The ancient Olympic Games are traditionally said to have first been held in Ancient Greece in 776 BC. They were held in the city of Olympia in honor of the Greek god Zeus, and were a series of athletic competitions between the various Greek city-states, with the winner of each event receiving an olive wreath. Some of the traditions of the modern games were revived from those of the ancient games: like the modern games, the ancient games were held every four years (a period of time which came to be known as an "Olympiad"), and the symbolism of peace in the modern games was inspired by ancient games, as a truce would be enacted between all the Greek city-states during the games to allow athletes to travel safely between their homes and Olympia.
Unlike the modern games, the ancient games were only open to Greek men who were free (not slaves), and anyone who wished to participate had to prove Greek ancestry. Women were not allowed to participate, and married women were not even allowed to attend as spectators, though women who owned horses or chariots could enter them in the equestrian events (albeit ridden by male jockeys), and would also be declared Olympic champions should their horse or chariot win events. Competitors were also nude (γυμνός, gimnós in Greek, from which we get "gymnasium" and "gymnastics").
For their first 50 years or so, the ancient games only had a single athletic event, the stade or stadion, a sprint of just 200 yards (180 m). Over their history, 23 different events would be held, although no more than 20 at any one Olympiad. Main events included chariot racing, wrestling, boxing, pankration ("total power", a fierce and sometimes deadly anything-goes fight, conceptually like modern mixed martial arts), stadion and other foot races, and the original pentathlon (made up of wrestling, stadion, long jump, javelin throw, and discus throw).
However, the ancient games were more than just an athletic event; they were also a religious festival and artistic display. Sculptors, poets, and other artisans would exhibit their works (a tradition which continues today in the form of the Opening Ceremonies). While victors only officially won a garland, they would be showered with riches and social honors upon returning home, and during some periods would be commemorated in poems and victory songs, some of which are still known today more than 2,500 years later.
The Olympic Games were only one of the four Panhellenic Games, the others being the Pythian Games (in Delphi), the Nemean Games (in Nemea, Corinthia), and the Isthmian Games (in Isthmia, Sicyon, also near modern Corinth). A rotating schedule ensured that at least one was held every year. However, the Olympic Games were both the oldest and the most important of the four.
The Olympic Games would continue to be held even after Greece came under Roman rule, and from the 1st century BC a few Roman competitors were allowed (including Emperor Nero, who failed to finish after being thrown from his chariot, but was declared the winner on the basis that he would have won if he finished the race!). Eventually the Olympic Games were banned by Emperor Theodosius I in AD 393 (having run for more than 1,000 years) after he declared Christianity the state religion of Rome and mandatory for all Roman subjects, as he viewed the games as a Pagan tradition that undermined Christianity.
The first talks of reviving the games began in 1821, after Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire. A donation from Evangelos Zappas, a wealthy Greek-Romanian philanthropist, led to games being held in Athens in 1859, 1870 and 1875, with athletes coming from Greece and the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, a British educationalist known as William Penny Brooks would start an Olympian Class in 1850, which were and continue to be held every year at Much Wenlock, England. Inspired by both these events, French baron Pierre de Coubertin would go on to found the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1890. Under the auspices of the IOC, the first modern Olympic Games would be held in Athens in 1896, with the Panathenaic Stadium, which had been renovated for the games in 1870, serving as the main stadium for the games. The first games in 1896 would also be a male-only event, with women only allowed to compete starting from the 1900 edition in Paris.
For much of its history, the modern Olympics required all participants to be amateurs, or in other words to never have received any monetary compensation whatsoever for sports-related activities, a rule inspired by the ideals of the traditional English gentleman in the 19th century. However, with the start of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and its communist allies would get around this rule by nominally hiring their athletes in other occupations, but in practice allowing them to be on perpetual paid leave to train full-time. As a result, the rules on amateurism were gradually relaxed, and were eventually completely abolished in 1992, though the sports of boxing and wrestling continue to use amateur rather than professional fight rules. Another vestige of the amateurism rule can be seen in men's association football (soccer), where participants are required to be aged 23 or younger (except for three over-age players allowed per team) — in part because FIFA does not want to "devalue" their World Cup and European Championships.
From 1912 to 1948, the Olympics actually included art competitions for architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. This was part of Coubertin's vision of replicating the ancient Olympics. (As it happens, he entered in 1912 under a pseudonym and won the gold medal for literature for his poem Ode to Sport.) The art competitions were eventually removed, although you may be surprised to learn why: artists were considered to be professionals, which conflicted with the "amateurs only" rule. Instead, today's Olympics are accompanied by Cultural Olympiads, which encourage many kinds of artistic events. The lavish London 2012 Games included hundred of projects and events including the World Shakespeare Festival, while the budget-conscious Rio 2016 Games used an unpublished program of street theater and flash mobs.
A separate movement to include disabled athletes began shortly after World War II. Ludwig Guttmann, a neurologist who fled Germany for Britain in 1939, established a center for treating spinal injuries at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1944. Believing in sports as a method of therapy for injured military personnel, he organized the first Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948, to coincide with the 1948 Olympics in London. In 1960, Rome hosted the first official Paralympic Games (although that name wouldn't come into use until later, with events from 1960 onward being retroactively renamed). While the Paralympics were originally open only to athletes in wheelchairs, in 1976 rules were relaxed to accommodate other disabilities. Since 1988, the Paralympic Games have been held in the same city and using the same facilities as the Olympic Games, and this was made a formal policy in 2001.
Originally formed from the words "paraplegic" and "Olympics", the name is now explained as coming from the Greek παρά (pará) as in "parallel", suggesting that the Paralympic Games are the equal of the Olympic Games. (In London 2012, the Paralympics were advertised after the Olympics with cheeky billboards that read "Thanks for the warm-up"!) Paralympic Games typically take place 2–4 weeks after the conclusion of the Olympic Games, and broadcasters who get their country's exclusive contract to show the Olympic Games are becoming required to broadcast an increasing amount of the Paralympic Games as well. Tickets to the Paralympics generally cost around half as much as the Olympics, and demand is substantially lower, making Paralympic tickets much easier to get. A few sports — namely boccia and goalball — are unique sports solely for disabled players, some like wheelchair basketball and vision-impaired judo are versions of regular sports adapted for particular disabilities, and others like athletics and swimming have only minor adaptations but are broken into categories to account for varying types and levels of disability. As a result of the additional categories, the Paralympics awards 50% more medals than the Olympics despite having only half as many sports.
The IOC (International Olympic Committee; French: CIO or Comité international olympique) is the independent organization that organizes the Olympic Games. They work with international sports federations to set the rules for the Games, and elect which city will host the Games. Beneath the IOC, National Olympic Committees (NOCs) organize their nation's participation in the Games, and work with city's committees to submit bids to host the Olympics. Since 1996, membership in the IOC has been restricted to independent countries recognised by the international community, though a grandfather clause allows dependent territories recognised before that date, such as Hong Kong, Bermuda and Puerto Rico, to continue sending teams to the Olympics. In the past there have been controversies and problems regarding countries which claim to be the "sole legal representative" of some territory, for example China (PRC) and Taiwan (ROC) which has been resolved by letting Taiwanese athletes participate under the "Chinese Taipei" designation, East and West Germany (which became moot with reunification) and North and South Korea, which have sometimes attempted to send "unified teams", while Catalonia continues to campaign for the right to send a separate team from Spain.
The Paralympic Games have a similar structure, being led by the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) and National Paralympic Committees (NPCs). Host cities, however, have mostly shifted to having a single committee to jointly organize the Olympics and Paralympics. Interestingly, the Paralympics are contested by more national teams than the Olympics, as Macau and the Faroe Islands send their own teams to the Paralympics, but are required to compete as part of China and Denmark respectively at the Olympics.
In the early years, Summer Olympics were often held over a course of several months and competitors were not clearly separate from the general population, meaning pretty much anybody could show up and participate. Similarly, venues were rarely purpose built and permanent. Several of the pre World War I games were held together with a World Exhibition and several of the Olympic traditions actually date back to "Intercalated Games" that were to be held between two regular games and always in Athens but abandoned after only one such event was held.
The United States leads the all-time medal count in the Summer Olympics, having won over 1,000 gold medals, with the Soviet Union in a distant second clocking in at just under 400. However, third place Great Britain is the only team to have won gold at every edition of the Summer Olympics, due to the fact that the Americans boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow.
Since the 1988 Summer Games, all Olympic Games have been followed immediately by the Paralympic Games for disability sports in the same city and using most if not all of the same venues. Joint hosting of the Olympics and Paralympics (both Summer and Winter) has been official policy since 2001.
- Amsterdam – hosted in 1928; had previously hosted some sailing events at the 1920 Games.
- Antwerp – hosted in 1920.
- Athens - hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and again hosted them in 2004, plus the only Intercalated Games in 1906; surprisingly little remains even from the 2004 Games. However, the main stadium of the 1896 games, the Panathinaiko Stadium, which hosted the archery events and the finish of the marathon in 2004, still stands and is a major historical landmark and tourist attraction.
- Atlanta - hosted in 1996. Most of the infrastructure still stands, but the main stadium was reconfigured for baseball immediately after the Games and has been reconfigured again for American football.
- Barcelona – hosted in 1992. Most of the Olympic infrastructure still stands.
- Beijing – hosted in 2008, which is the most expensive summer games to date, and will become the first city to have hosted both the Summer and Winter Games in 2022.
- Berlin - planned host for the 1916 games which were cancelled due to World War I; ultimately hosted the 1936 games, which had been awarded before Hitler took over. The Olympiastadion has since been redesigned but is still extant. Some other venues still exist in some form but are hard to see for the casual observer. The S-Bahn got upgrades for the games.
- Helsinki – scheduled to host the games in 1940 (after Tokyo gave them back to the IOC due to the Pacific War); due to World War II, they were postponed until 1952. The Olympic stadium has been the most important outdoor sports venue in Helsinki ever since, but is closed for a major renovation and scheduled to reopen in August 2020.
- London – the first city to host three Olympics (1908, 1948, 2012), with most of the 2012 infrastructure still present. The exact marathon distance of 42,195 m (138,435 ft) was set for the 1908 games to have the final stretch before the monarch. Planned host for the 1944 games which were cancelled due to World War II, but would eventually host 4 years later after the end of the war.
- Los Angeles – hosted 1932 and 1984 Olympics, the latter with a large Soviet-led boycott, and will host in 2028. The main stadium in 1932 and 1984, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, is still in active use and is planned to be used in 2028 as well. Some of the other 1932 infrastructure and much more of the 1984 infrastructure still stands.
- Melbourne – hosted in 1956 with the exception of equestrian events, which were held in Stockholm due to Australian quarantine laws. The main stadium, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, is still in active use; it is mostly outwardly unchanged from its Olympic configuration, although significantly modernised within.
- Mexico City - hosted the 1968 games where many records were broken due to high altitude, but several political controversies overshadowed the events.
- Montreal - bankrupted itself with the 1976 games that cost more than expected, especially the Olympic Stadium that proved a less than inspired design and would struggle for years to find a suitable tenant.
- Moscow - hosted in 1980 with a large US-led boycott. The main stadium was renovated for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
- Munich - host of the 1972 Olympics, which was overshadowed by a terrorist attack that led to the deaths of 11 Israeli team members. Much of the Olympic infrastructure (including Olympiastadion) still exists. The U-Bahn (Germany's third) opened a year ahead of the game and was partly built for the games
- Paris – hosted 1900 and 1924 Olympics, and will host in 2024. The main stadium from 1924, located in the suburb of Colombes, still stands and will be used for field hockey in 2024, but has been heavily downsized from its 1924 configuration. The 1900 games were the first in which women were allowed to participate.
- Rio de Janeiro - hosted in 2016 after Brazil had already hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup; many venues are already beyond use or were never planned to be permanent.
- Rome - hosted in 1960; the first city of one of the major Axis Powers of World War II to host after the war. The main stadium is still in use, though it was extensively renovated for the 1990 FIFA World Cup.
- Seoul - hosted in 1988 after an attempt to jointly host with sites in North Korea fell through. Most of the Olympic infrastructure still stands.
- St. Louis - hosted in 1904. The main stadium, located just outside the city limits, still exists on the campus of Washington University, but has been heavily renovated.
- Stockholm – hosted in 1912, and also hosted equestrian events in 1956.
- Sydney - hosted in 2000. Most of the Olympic infrastructure still stands.
- Tokyo – hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics, which have been rescheduled for 2021 because of the coronavirus outbreak; also hosted in 1964, with the first Shinkansen running just in time for the 1964 Games. Planned host for the 1940 games, which were eventually cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II.
First held in 1924, the Winter Olympics were originally held in the same year as Summer Olympics and often in the same country. With the increasing size of the Olympic Games and the increasing financial commitment for hosts, it was decided to split Summer and Winter Games up, and the Winter Olympics were scheduled to be in the year of the Soccer World Cup to avoid the two biggest worldwide sports events going head to head.
Norway leads the all-time Winter Olympics medal table, with the United States in second place, though the United States is the only country to have won gold at every edition of the Winter Olympics.
Similarly to the Summer Games, each Winter Olympics since 1992 has been immediately followed by the Winter Paralympics, also in the same host city and using the same venues.
- Albertville – hosted in 1992. Most of the infrastructure still stands, though some of it has been renovated. The stadium used for the opening and closing ceremonies was intended to be temporary and was removed immediately after the Olympics, with parts of it used in that year's Summer Games in Barcelona. A monument stands on the site today.
- Beijing – scheduled to host in 2022, which will make it the first city to have hosted both the summer and winter games.
- Calgary – hosted in 1988, with almost all of the Olympic infrastructure (much of which is in surrounding areas) still present.
- Chamonix - hosted the very first Winter Olympics in 1924.
- Cortina d'Ampezzo – hosted in 1956, after having been named as the host of the 1944 Games that had been scrapped due to World War II. Scheduled to co-host in 2026 along with Milan.
- Garmisch-Partenkirchen – hosted in 1936; less overtly Nazified than that year's Summer Games in Berlin.
- Grenoble – hosted in 1968.
- Innsbruck – hosted in 1964 and 1976, the latter time on short notice after voters in Denver turned down hosting duties.
- Lake Placid – hosted in 1932 and 1980. The 1980 Games used much of the 1932 infrastructure. Most of the venues still exist; the most notable exception is that the 1980 luge track was demolished and replaced with a new track for all sliding sports (bobsled, luge, skeleton). The site of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice", in which the US men's hockey team defeated the heavily favored Soviets, has since been renamed after the 1980 team's head coach Herb Brooks.
- Lillehammer – hosted in 1994.
- Milan – scheduled to co-host in 2026 alongside Cortina.
- Nagano – hosted in 1998.
- Oslo – hosted in 1952.
- Pyeongchang – hosted in 2018.
- Salt Lake City – hosted in 2002, with almost all of the Olympic infrastructure (much of which is in outlying areas) still present. The area's current light rail system was started as transportation for the Games.
- Sapporo – hosted the first Winter Games in Asia in 1972. It had been named as the 1940 host, but World War II scuttled that plan.
- Sarajevo – hosted in 1984. Most of the infrastructure was damaged or destroyed during the Bosnian War of the 1990s. The city's main indoor arena was built on the foundation of the 1984 indoor arena that had been destroyed in the war.
- Sochi - hosted in 2014; the most expensive games to date.
- Squaw Valley – hosted in 1960.
- St. Moritz – hosted in 1928 and 1948.
- Turin – hosted in 2006.
- Vancouver – hosted in 2010. Almost all of the infrastructure, both in Vancouver and in the Whistler resort area, still stands. However, the main stadium, BC Place, which had an air-supported roof in 2010, now has a cable-supported retractable roof.
Accessibility of tickets varies greatly. Opening and closing ceremonies are very desired, as are finals and medal ceremonies, while tickets to minor events can in some cases be obtained at entrance. The ability to acquire tickets also depends on the host: while tickets for handball events were easy to get in Rio, they'll likely be much more in demand in Paris.
Each country has a single designated ticket reseller. You can only buy tickets from your own country's reseller, although rules for permanent residents may be different. Tickets first go on sale 10–12 months before the respective Olympic and Paralympic Games. You should be prepared to purchase within a day or two of tickets going on sale, as popular events sell out quickly. Your reseller may release additional tickets later, or may use waitlists.
(If you're in the host country, things will probably be more complicated. The host country is usually allocated more tickets, but also sees substantially higher demand. You can expect they'll have staggered releases of tickets over many months right up until the games start, and there may be long waitlists or large lotteries.)
In the months leading up to sales opening, a ticket guide will be published which shows the complete schedule of which specific competitions and medal ceremonies take place during each session.
Tickets are for a specific session, meaning a particular day, time, and place. Some sports have 2 or 3 sessions per venue per day (such as morning and afternoon athletics sessions), while others have just a single session that spans the whole day. Each session has specific events being held; while a single football match might take up a whole session, usually there are multiple events at each session (such as various track races and field events) as well as medal ceremonies as the days go by. Typically there is no reentry, so plan your schedule accordingly. The unfortunate part for some sports is that competitors are not known in advance, as there will be months of qualifying rounds before a tournament bracket can be seeded. Thus, you'll only be able to purchase a football ticket to "men's first round", for example, and won't know who you'll be watching until a few weeks before the session.
Example: Tokyo 2020
To give you an idea of the prices for various sessions, here's what was available for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. (Prices have been roughly converted to U.S. dollars.)
The Opening Ceremony is by far the session with the most demand, so it commands the highest prices. The seating zones and prices were:
Of the 5 levels of general tickets, the United States' reseller only got tickets to A, B, and C. The Closing Ceremony was similar, with 5 zones priced from $2,220 to $120.
Tickets to sporting sessions are generally much cheaper, and significantly easier to get successfully. While some popular sessions like athletics and swimming have tickets for as much as $1,300, the cheapest tickets—even at popular sessions—were as little as $40-60. Less popular sessions with just one or two zones had tickets for as little as $25, with even the most expensive tickets at perhaps half of all sessions being around $50-100.
Prices generally increase from preliminary rounds to finals and at sessions with medal ceremonies, up to about twice the price of the cheapest sessions in that sport, although some like sailing increase little or not at all. Seeing a medal ceremony for $30-50 is possible for perhaps half the sports, and for $50-100 you can get a ticket to almost any session, provided it's available.
(The most expensive cheap ticket to a sporting session that year? Not athletics, aquatics, or gymnastics. Not baseball, either, as you might have guessed for Japan. It was the men's basketball gold medal game, at $188.)
Tickets to the 2020 Paralympic Games were similar, with typical prices around 25-50% lower, and substantially lower demand. Opening Ceremony tickets ran $80-1,500. The cheapest sessions were just $9-20, and even the priciest cheap ticket was only $32. Among all tickets, only a few popular sessions had tickets for $50 or more, and none were more than $70 (for swimming and wheelchair basketball).
The ticket guide will also explain the seating zones in the venue and the prices for each zone. The opening and closing ceremonies may be divided into 5 zones, other popular sessions like athletics and swimming into 2 to 3 zones, and some small venues will only have a single zone. You cannot choose individual seats, only zones; your seats will be assigned somewhere within your zone at a later date (except for general admission sessions), so if you want to sit together, you must purchase the tickets in one transaction.
Prior to sale, each country's reseller will have requested a number of tickets in various zones based on their forecasted demand. Tickets are then allocated among all countries based on their requests as well as a number of other factors. You can expect, for instance, that rich countries like the U.S. will not receive any of the cheapest tickets to the opening ceremonies, as these will be allocated to poorer countries as well as reserved for the host country.
Each ticket must be assigned to a person who must show matching ID to enter the venue, but you don't have to do this when purchasing. The name is entered later, and you can change it up until the day before the session.
Beginning a few months before the Games, an official resale service is available to buy/sell unused tickets. Tickets on this service are at exactly their original price, and the seller pays a handling charge when their ticket is sold.
The official languages of the Olympics, Paralympics, and the IOC are English and French. To some extent, ceremonies are conducted in both languages as well as a primary language of the host country. Realistically, English is the most widely used language, with much information, signage, and announcements only in English (as well as the host country's language, if different).
Sign language is not standardized, and may use the host nation's most common sign language, a sign language lingua franca, or International Sign (which is really just a pidgin form of communication rather than a full language).
Availability of travel accommodation has varied a lot between games. As a general rule: The smaller the city, the bigger the price-gouging.
- 2020: Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan (postponed to 2021)
- 2022: Winter Olympics in Beijing, China
- 2024: Summer Olympics in Paris, France
- 2026: Winter Olympics in Milan and Cortina, Italy
- 2028: Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, United States
There are some museums and training facilities related to the Olympics open for tour year round.
- 1 The Olympic Museum.
- 2 Lake Placid Olympic Museum.
- 3 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center, Colorado Springs.
- 4 Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center, 2800 Olympic Parkway, ☏ . M-F 9AM-5PM (Sa hours vary by season). Training center for Olympic athletes. Tours available. Tours $5-35/ person ($35 tour includes buffet lunch).
Besides the Olympic Games, there are also other multi-sport events that are organised loosely based on the format of the Olympics, albeit on a smaller scale. These typically only feature countries in specific regions, or in specific international groupings, and often feature non-Olympic sports that are popular among the participating nations.
- The Deaflympics is an IOC-sanctioned event for athletes with hearing impairments. Although the sports are largely the same as the Olympics, modifications are made to not rely on sounds such as starter's guns, spoken commands or referee whistles.
- The Special Olympics are IOC-sanctioned events for children and adults with intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities.
- The World Games, for sports, or disciplines within a sport, that are not contested in the Olympics. Held in the year after the Summer Olympics. The next World Games will be hosted by Birmingham, Alabama in 2021.
- The Asian Games among the countries of Asia; the second largest multi-sports games after the Summer Olympics. Held in the same year as the Winter Olympics. The next edition will be in Hangzhou, China in 2022.
- The Winter Asian Games, operated by the same body but featuring only winter sports. Held in the year before the Winter Olympics. The next edition will be in 2021, but no location has yet been announced.
- The Commonwealth Games among the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations; the fourth-largest multi-sports games. Unlike other multi-sport events, para-sports events are held as part of the main games with the able-bodied sports events. Held in the same years as the Winter Olympics. The next edition will be in 2022 in Birmingham, England.
- The Pan American Games among the countries of The Americas. Held in the year before the Summer Olympics. The 2019 edition just finished in Lima, Peru; the next edition will be in 2023 in Santiago, Chile.
- The European Games among European countries. The newest continental-level multi-sport event, with its first edition in 2015. Also in the year before the Summer Olympics. The next edition will be in 2023 in Kraków, Poland.
- Jeux de la Francophonie among the countries of La Francophonie. The Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick send separate teams from the Canadian team, and the Belgian team is restricted to sending Francophone athletes. Held in the year after the Summer Olympics. The next edition is scheduled in 2021 in Kinshasa, DR Congo.
- Gay Games, mostly for LGBT athletes though open to all. Held in the same year as the Winter Olympics. The next edition is scheduled in 2022 in Hong Kong.
- The African Games among the countries of Africa. Held in the year before the Summer Olympics. The next edition will be in 2023 in Accra, Ghana.
- The Lusophony Games among the world's Portuguese-speaking countries. The next edition will be in 2021 in Luanda, Angola.
- The Maccabiah Games [dead link] for Jewish athletes throughout the world, plus Israelis regardless of ethnicity or religion; the third-largest multi-sports event after the Summer Olympics and Asian Games. Always held in Israel; the next edition will be in 2021.
- The Pacific Games among the countries of Oceania except Australia and New Zealand. Held in the year before the Summer Olympics. The next edition will be in 2023 in Honiara, Solomon Islands.
- The Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) [dead link], held every two years in odd-numbered years, among the countries of Southeast Asia. Features some sports that are only popular in Southeast Asia such as sepak takraw and silat. The next edition will be held in Hanoi, Vietnam in 2021.
- The Central American Games, held in the year after the summer Olympics only involving Central America.
- The Central America and Caribbean Games - held in the year of winter Olympics dating to the 1920s; the second oldest international multi-sport games.