Olympic Games

(redirected from Unannounced Olympiads)
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus.

Olympic games

Olympic games, premier athletic meeting of ancient Greece, and, in modern times, series of international sports contests.

The Olympics of Ancient Greece

Although records cannot verify games earlier than 776 B.C., the contests in Homer's Iliad indicate a much earlier competitive tradition. Held in honor of Zeus in the city of Olympia for four days every fourth summer, the Olympic games were the oldest and most prestigious of four great ancient Greek athletic festivals, which also included the Pythian games at Delphi, the Isthmian at Corinth, and the Nemean at Argos (the Panathenaea at Athens was also important). The Olympics reached their height in the 5th–4th cent. B.C.; thereafter they became more and more professionalized until, in the Roman period, they provoked much censure. They were eventually discontinued by Emperor Theodosius I of Rome, who condemned them as a pagan spectacle, at the end of the 4th cent. A.D.

Among the Greeks, the games were nationalistic in spirit; states were said to have been prouder of Olympic victories than of battles won. Women, foreigners, slaves, and dishonored persons were forbidden to compete. Contestants were required to train faithfully for 10 months before the games, had to remain 30 days under the eyes of officials in Elis, who had charge of the games, and had to take an oath that they had fulfilled the training requirements before participating. At first, the Olympic games were confined to running, but over time new events were added: the long run (720 B.C.), when the loincloth was abandoned and athletes began competing naked; the pentathlon, which combined running, the long jump, wrestling, and discus and spear throwing (708 B.C.); boxing (688 B.C.); chariot racing (680 B.C.); the pankration (648 B.C.), involving boxing and wrestling contests for boys (632 B.C.); and the foot race with armor (580 B.C.).

Greek women, forbidden not only to participate in but also to watch the Olympic games, held games of their own, called the Heraea, also at Olympia. Those were also held every four years but had fewer events than the Olympics. Known to have been conducted as early as the 6th cent. B.C., the Heraean games were discontinued about the time the Romans conquered Greece. Winning was of prime importance in both male and female festivals. The winners of the Olympics (and of the Heraea) were crowned with chaplets of wild olive, and in their home city-states male champions were also awarded numerous honors, valuable gifts, and privileges.

The Modern Olympics

The modern revival of the Olympic games is due in a large measure to the efforts of Pierre, baron de Coubertin, of France. They were held, appropriately enough, in Athens in 1896, but that meeting and the ones that followed at Paris (1900) and at St. Louis (1904) were hampered by poor organization and the absence of worldwide representation. The first successful meet was held at London in 1908, where 22 countries were represented, more than 2,000 athletes participated, and medals were presented for the first time. Since then the games have been held in cities throughout the world (see Sites of the Modern Olympic Games, table). World War I prevented the Olympic meeting of 1916, and World War II the 1940 and 1944 meetings. The number of entrants, competing nations, and events have increased steadily.

To the traditional events of track and field athletics, which include the decathlon and heptathlon, have been added a host of games and sports—archery, badminton, basketball, boxing, canoeing and kayaking, cycling, diving, equestrian contests, fencing, field hockey, golf, gymnastics, judo and taekwondo, the modern pentathlon, rowing, rugby sevens, sailing, shooting, soccer, swimming, synchronized swimming, table tennis, team (field) handball, tennis, trampoline, the triathlon, volleyball, water polo, weight lifting, and wrestling. Olympic events for women made their first appearance in 1912. A separate series of winter Olympic meets, inaugurated (1924) at Chamonix, France, now includes bobsledding, curling, ice hockey, luge, skating, skeleton, skiing, and snowboarding events. Since 1994 the winter games have been held in even-numbered years in which the summer games are not contested. Until late in the 20th cent. the modern Olympics were open only to amateurs, but the governing bodies of several sports now permit professionals to compete as well. The increasing costs of holding the games led in 2014 to the adoption of changes that would permit multicity or countrywide hosting of the Olympics, beginning with the 2024 summer games.

As a visible focus of world energies, the Olympics have been prey to many factors that thwarted their ideals of world cooperation and athletic excellence. As in ancient Greece, nationalistic fervor has fostered intense rivalries that at times threatened the survival of the games. Although officially only individuals win Olympic medals, nations routinely assign political significance to the feats of their citizens and teams. Between 1952 and 1988 rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, rooted in mutual political antagonism, resulted in each boycotting games hosted by the other (Moscow, 1980; Los Angeles, 1984). Politics has influenced the Olympic games in other ways, from the propaganda of the Nazis in Berlin (1936) to pressures leading to the exclusion of white-ruled Rhodesia from the Munich games (1972). At Munich, nine Israeli athletes were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which sets and enforces Olympic policy, has struggled with the licensing and commercialization of the games, the need to schedule events to accommodate American television networks (whose broadcasting fees help underwrite the games), and the monitoring of athletes who seek illegal competitive advantages, often through the use of performance-enhancing drugs. State-sponsored doping by Russia associated with the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and the nation's manipulation of the anti-doping system led (2017) the IOC to bar Russia (but not all its athletes) from the 2018 Winter Games. The IOC itself has also been the subject of controversy. In 1998 a scandal erupted with revelations that bribery and favoritism had played a role in the awarding of the 2002 Winter Games to Salt Lake City, Utah, and in the selection of some earlier venues. As a result, the IOC instituted a number of reforms including, in 1999, initiating age and term limits for members and barring them from visiting cities bidding to be Olympic sites. In 2020, the Summer Games planned for that year in Tokyo were postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

See also Paralympic games.


See R. Mandell, The First Modern Olympics (1976); J. Lucas, The Modern Olympic Games (1980); J. J. MacAloon, This Great Symbol (1981); A. Guttmann, The Games Must Go On (1984); A. Kitroeff, Wrestling with the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics (2004); S. G. Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics (2004); T. Perrotet, The Naked Olympics (2004); N. Spivey, The Ancient Olympics (2004); J. Swaddling, The Ancient Olympic Games (rev. ed. 2008); N. Faulkner, A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics (2012); D. Goldblatt, The Games: A Global History of the Olympics (2016).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Olympic Games

Type of Holiday: Sporting
Date of Observation: Every four years
Where Celebrated: Various countries around the world
Symbols and Customs: Olympic Flame, Olympic Rings


There were four major religious festivals in ancient Greece that entailed athletic competitions: the Olympic Games, the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games, and the Isthmian Games. The Olympic Games, held in honor of Zeus, were especially popular. First held in 776 B . C . E . at Olympia, Greece, they continued to be held once every four years for 1,168 years. Then Greece came under Roman rule, and the games declined. They were finally abolished in 393 C . E . by the Christian Roman emperor, Theodosius I, who probably objected to some of the pagan rites associated with the games. At first the Olympic Games were confined to a single day and a single event: a footrace the length of the stadium. Additional races were added later, along with the discus throw, javelin throw, broad (or long) jump, boxing, wrestling, pentathlon (consisting of five different track and field events), chariot racing, and other contests. There were competitions for poets, orators, and dramatists as well. The length of the games was later extended to five days, and the winners were celebrated as national heroes.

It wasn't until the late nineteenth century that the games were revived, largely through the efforts of Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, an educator and scholar who wanted to discourage professionalism in sports by holding amateur world championships. The first Olympiad of modern times was held under the royal patronage of the King of Greece in 1896 in a new stadium built for the purpose in Athens. Since that time, the games have been held in cities all over the world at four-year intervals, except for lapses during the First and Second World Wars. A separate cycle of winter games was initiated in 1924.

The modern Olympic Games consist of the Summer Games, held in a large city, and the Winter Games, held at a winter resort. Since 1994, the games have been held on a four-year cycle, but two years apart (i.e., Winter Games in 1994 and 1998, Summer Games in 1996 and 2000). There are twenty-eight approved sports for the Summer Games, which include archery, basketball, boxing, canoeing, cycling, equestrian events, fencing, football (soccer), gymnastics, modern pentathlon, rowing, swimming, diving, volleyball, water polo, weight lifting, wrestling, and yachting. The Winter Games offer competition in such events as biathlon (skiing and shooting), bobsled, ice hockey, luge, ice skating, and skiing. Newer Olympic sports include snowboarding and beach volleyball.

In recent years, about 200 nations have sent over 10,000 male and female athletes to the Summer Olympics, and almost four billion have watched the competition on television. The Winter Olympics are somewhat smaller, with about eighty nations participating.


Olympic Flame

The highlight of the opening ceremonies at both the Winter and Summer Olympics is the lighting of the Olympic flame, said to represent the "Olympic spirit" of competition. A cross-country relay runner carries a torch first lit at Olympia, Greece, and ignites the flame that burns throughout the fifteen or sixteen days of the games. Thousands of runners, representing each country between Greece and the host country, take part in the four-week torch relay. The lighting of the torch is followed by a spectacular production of fireworks, strobe lights, fly-overs, music, dance, and other entertainments.

Olympic Rings

The Olympic rings were proposed by Olympic Games founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1914. They first appeared on Olympic medals in 1924. The five rings are blue, black, red, yellow, and green. These colors were selected because one of them can be found in the flag of each nation competing in the Olympics. Each ring represents a continent, and their interlacing shows the universality of the Olympics. Also reflected in the joining of the rings is the meeting of the athletes of the world.


Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.


International Olympic Committee www.olympic.org

Olympic Museum www.museum.olympic.org
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Olympic Games


(1) The oldest and most popular Panhel-lenic festivals and contests in ancient Greece. According to tradition, the Olympic Games were established in honor of the god Zeus and were held in Olympia once every four years, beginning in 776 B.C. At the time of the games, a sacred truce among all Greeks was declared and enforced: all military operations in Greece were suspended to ensure safe passage on the roads to Olympia.

The Olympic Games were held over a period of five days. The first and fifth days were devoted to processions, sacrifices, and ceremonies, and the second, third, and fourth days were devoted to athletic competition for men and boys. (Before 472 B.C., the program was of only one day’s duration.) During the classical period, in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., the contests included chariot racing, the pentathlon (running, spear throwing, discus throwing, broad jumping, wrestling), boxing, and competition in various art forms.

Only full citizens of Greek poleis could compete in the Olympic Games initially; later, the Romans took part. Women were not allowed into the area where the games were held. The winners of the competitions were awarded an olive wreath and were honored, respected, and sometimes even idolized throughout Greece. In their own cities, they received important economic and political privileges. Poets, philosophers, and orators addressed the contestants and spectators. The hellanodicae, who were chosen from among the citizens of the district of Elis, were the masters of ceremonies and judges of the games. With the triumph of Christianity, the Olympic Games were abolished by the Roman emperor Theodosius I in A.D. 394.


Kolobova, K. M., and E. L. Ozeretskaia. Olimpiiskie igry. Moscow, 1958.
Zel’in, K. K. “Olimpioniki i tirany.” Vestnik dremel istorii, 1962, no. 4.
Shöbel, H. Olimpiia i ee igry. Leipzig, 1971. (Translated from German.)
Mezö, F. Geschichte der Olympischen Spiele. Munich, 1930.
Mousset, A. Les Antiquités de la Grèce: Olympie et les jeux grecs. Paris, 1960.


(2) The most important international athletic competitions of modern times. The principles, rules, and regulations of the Olympic Games are determined by the Olympic Rules, which were approved by an international sports congress in Paris in 1894. It was this congress that adopted a resolution to organize Olympic Games on the ancient model and to create the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as proposed by the French educator and public figure P. de Coubertin. According to the Olympic Rules, the games “unite Olympic competitors of all nations in fair and equal competitions. No discrimination against a country or individual on the grounds of race, religion, or political beliefs is permitted.”

The Olympic Games are held in the first year of the Olympiad (the four-year period between games). The Olympiads are reckoned from the year 1896, when the first modern Olympic Games were held (I Olympiad: 1896–99). An Olympiad receives a numerical designation even in those instances when games are not held (for example, VI, 1916–19; XII, 1940–1943; XIII, 1944–47). Eighteen Olympic Games were held between 1896 and 1976: Athens (1896), Paris (1900), St. Louis (1904), London (1908), Stockholm (1912), Antwerp (1920), Paris (1924), Amsterdam (1928), Los Angeles (1932), Berlin (1936), London (1948), Helsinki (1952), Melbourne (1956), Rome (1960), Tokyo (1964), Mexico City (1968), Munich (1972), and Montreal (1976). In 1974 the IOC selected Moscow as the site of the 1980 Olympic Games.

The following sports, which were recognized by the IOC as of 1973, are among those included in the program of the Olympic Games: basketball, boxing, freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, cycling, volleyball, handball, gymnastics, rowing, canoeing, judo, equestrian events, track and field, yachting, swimming (diving, water polo), modern pentathlon, archery, shooting (target shooting, trapshooting), weightlifting, fencing, soccer, and field hockey. In 1924 the Olympic Winter Games were introduced. Held in the same calendar year as the summer games, the winter games have their own numbering.

The site of the Olympic Games is chosen by the IOC, and the right of organizing the games is granted to a city not a country. The Olympic Games last no more than 15 days (ten days for the winter games).

The Olympic movement has its own emblem and flag, which were approved by the IOC, according to Coubertin’s proposal, in 1913. The emblem consists of five rings linked together to symbolize the five continents united in the Olympic movement. The upper row consists of blue, black, and red rings, and the bottom row of yellow and green rings. The motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius (faster, higher, stronger). The flag displays the Olympic rings on a white background and has been raised at all Olympic Games since 1920. Traditional rituals include igniting the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony (a torch is ignited in Olympia, Greece, from the sun’s rays and is carried by relays of runners to the city hosting the games); recitation of the Olympic oath by one of the host country’s outstanding athletes on behalf of all those participating in the games; recitation of the oath on impartial judging by a judge of the host country on behalf of all the judges; presentation of medals to the winners of the first, second, and third prizes; raising the national flag of the winners; and playing the national anthem of the winner of the first prize. Since 1932, the city hosting the games has built living accommodations, known as the Olympic Village, for the participating athletes.

According to the Olympic Rules, the games are competitions between individual athletes and not between national teams. However, since 1908 there has been unofficial team scoring, that is, the ranking of teams according to the number of medals received and points scored in the competitions. Points are awarded for the first six places: first place, 7 points; second place, 5 points; third place, 4 points; fourth place, 3 points; fifth place, 2 points; and sixth place, 1 point.

In 1973, 131 countries and territories, whose national Olympic committees were recognized by the IOC, participated in the Olympic movement. Athletes from Russia competed in the Olympic Games in 1908 and 1912, winning seven medals, including one gold medal earned by N. A. Panin-Kolomenkin for figure skating. Soviet athletes joined the Olympic movement in 1951, when the Olympic Committee of the USSR was founded. Representatives of the USSR and other socialist countries have helped strengthen the spirit of friendship and mutual understanding in the Olympic competitions. Their participation has significantly enhanced the role of the Olympic Games in bringing together the peoples of different countries and has emphasized the universal nature of the games.

In the Olympic Games held between 1952 and 1976, Soviet athletes won 258 gold medals, 221 silver medals, and 204 bronze medals. (This total excludes the medals presented to individual athletes in team competitions, such as team sports, relay races, and the team gymnastics.) In the unofficial team scoring, the Soviet team tied the American team for first place in 1952; it occupied first place in 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1972 and second place in 1968. A total of approximately 1,500 athletes have represented the Soviet Union in the Olympic Games.


Sobolev, P., and N. Kalinin. Olimpiiskie igry. Moscow, 1955.
Liubomirov, N. I. Ot Afin do Rima. Moscow, 1960.
Sobolev, P. Olimpiia, Afiny, Rim. Moscow, 1960.
Romanov, A. O. Sovremennye problemy mezhdunarodnogo olimpiiskogo dvizheniia. Moscow, 1963.
Olimpiiskie igry. Moscow, 1964.
Alekseev, R. O. Mezhdunarodnoe olimpiiskoe dvizhenie. Moscow, 1966.
Liubomirov, N. I. Sovetskii sport i olimpiiskoe dvizhenie. Moscow, 1967.
[Savvin, V. I.] Vchera, segodnia i zavtra Mezhdunarodnogo olimpiiskogo komiteta. Moscow, 1967.
Coubertin, P. Mémoires olympiques. Lausanne, 1931.
Henry, B. An Approved History of the Olympic Games. New York, 1948.
Andersen, P. C. Olympiaboken. Oslo [1951].
Abrahams, H. The Olympic Games Book. London, 1956.
Berlioux, M. Les Jeux olympiques. Paris [1956].
Vasev, A., and D. Mishev. Ot Atina do Melburn. Sofia, 1957.
Mezö, F. Sovremennye olimpiiskie igry. Budapest, 1961.
Berlioux, M. Olympica. Paris, 1964.
Schöbel, H. Olympia und seine Spiele. Berlin-Leipzig [1965].
Die Olympischen Spiele von 1896 bis 1968. Berlin, 1969.
Olympic Rules and Regulations. 1972. (Comité International Olympique, Chateau de Vidy, Lausanne.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Olympic Games

Winter Games every four years (2010, 2014, 2018...); Summer Games every four years (2012, 2016, 2020...)
The world's oldest sports spectacular, the first known Olympiad was held in 776 b.c.e. in Olympia, Greece. It is believed the festivals began before 1400 b.c.e. The modern games, which until recently were held roughly every four years in different countries, were revived in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France. Those 1896 summer games took place in Athens, with 13 nations sending about 300 male athletes to compete in 42 events and 10 different sports. Now nearly 200 nations send thousands of male and female athletes to the Olympics, and hundreds of millions watch the events on television. Some winter sports were included in early years of the modern Olympics, but the Winter Games as a separate event didn't begin until 1924.
In ancient Greece, four national religious festivals—the Olympic Games, the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games, and the Isthmian Games—were major events; the Olympic Games, honoring Zeus, were especially famous. Records tell of Olympic Games every four years from 776 b.c.e. to 217 c.e. when, with Greece under Roman domination, the games had lost their religious purpose and the athletes vied only for money. They were abolished by the Roman emperor, Theodosius I. It is generally believed, however, that the festival consisted not only of sporting contests, but of the presentation of offerings to Zeus and other gods. At first, these were simple foot races; later the long jump, discus- and javelin-throwing, wrestling, boxing, pancratium (a ferocious combination of boxing and wrestling), and chariot racing were added. Poets and dramatists also presented works. The games opened with trumpet fanfares and closed with a banquet.
Modern Olympics comprise Summer Games, held in a large city, and Winter Games, held at a resort. Since 1994, the games are still on a four-year cycle, but two years apart: Winter Games in 2002, 2006, 2010, etc., and Summer Games in 2000, 2004, 2008, etc. There are 28 approved sports for the Summer Games. The Winter Games consist of seven approved sports.
Today, the opening ceremonies highlight a parade of the athletes led by those from Greece, in honor of the original Games, followed by the athletes from the other nations, in alphabetical order according to the spelling in the country's language; the host country enters last.
After the Games are declared open, the dramatic lighting of the Olympic flame occurs. A cross-country relay runner carries a torch first lit in Olympia, and ignites the flame that burns for the 15-16 days of the games. Thousands of runners, representing each country between Greece and the host country, take part in the four-week torch relay. This is followed by a spectacular production of fireworks, strobe lights, fly-overs, music, dance, and assorted entertainment.
The Winter Games of 1992, held in Albertville, France, were historic in their reflection of dramatic political changes. The Soviet Union had broken up in August 1991, and athletes from five former Soviet republics competed as representatives of the Commonwealth of Independent States or United Team, and the Olympic flag, not that of the U.S.S.R., was raised for the winners.
The first- and second-place medals are both made of silver but the first place has a wash of gold; the third-place medal is bronze.
The Olympics are supposed to be nonpolitical but have been marked (and marred) by politics. In 1936, Adolf Hitler, who called blacks an inferior race, opened the Olympics in Berlin, Germany, as a propaganda show. It was thus a great triumph for humanity when Jesse Owens, a black man from Ohio State University, won four gold (first place) medals. He won the 100- and 200-meter dashes and the running broad jump, and was on the winning 400-meter relay team. Hitler ducked out of the stadium so he wouldn't have to congratulate Owens.
In 1972, the Games in Munich, Germany, were struck with horror when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Arab terrorists.
The 1980 Games were opened in Moscow by Communist Party chairman Leonid I. Brezhnev, but athletes from the United States, Canada, West Germany, Japan and 50 other countries didn't participate. Their countries boycotted the event in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Terrorism again struck the Games in Atlanta in 1996.
Prominent Olympics participants have included:
Jim Thorpe, an American Indian and one of the greatest all-round athletes of all time, won gold medals for the decathlon and pentathlon in 1912. The following year, he was stripped of the medals when an investigation showed he had played semiprofessional baseball. He died in 1953, and the medals were restored to his family in 1982.
Paavo Nurmi, known as the "Flying Finn," won nine gold medals in long-distance running in three Olympics—in 1920, 1924, and 1928. On an extremely hot day at the Paris Summer Games in 1924, Nurmi set Olympic records in the 1,500-meter and 5,000-meter runs. Two days later, he won the 10,000-meter cross-country race. In 1928, he set a record for the one-hour run, covering 11 miles and 1,648 yards. His 1924 wins were considered the greatest individual performance in the history of track and field.
The Norwegian skater Sonja Henie won three gold medals—in 1928, 1932, and 1936. In 1924, at the age of 11, she was the youngest Olympian contestant ever (she finished last that year). She thrilled crowds by incorporating balletic moves into what had been standard skating exercises.
Emil Zatopek, a Czech long-distance runner, won three gold medals in 1952 and set Olympic records for the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races and for the marathon.
Jean-Claude Killy, known as "Le Superman" in his native France, won three gold medals in Alpine ski events at Grenoble, France, in 1968.
Mark Spitz, a swimmer from California, became the first athlete to win seven gold medals in a single Olympics (1972). He set world records in four individual men's events, and won the remaining medals in team events. These teams also set world records. Spitz, 22 at the time, was so popular for a while that his photo was a pinup poster.
Michael Phelps turned in an even more spectacular performance. At the 2004 Olympics he won six gold medals, but that was just the warm up. In 2008, he set a new record by winning eight gold medals—in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly; the 200-meter freestyle; the 200- and 400-meter individual medley; the 4x100-meter medley relay; and the 4x100- and 4x200-meter freestyle relay. He set new world records in seven of those events, all but the 100-meter butterfly. In total, Phelps has won 14 Olympic gold medals and two bronze medals, for an awe-inspiring 16 medals in just two Olympic appearances.
See also Cultural Olympiad
International Olympic Committee
Chateau de Vidy
Lausanne, 1007 Switzerland
41-21-621-6111; fax: 41-21-621-6216
Olympic Museum
1, Quai d'Ouchy
Lausanne, 1001 Switzerland
41-21-621-6511; fax: 41-21-621-6512
BkHolWrld-1986, Aug 5
HolSymbols-2009, p. 662
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.

Olympic Games

the greatest Panhellenic festival, held every fourth year in honour of Zeus at ancient Olympia. From 472 bc, it consisted of five days of games, sacrifices, and festivities
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005