Initially held in honor of Zeus in 776 B.C. in Greece onwards for almost 1000 years (when Greece came under Roman rule, till 394 AD), these games were held every four years (as now), with the four-year period known as “olympiad.” Winners would win the olive wreath, which subsequently became a symbol of peace (after allegedly conferred by Zeus to the winner of a race won by Herakles).
Reportedly, the first games began as female competitors vying for a title of priestess for Goddess Hera. These Heraea Games around 6 B.C. – a 190-meter race known as “stadion” initially led to the word “stadium.” Nude athletics called “gymnos” was introduced in 720 B.C. by the Spartans, adopted by Olympics thereafter.
Modern-day Olympics began after the Greek victory over Ottomans in 1821, with 1859 in Athens Square being an initial venue; thereafter, these largely regional Olympics continued, until the international Olympic Committee (IOC) created games as we know them today came into being in 1896. Only men took part in 1896, whereas by 1900 in Paris both women and men participated; in 1904, St. Louis held the games. Winter games began in 1908. Paralympics were popularized by Sir Ludwig Guttman to help rehabilitate post-World War II soldiers (initially known as the Stoke Mandeveille Games), with officially “Parallel Olympics” or Paralympics being held in 1960. “Youth Games” were approved as of 2010.
Present-day Olympic Games
Only 241 athletes from 14 nations participated in 1896; over 10,000 from 204 nations participated in the 2012 Summer Olympics (with Winter Olympics hosting about a quarter of this number of athletes and around one-third of countries participating compared to the summer games).
Significant economic circumstances surround hosting an Olympic Games venue – increased exports, attract businesses to the country, with philanthropic giving increasing locally leading up to and for some time post-hosting of the games. However, the economic toll is questionable in justification, as witnessed by the $50 billion spent for the winter games in Sochi, Russia.
The IOC is composed of international federations (IF) such as FIFA for soccer and similar other entities for some respective sports, National Olympic Companies (for each country), Organizing Committees for Olympic Games (OCOGs) for respective games in a given year; subsequently, the IOC has endured scandals such as bribes, insensitivity to prior tragedy, and favoritism.
The capitalistic goal of sponsorship (allowed post-1972) was most apparent perhaps in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, with Peter Ueberroth helping generate a $225mm surplus, with exclusive sponsorships, with thereafter IOC president Samaranch branding the Olympics and allowing “The Olympic Program” sponsors membership at $50mm for four years (allowing display of the Olympic rings in advertising).
Broadcasting rights have been another recent source of revenues (with NBC reportedly spending $3.5 billion for 2000-2012 braodcasting, compared with the first local TV broadcasting in 1936 and international broadcasting in 1956). The 1992 Summer Olympics were witnessed by 3.5 billion TV viewers.
The Olympic rings continue to represent “colors that are present at least once in every country’s flag” – with the five intertwined rings representing continents, and Citius, Altius, Fortius (faster, higher, stronger) being
The Olympic Future
Four things will likely continue to grow in upcoming Olympics: (1) costs; (2) number of events; (3) technological means of distribution, and (4) areas of controversy.
(1) Costs – the $50 billion price tag for the Sochi winter games may likely be topped by subsequent summer games, to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This, compounded by the significant cost of broadcasting (not to mention internet licenses, etc.) will likely continue to drive the price of bringing the Olympics to any viewer, higher;
(2) Number of Events — from the past in 1896, the now program consisting of 400 events in 35 sports shows no signs of relenting in terms of growth. Sports such as badminton, basketball, volleyball, and others, have been prior “demonstration sports” before becoming regular Olympic events. Seven criteria formulated for establishing a new sport include history and tradition of sport, universality, popularity, image, health of athletes, international federation governing sport, costs… leading then to consideration of golf, karate, rugby, roller sports, and squash (with karate and squash suggested).
(3) Technological Means of Distribution – While improvement of dissemination increased with viewership with television (peaking in the 1990s), subsequent growth of the internet has reduced TV viewership. Greater channels of distribution will undoubtedly interfere, as will the likelihood of piracy or illegal viewing by other media. This will continue to result in likely degrading revenue to distributors, while viewership itself may not be suffering (and may be consequently difficult to measure).
(4) Areas of Controversy — The Olympics continue to be sources of intense displays on the world stage, interspersed by politics such as the hostage crisis, demonstration by the Black Power salute, drug use, boycotts by the USSR and USA, amateur vs. professional athletes being allowed to compete, and ultimately (as they were in the Ancient Olympics between city-states) a stage to display athletic prowess and national pride.