The Olympic Games

Champion: The top winner in history is the US swimmer Michael Phelps with 23 gold medals.

The world’s biggest sporting event has been postponed for a year because of the pandemic, disappointing millions of viewers, athletes, and organisers. How did the Olympic games come about?

  • When did it all begin?

    The Olympic Games began over 2,700 years ago in Olympia. Every four years, around 50,000 people came from all over the Greek world to watch and take part. The ancient Games were also a religious festival dedicated to Zeus. A sacred flame burnt throughout the competition and a truce would be called across the empire. Athletes would compete to honour Zeus, and victory wreaths were cut from a sacred olive tree.

    The Olympics ran for nearly 12 centuries until AD393 when Emperor Theodosius I called for a ban of all pagan festivals.

  • What were the competitions like?

    Originally, athletes only competed in one event: a foot race along the 192-metre track of the stadium. Later, came events like chariot racing in the Hippodrome, as well as long jump and javelin. There was only one Olympic champion each year, and the Games had strict rules. Competitors had to be Greek, with women barred from participating and cheaters beaten publicly. And – athletes all competed naked!

  • Sounds tough, why did they revive it?

    In the 1880s, Pierre de Coubertin had the idea of organising an international competition based on the Olympic Games. He idealised it as the ultimate athletic competition, promoting peace and encouraging physical exercise. In 1894, a flame was lit to open the first modern Games. Fourteen countries took part.

  • What does the flag mean?

    Designed in 1913, the five Olympic rings represent five continents. Their colours together with the white background include colours from every nation’s flag.

  • How have the modern Games changed?

    Although many events like wrestling and pentathlon remain, there are now hundreds more events, including team sports like football, and the number of participating countries has grown to 206. Women have competed since 1900 and we also enjoy the Paralympics and Winter Games.

  • Have the modern Olympics ever been cancelled before?

    Only three times. Germany was set to host the Games in 1916, when the outbreak of World War One led them to postpone. However, the war lasted longer than expected and Berlin wouldn’t host again until 1936.

    Tokyo was due to host the 1940 summer Games – before war with China forced cancellation. Four years later, the London Games were cancelled due to World War Two.

    This year’s Games mark the first time disease has affected the Olympics. Luckily, they have only been postponed by a year.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather take part in the ancient or modern Olympic Games?


  1. The ancient Greeks are famous for their pottery (objects made from clay). Designs on their vases and pots always told a story: some of daily life; others described wars and heroes. Look up some examples and then design your own pot, telling the story of an Olympic athlete.

Word Watch

In Greek mythology, Zeus was the king of the gods.
An agreement between enemies or opponents to stop fighting or arguing for a certain time.
Otherwise known as “kotinos”, this was the prize for the champion of the ancient Olympic Games. The branch was twisted into a circle and placed on the winner’s head.
Pagan refers to a person who holds religious beliefs not connected to a major world religion. Emperor Theodosius I was an early Christian who held such views.
The Hippodrome was a separate stadium set aside for horse racing. It was 780m long, making it the largest building in the ancient Olympic Games.
Five continents
Today, we recognise seven continents but at the time, only Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania were recognised.
A contest featuring five events.

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