greek ideals of fitness and sporting competitiveness amongst different communities, and he hoped that the modern Olympics would bring countries closer together.
Two years before the Olympics began, a group in Paris developed themselves as the ‘International Olympic Committee’, and designated the Greek capital, Athens, as the host. The Committee’s origins lay less in the Ancient Greek Olympics, and more in nineteenth century sporting societies in Western Europe.
The Olympics of 1896 might have been viewed as a failure, with only 14 countries taking part, and the majority of the athletes from Greece, the first modern Olympics was the largest meeting of international competitors that had occurred. On this basis, Fredi must have thought it a success.
The next Olympics, held in Paris four years later, was the first to allow women competitors (though only in four sports). This time, the Olympics were part of a much larger event, and lasted several months. Perhaps because it was connected with a larger event, it attracted over 1,000 competitors.
The first Olympics to be held in America occurred in 1904. Although the organizers again associated it with a festival and prolonged it over several months, this was not so successful – perhaps due to the great feats of travel required to get there, in an age where people rarely travelled abroad.
In between the American Olympics and the next Games in London, there was another Olympiad held in Athens to mark the tenth anniversary of the Modern Olympics. While the official Olympic Committee doesn’t consider this to be part of Olympic history, this ‘in-between’ session proved very popular, and is one of the reasons why the Olympics still exists today.
The next forty years of Olympic Games involved a lot of ironing-out of traditions. Two world wars meant that three of the games (1916, 1940 and 1944) did not occur, but excepting that, the games have continued every four years, sometimes shocking society; for example in 1928, when women were allowed to compete in the track and field events.
Of course, the biggest shock to expectations was in 1936. The Berlin Olympics were hijacked by the Nazi government, which saw them as a way to demonstrate their superiority over other nations. This ideology was put to the test as the German athletes lost to other teams, and Jessie Owens, a black American, took 4 gold medals. The German team did win a large number of medals, and the propaganda coup increased the German government’s confidence greatly.
Another Olympics that shocked sensibilities was the 1972 Munich Games, though this was not due to any event on the track, but to the fact that 11 Israelis were killed by Palestinian terrorists. This event shocked the whole Olympic village, and the games were suspended while a memorial was held. They resumed the next day, but were overshadowed by the violent events.
The games continued peacefully until 1996, 100 years after the first modern Olympics, when a bomb exploded during the Atlanta games caused the deaths of two people and injured many more. Spectators were packed into an area called ‘Centennial Olympic Park’ for a concert, and the device, a pipe-bomb filled with shrapnel, exploded a little after twenty-past-one in the morning. The bomber remained at large until 2003, when he confessed to four bombings.
As always, the Olympic Games continues to fuel debate and controversy. It got intense during the years when South Africa practised apartheid. Many nations felt that it should have been excluded from the Olympics, and in 1976 22 nations refused to take part in the games due to the inclusion of New Zealand, who continued to play rugby with South Africa after other nations had blacklisted it. In 1988, the Olympics showed that many of the world’s top athletes were taking performance enhancing drugs, including Ben Johnson.
The latest, and ongoing, scandal to rock the Olympic Committee is allegations that the IOC itself took bribes and accepted favours from those bidding to host the Olympics, and even from Coca-Cola. These rumours have not been entirely quashed, and continue to surface each time the Games are awarded.