History of the Olympics

USA and Olympic rings on a flag hanging from rafters

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According to legend, the ancient Olympic Games were founded by Heracles (the Roman Hercules), a son of Zeus. Yet the first Olympic Games for which we still have written records were held in 776 BCE (though it is generally believed that the Games had been going on for many years already). At this Olympic Games, a naked runner, Coroebus (a cook from Elis), won the sole event at the Olympics, the stade - a run of approximately 192 meters (210 yards). This made Coroebus the very first Olympic champion in history.

The ancient Olympic Games grew and continued to be played every four years for nearly 1200 years. In 393 CE, the Roman emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, abolished the Games because of their pagan influences.

Pierre de Coubertin Proposes New Olympic Games

Approximately 1500 years later, a young Frenchmen named Pierre de Coubertin began their revival. Coubertin is now known as le Rénovateur. Coubertin was a French aristocrat born on January 1, 1863. He was only seven years old when France was overrun by the Germans during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Some believe that Coubertin attributed the defeat of France not to its military skills but rather to the French soldiers' lack of vigor.* After examining the education of the German, British, and American children, Coubertin decided that it was exercise, more specifically sports, that made a well-rounded and vigorous person.

Coubertin's attempt to get France interested in sports was not met with enthusiasm. Still, Coubertin persisted. In 1890, he organized and founded a sports organization, Union des Sociétés Francaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA). Two years later, Coubertin first pitched his idea to revive the Olympic Games. At a meeting of the Union des Sports Athlétiques in Paris on November 25, 1892, Coubertin stated,

Let us export our oarsmen, our runners, our fencers into other lands. That is the true Free Trade of the future; and the day it is introduced into Europe the cause of Peace will have received a new and strong ally. It inspires me to touch upon another step I now propose and in it I shall ask that the help you have given me hitherto you will extend again, so that together we may attempt to realise [sic], upon a basis suitable to the conditions of our modern life, the splendid and beneficent task of reviving the Olympic Games.**

His speech did not inspire action.

The Modern Olympic Games Are Founded

Though Coubertin was not the first to propose the revival of the Olympic Games, he was certainly the most well-connected and persistent of those to do so. Two years later, Coubertin organized a meeting with 79 delegates who represented nine countries. He gathered these delegates in an auditorium that was decorated by neoclassical murals and similar additional points of ambiance. At this meeting, Coubertin eloquently spoke of the revival of the Olympic Games. This time, Coubertin aroused interest.

The delegates at the conference voted unanimously for the Olympic Games. The delegates also decided to have Coubertin construct an international committee to organize the Games. This committee became the International Olympic Committee (IOC; Comité Internationale Olympique) and Demetrious Vikelas from Greece was selected to be its first president. Athens was chosen as the location for the revival of the Olympic Games and the planning was begun.


  • * Allen Guttmann, The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992) 8.
  • ** Pierre de Coubertin as quoted in "Olympic Games," Britannica.com (Retrieved August 10, 2000, from http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/2/0,5716,115022+1+108519,00.html
  • Durant, John. Highlights of the Olympics: From Ancient Times to the Present. New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1973.
  • Guttmann, Allen. The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
  • Henry, Bill. An Approved History of the Olympic Games. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1948.
  • Messinesi, Xenophon L. A Branch of Wild Olive. New York: Exposition Press, 1973.
  • "Olympic Games." Britannica.com. Retrieved August 10, 2000 from the World Wide Web. http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/2/0,5716,115022+1+108519,00.html
  • Pitt, Leonard and Dale Pitt. Los Angeles A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and Country. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.
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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "History of the Olympics." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-olympics-1779619. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2020, August 28). History of the Olympics. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-olympics-1779619 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "History of the Olympics." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-olympics-1779619 (accessed March 30, 2023).

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