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How did the Modern Olympics Begin?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The modern Olympics were first held in 1896 in Athens, Greece. They began after decades of increased interest in reviving the ancient games. Various Olympic-style games had been held starting in the 1600s, although they were small and mostly involved participants from the regions where they were held. The push for an international competition was led by a French baron named Pierre de Coubertin, who helped found the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894. The first modern Olympics took place two years later, when a total of 245 athletes — all men — from 14 countries competed in 43 events.

The Ancient Olympic Games

In ancient Greece, athletic festivals were held every four years in the city of Olympia and came to be known as the Olympic Games. Only men from Greece were allowed to compete, and women were barred from even watching. The first known Olympic Games were held in 776 B.C., but many historians believe that they probably were held even earlier. The ancient games ended in 393 A.D., when the Roman emperor Theodosius banned them because he believed that they were influenced by paganism.

Renewed Interest

Interest in reviving the ancient games began to increase after the Greece's war of independence from the Ottoman Empire, which lasted from 1821 to 1832. In 1856, Evangelos Zappas, a wealthy Greek businessman, made an offer to Greece's King Otto to sponsor modern Olympic Games. These were held in 1859 in Athens, although only athletes from the Ottoman Empire and Greece competed. Zappas died in 1865, but his estate also sponsored Olympic Games in 1870 and 1875 in Athens, where Zappas had paid to have the ancient Panathenaic Stadium restored for the games.

Similar competitions had been held from time to time elsewhere in Europe since at least the early 1600s. Like Zappas' Olympic Games in Athens, though, they mostly included athletes from the areas where the competitions were being held. One example was the Wenlock Olympian Society Annual Games, which were held in Shropshire, England, each year starting in 1850. It was the Wenlock Olympian Games that inspired Pierre de Coubertin to revive the ancient Olympics as an international competition held every four years.

Restoring the Games

In 1894, Coubertin organized a conference in Paris, where he pitched to athletic officials from nine countries his idea of restoring the Olympic Games. After a unanimous vote in favor of reviving the games, Coubertin was put in charge of forming a committee to organize them, which is how the International Olympic Committee began. With funding again provided by the estate of Evangelos Zappas, the IOC held the first modern Olympics in 1896 at Athens' Panathenaic Stadium, which had been further renovated for the games. The 43 events held that year were in nine different sports: track and field, swimming, gymnastics, cycling, weightlifting, tennis, wrestling, fencing and shooting.

Since the renewal of the Olympics, many changes have taken place. Women began competing in 1900, and winter sports were added in 1908. Starting in 1924, the games were separated into the Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics, and until 1992, both were held in the same year every four years. In 1994, the Winter Olympics were held after only a two-year cycle and then returned to a four-year cycle, so that the summer and winter games would alternate every two years. By the early 21st century, the number of sports, events and participants had greatly increased, with the summer and winter games combining to include more than 12,000 athletes in more than 360 events per cycle.

Sports n' Hobbies is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Sports n' Hobbies contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By JessicaLynn — On Sep 05, 2012
@sunnySkys - I doubt it! As you said, only male Greeks competed in the ancient Olympics. The modern Olympic games include people from a bunch of different countries. And of course, women are allowed to compete.

Also, there are a lot of sports in the modern Olympics that the Ancient Greeks wouldn't recognize. For example, I don't think they had skiing in Ancient Greece!

By sunnySkys — On Sep 04, 2012
I think it's strange that an ancient tradition that encompassed only male athletes from a certain country evolved into the modern Olympics. The modern Olympics are a far cry from the Ancient Olympics, that's for sure. I wonder if the Ancient Greeks would even recognize the modern Olympic games?
By betterment — On Sep 04, 2012
@strawCake - That's a good point. Athletes from both Australia and the United States participated in the Olympics, so they would have had to travel by ship (at least part of the way.) I imagine they had to make travel plans fairly far in advance!

Anyway, it's so interesting that the Olympics started off with only 14 countries. From what I remember, over 200 countries participated in the last Olympic games. The Olympics have definitely grown a lot since the 1896 games!

By strawCake — On Sep 03, 2012
I had no idea the modern Olympic games started in 1894. Imagine how much harder it was to get all the athletes to one place back then! After all, the airplane wasn't even invented til 1903, so in 1894 people from the United States would have had to travel by ship to get to the Olympics!
By jmc88 — On Sep 01, 2012

@Izzy78 - That is not a bad observation, but I would have to disagree and say that it is quite debatable.

The two dates for me that come to mind are the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, simply because of the media exposure and atmosphere.

The Olympics were a big deal, but once the 1936 Olympics began that is when it was the biggest event in the world at the time and people started paying more attention to the games.

Another that comes to mind is the 1968 Olympics, which, because of actions that occurred by the athletes, caused the IOC to rethink what is considered amateur status and allowed the athletes to begin to profit off of their exploits outside of the games.

By Izzy78 — On Aug 31, 2012

Although the Modern Olympics began in 1896, one has to ask if these are necessarily considered modern, simply because of the changes that have occurred over the years and the events that have been added.

I know it sounds petty, but there were a lot of events that one would never expect to be an Olympic sport during the first few Olympics and because of the change in atmosphere with the games, the media exposure, and the change in events, people consider the modern games to occur at a later date.

Based on these assumptions, I would say that the modern Olympic Games occurred at the 1924 Olympics as this was the seventh Olympic Games and they had figured out what traditional events to include by then.

By anon32666 — On May 25, 2009

Why did the Olympics start?

By stare31 — On Aug 18, 2008

The ancient Olympics were also held every four years. They were held between about 776 BC and 393 AD.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Sports n' Hobbies contributor, Tricia...
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