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Home > China Travel Guide > Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics Travel Guide > Summer Olympics Game History

Summer Olympics Game History

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    The early years

    The opening ceremony of the first Olympic Games in the Panathenaic Stadium.The modern Olympic Games were founded in 1894 when Pierre Fredi, Baron de Coubertin sought to promote international understanding through sporting competition. He based his Olympics on the Wenlock Olympian Society Annual Games, which had been contested in Much Wenlock since 1850. The first edition of de Coubertin's games, held in Athens in 1896, attracted just 245 competitors, of whom more than 200 were Greek, and only 14 countries were represented. Nevertheless, no international events of this magnitude had been organised before. Female athletes were not allowed to compete, though one woman, Stamata Revithi, ran the marathon course on her own, saying "[i]f the committee doesn’t let me compete I will go after them regardless".

    Four years later the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris attracted more than four times as many athletes, including 11 women, who were allowed to officially compete for the first time, in croquet, golf, sailing, 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 maybe even none of the events were advertised as such at the time.

    Numbers declined again for the 1904 Games in St. Louis, Missouri, 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 used for practically every contest, including those exclusively for school boys or for Irish-Americans.

    A series of smaller games were held in Athens in 1906. These were to be the first of an alternating series of games to be held in Athens, but the series failed to materialise. The games were held in 1906 to celebrate the "tenth birthday" of the games. The IOC does not currently recognise these games as being official Olympic Games, although many historians do. The 1906 Athens games, which had over 900 athletes competing, were more successful than the 1900 and 1904 games and contributed positively to the success of future games.

    Dorando Pietri finishes the first modern marathon.The 1908 London Games saw numbers rise again, as well as the first running of the marathon over its now-standard distance of 42.195 km (26 miles 385 yards). This distance was chosen to ensure that the race finished in front of the box occupied by the British royal family. The marathon had been 40 km for the first games in 1896, but was subsequently varied by up to 2 km due to local conditions such as street and stadium layout. At the six Olympic games between 1900 and 1920, the marathon was raced over six different distances.

    At the end of the 1908 marathon the Italian runner Dorando Pietri was first to enter the stadium, but he was clearly in distress, and collapsed of exhaustion before he could complete the event. He was helped over the finish line by concerned race officials, but later he was disqualified and the gold medal was 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 had previously played a few games of baseball for a fee, and saw his medals stripped for this breach of amateurism. They were reinstated in 1983, 30 years after his death.

    The scheduled Berlin Games of 1916 were cancelled following the onset of World War I.

    The interwar era

    The 1920 Antwerp games in war-ravaged Belgium were a subdued affair, but again drew a record number of competitors. This record only stood until 1924, when the Paris Games would involve 3,000 competitors, the greatest of whom was Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi. "The Flying Finn", won three team gold medals and the individual 1,500 and 5,000 metre runs, 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 benefited greatly from the general prosperity of the times alongside the first appearance of sponsorship of the games, from Coca-Cola. This was in stark contrast to 1932 when the 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 ideology. The ruling Nazi Party commissioned film-maker Leni Riefenstahl to film the games. The result, Olympia, was a masterpiece, despite Hitler's theories of Aryan racial superiority being repeatedly shown up by non-Aryan athletes. In particular, African-American sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals. The tale of Hitler snubbing Owens at the ensuing medal ceremony is a fabrication.

    Due to World War II, the Games of 1940 (due to be held in Tokyo and temporarily relocated to Helsinki upon the outbreak of war) were cancelled; no Games were planned for 1944.

    After WWII

    The first post-war 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.

    At the 1952 Games in Helsinki the USSR team competed for the first time and at once became one of the dominant teams. Finland 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 at that distance. Pacing himself by chatting with the other leaders, Zátopek led from about half way, slowly dropping the remaining contenders to win by two and a half minutes, and completed a trio of wins.

    The 1956 Melbourne Games were largely successful, barring a water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union, which political tensions caused to end as a pitched battle between the teams.

    The 1960 Rome Games saw the arrival on the world scene of a young light-heavyweight boxer named Cassius Clay, later known as 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[citation needed]. Soviet women's artistic gymnastics team members won 15 of 16 possible medals. Other performers of note in 1960 included Wilma Rudolph, a gold medallist in the 100 metres, 200 metres and 4x100 metre relay events.

    The 1964 Games held in Tokyo are notable for heralding the modern age of telecommunications. These games were the first to be broadcast worldwide on television, enabled by the recent advent of communication satellites. The 1964 Games were thus a turning point in the global visibility and popularity of the Olympics.

    Performances at the 1968 Mexico City games were affected by the altitude of the host city. No event was affected more than the long jump. American athlete Bob Beamon jumped 8.90 metres, setting a new world record and, in the words of fellow competitor and then-reigning champion Lynn Davies, "making the rest of us look silly[citation needed]." Beamon's world record would stand for 23 years. The 1968 Games also saw the introduction of the now-universal Fosbury flop, a technique which won American high jumper Dick Fosbury the gold medal. Politics took centre stage in the medal ceremony for the men's 200 metre dash, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a protest gesture on the podium against the segregation in the United States; their political act was condemned within the Olympic Movement, but was praised in the American Civil Rights Movement.

    A Black September terrorist on a balcony in the Olympic Village in September 1972, during what became known as the Munich Massacre, in which 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped and killed.Politics again intervened at Munich in 1972, with lethal consequences. A Palestinian terrorist group named Black September invaded the Olympic village and broke into the apartment of the Israeli delegation. They killed two Israelis and held 9 others as hostages. The terrorists demanded that Israel release numerous prisoners. When the Israeli government refused their demand, 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 nine Israeli athletes and five of the terrorists, were killed. After much debate, it was decided that the Games would continue, but proceedings were obviously dominated by these events. Some memorable athletic achievements did occur during these Games, notably the 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, who, however failed to win the all-around to her teammate Ludmilla Tourischeva.

    There was no such tragedy in Montreal in 1976, but bad planning led to the Games' cost far exceeding the budget. The Montreal Games are the most expensive in Olympic history, costing over $5 billion (equivalent to $20 billion in 2006). For a time, it seemed that the Olympics might no longer be a viable financial proposition. There was also a boycott by African nations to protest against a recent tour of apartheid-run South Africa by a New Zealand rugby side. The Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci won the women's individual all around gold medal with two of four possible perfect scores, thus giving birth to a gymnastics dynasty in Romania. Another female gymnast to earn the perfect score and three gold medals there was Nellie Kim of the USSR.

    1980s and beyond

    Closing Ceremony of the 1980 Summer Olympics. Bear Cub Misha, the mascot, flying into the sky.Following the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, 66 nations, including the United States, Canada, West Germany and Japan, boycotted the 1980 games held in Moscow. Notably, Greece, Great Britain and Australia did not withdraw, and remain the only nations to have competed in all summer games. The boycott contributed to the 1980 Games being a less publicised and less competitive affair, which was dominated by the host country.

    In 1984 the Soviet Union, and 14 Eastern Bloc countries, reciprocated by boycotting the Los Angeles games. These games were perhaps the first games of a new era to make a profit. The games were again viable, but had become more commercial.

    The 1988 Seoul games were very well planned but the games were sadly tainted when many of the athletes failed mandatory drug tests. Despite splendid drug-free performances by many individuals, the number of people who failed screenings for performance-enhancing chemicals overshadowed the games.

    On the bright side, drug testing and regulation authorities were catching up with the cheating that had been endemic in athletics for some years. The 1992 Barcelona Games were cleaner, although not without incident. In evidence there was increased professionalism amongst Olympic athletes, exemplified by US basketball's "Dream Team". 1992 also saw the reintroduction to the Games of several smaller European states which had been incorporated into the Soviet Union since World War II.

    By then the process of choosing a location for the Games had itself become a commercial concern; allegations of corruption rocked the International Olympic Committee, in particular with reference to Salt Lake City's bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympics. It was also widely rumoured that the Coca-Cola company was highly influential in the 1996 Summer Olympics being hosted by their home city of Atlanta, Georgia[citation needed]. In the stadium in 1996, the highlight was 200 metres runner Michael Johnson annihilating the world record in front of a home crowd. Canadians savoured Donovan Bailey's record-breaking gold medal run in the 100-metre dash. This was popularly felt to be an appropriate recompense for the previous national disgrace involving Ben Johnson. There were also emotional scenes, such as when Muhammad Ali, clearly affected by Parkinson's disease, lit the Olympic torch and received a replacement medal for the one he had discarded in 1960. The latter event took place not at the boxing ring but in the basketball arena, at the demand of US television. The atmosphere at the Games was marred however when a bomb exploded during the celebration in Centennial Park. In June 2003, the principal suspect in this bombing, Eric Robert Rudolph, was captured.

    A new millennium

    The 2000 Games were held in Sydney, Australia, and showcased individual performances by local favourite Ian Thorpe in the pool, Briton Steve Redgrave who won a rowing gold medal in an unprecedented fifth consecutive Olympics, and Cathy Freeman, whose triumph in the 400 metres united a packed stadium and provided a bridge between white and aboriginal Australians. Eric "the Eel" Moussambani, a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, had a memorably slow 100 metre freestyle swim that showed that, even in the commercial world of the twentieth century, some of de Coubertin's original vision still remained[citation needed].

    2004 saw the Games return to their birthplace in Athens, Greece. Many doubted the city would be ready to host the games in time. Greece spent at least $7.2 billion on the Games, including $1.5 billion on security alone—an enormous sum that will take many years, if not decades, to pay off. Yet, none of those fears became a reality. The games were praised and appreciated for their excellent quality in terms of organization, hospitality, symbolism, the level of the competition and athleticism, and the overall image transmitted worldwide. Although unfounded and wildly sensationalized reports of terrorism drove crowds away from the preliminary competitions of first weekend of the games (August 14-15), attendance picked up soon thereafter as the games progressed, the competitions got underway, and the terrorist attacks and security glitches failed to materialize. The Athens Games witnessed all NOCs participate for the first time since 1996, and the largest ever - with 202 NOCs and over 11,000 participants.

    The 2008 Summer Olympics are to be held in Beijing, China. Several new events, including the new discipline of BMX for both men and women, are to be held. For the first time, women will compete in the steeplechase. The Fencing programme will be expanded to include all six events for both men and women, the latter of which had not previously been able to compete in team foil or sabre events. Marathon swimming events, over the distance of 10 kilometres, will be added. In addition, the doubles events in table tennis will be replaced by team events.

    London, United Kingdom will hold the 2012 Summer Olympics, making London the only city to host the Games three times. The International Olympic Committee has removed baseball and softball from the programme, effective beginning with the 2012 Olympic Games.

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