Have you been caught up in Olympic fever? From the opening to the closing ceremonies, I am hooked. I’m especially fond of the swimming and gymnastics, while my husband is caught up in the soccer, boxing, weightlifting, and shooting events.
I think part of the reason I’m so fascinated with the Olympic Games is the history behind the event. In ancient Greek mythology, Heracles began the games to honor Zeus. The first known actual Olympic Games took place in 776 BC as a temporary truce between warring factions – but many believe the Olympic Games were taking place even before then. The games came to an abrupt halt in 393 AD, when the Roman emperor Theodosius banned the games as a pagan ritual.
It took 1,500 years and a Frenchman named Pierre de Coubertin to bring the Olympic Games back. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 which marked the downfall of Napoleon III and the end of the Second French Empire, Coubertin was concerned that the French soldiers lost the war due to a lack of “vigor” and believed playing sports would help develop their stamina. It took several years, but finally, in 1894, he was able to convince a group of delegates to get on board with the Olympic Games idea. The delegates asked Coubertin to develop a committee to manage the games, and the International Olympic Committee (the IOC) was born.
In 1896, 14 nations gathered in Athens, Greece to compete in 43 events. Due to the success of the first event, the IOC decided to host a second Olympics in Paris, and the games were underway once again.
The United States has hosted the summer games four times. The US first hosted the Olympics in 1904, when the third Olympic Games were held in St. Louis, Missouri. The games took place at Francis Field on the Washington University campus. But the games weren’t supposed to take place in St. Louis – they were supposed to be held in Chicago, Illinois. So, why the change?
It turned out that the city of St. Louis was planning a major international event at the same time called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, a World’s Fair to honor the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. When they discovered that the Olympic Games were coming to Chicago, they took issue with another major event being held in competition with their event. They threatened to organize their own international sports events and compete with the Olympics unless the games were moved to St. Louis. Coubertin finally agreed, and the games were moved and held in conjunction with the World’s Fair – probably not the best idea, since the Olympic Games were “lost” in the midst of other events, nearly bringing the entire program to a screeching halt.
Los Angeles, California held the summer games twice: in 1932 and again in 1984. The 1932 games were the 10th official games, and Los Angeles hosted because no other city bid. It was the time of the Great Depression, and very few countries could afford to even participate, let alone host. The 47 countries that did participate sent much smaller delegations, resulting in about half the number of athletes as previous games.
Things were a little different during the 1984 games in LA, but several countries were missing due to a boycott: the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany, Iran, and Libya all decided not to participate. But even with these missing countries, 140 nations did participate – a record for the games at that time.
Since 1924, the winter and summer games were held the same year. That all changed in 1986, when the IOC decided to separate the Summer and Winter Games. The IOC decided to have the games take place in alternating even-numbered years, starting with 1994. The first games held after the split were the Summer Olympic Games held in Atlanta, Georgia in 1996 — 100 years after Coubertin and the IOC held the first Olympic Games in modern history.
Now, 116 years after the official “re-launch” of the Olympic Games, we get to enjoy the pageantry and sportsmanship in London. While I wish I could be there, I am glad that I live in a former host city – we can head down to Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta and be swept up in the magic of the games all over again.