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7 Surprising Facts About the Summer Olympics

The Summer Olympics have been a staple in the sports world for decades. From high flying gymnasts to first-rate swimmers, these world-class athletes capture the hearts of audiences around the world as they compete for gold. Celebration, connection, and inspiration might be the biggest takeaways from this global event. The Summer Games have seen many changes over the years, and while you might think you know the Games, there could be a few things that surprise you.

The Olympics Began More Than 100 Years Ago

View of athletes, standing in rows, and crowds filling the stadium at the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Credit: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece in April 1896, and was much smaller than the spectacle put on today. An estimated 280 athletes, all male, from 12 countries attended these Games, competing in 43 events including swimming, wrestling, and tennis. Members of the royal family of Greece helped organize the event, which saw 60,000 spectators during the 10 days of festivities.

The Olympic Rings Symbolize Every Competing Country

The Olympic Rings.
Credit: Gl0ck/ Shutterstock

The five linking Olympic Rings represent the union between the five inhabited continents and their athletes. The colors of the rings — blue, yellow, black, green, red, and white (the background) — are symbolic, too. Every nation’s flag contains at least one of these six colors. Pierre de Coubertin, a founding member of the International Olympic Committee, was the mastermind behind the rings, which made their debut in 1913.

Ice Sports Were Originally Part of the Summer Games

Four hockey players on the ice. Player from Team Canada scoring against Team Sweden.
Credit: Christian Charisius/ picture alliance/ Getty Images

That’s right, figure skating and ice hockey were included in the Summer Games. Men’s, women’s, and pairs’ figure skating were all part of the 1908 and 1920 Summer Olympics, and ice hockey made its Olympic debut at the 1920 Antwerp Games. These seasonally perplexing sports were played during the Summer Games just once; they found a more appropriate home at the first Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924.

A Few Summer Sports Got the Boot

England vs USA tug of war match at 1920 Olympics.
Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images

There are some Summer Olympic sports that appeared in early Games but for safety or other reasons, they were axed from the competition. The tug-of-war, for example, was featured in the Summer Games from 1900 to 1920 before it was retired. Other interesting sports that were removed include roller hockey, hot air ballooning, powerboat racing, and glima, a form of Icelandic wrestling. Thankfully, the dueling pistols event only lasted for one year, at the 1906 Athens Games, before it was discontinued.

The 2021 Summer Games Will Feature Four New Sports

Leilani McGonagle of Costa Rica riding a wave during the 2021 Isa World Surfing Games.
Credit:MARVIN RECINOS/ AFP/ Getty Images

The Tokyo Games will see four sports make their Olympic debut when karate, skateboarding, sport climbing, and surfing join the ranks. These won’t be the only fresh faces at the Games. Baseball and softball were previously cut from the Summer Olympics but are being welcomed back for the 2021 competition. Several new events within existing sports will also make their debut, including 3-on-3 basketball and mixed-gender relays in track and field and swimming.

Great Britain Has Won Gold at Every Summer Olympics

Rio 2016 Olympics Track Cycling podium, Team Australia with silver, Team Great Britain with gold, and Team Denmark with bronze.
Credit: Tim de Waele/ Corbis/ Getty Images

Great Britain has a longstanding relationship with the Olympics. Impressively, it is the only country to have won at least one gold medal at every Summer Olympics since 1896. It is also one of only five countries that have been represented at every single Summer Games; the other four countries to achieve that milestone are Greece, France, Switzerland, and Australia. Team Great Britain represents all of the United Kingdom, including the Crown dependencies, and most of the British overseas territories.

Artists Were Once Participants in the Summer Games

Sulky driver by Italian sculptor Farpi Vignoli at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games gallery.
Credit: Paul Mai/ ullstein bild Dtl./ Getty Images

Decades ago, the Olympics weren’t just for sports. Artists were also invited to participate in the Games. From 1912 to 1952, painting, sculpting, architecture, writing, and music were part of the competition. Unfortunately, the 151 medals that were previously awarded for Fine Arts have been stricken from Olympic record and are not included in countries’ current medal counts.

2012 Was the Year of the Female Athlete

Women's Steeplechase Athletics at the 2012 Olympics.
Credit: Christopher Morris - Corbis/ Getty Images

The 2012 London Summer Games marked the first time every country sent at least one female athlete to participate in the Games. Saudi Arabia was the final nation needed to complete this feat, which was accomplished when the country sent two female athletes to participate: Wojdan Shaherkani in Judo and Sarah Attar in the 800m. Another milestone for women during the 2012 Games: Team USA featured more female athletes than males for the first time ever. This came a little over 100 years after the Olympics welcomed their first female athletes at the 1900 Games in Paris.

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