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What games were played at the first Olympics?

Every four years, the world’s best athletes travel to a host city to compete in the Olympics. Officially, the Olympics have been around for thousands of years, though not consecutively. Over time, the Games have changed drastically. New sports get added, while older, less popular sports fade out of the arena. Here’s what spectators got to witness at the very first event held in ancient Greece, and what they can expect at the next Games.

The ancient Olympics

Bronze statue of disc thrower at the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, site of first Olympic Games
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The very first Olympic Games were held in Greece in 776 BCE. They started as a religious festival to honor the king of the gods, Zeus, and were even held at his namesake temple in Olympia. There was only one event at the first 12 Olympic Games — the stadion footrace. The stadion was a sprint that was typically between 200 and 600-feet long.

Over time, other sports were added to the games:

  • Diaulos and dolichos: (724 and 720 BCE) Longer footraces
  • Wrestling: (708 BCE)
  • Pentathlon: (708 BCE) Jumping, discus, javelin, stadion, and wrestling all achieved over the course of one day.
  • Boxing: (688 BCE) The only rules were no holding and no low-blows. Serious injuries and deaths were common.
  • Tethrippon: (680 BCE) A four-horse chariot race.
  • Keles: (648 BCE) A horse race.
  • Pankration: (648 BCE) A mixed martial art combining boxing and wrestling.
  • Hoplitodromos: (520 BCE) A footrace in full armor.
  • Trumpeter and herald competitions: (396 BCE) An event to see which musician's sound carried the farthest. The winner was allowed to announce the victors on the final day of competition.

As you might remember, all athletes competed in the nude. Like the modern Games, the ancient Olympics were also held every four years until at least 393 CE. The Games were so important to the Greeks that they even postponed war! In 480 BCE., the Persians invaded Greece right before the Olympics. Instead of amassing an army to combat the invaders, the Greeks went to the Games instead.

Modern Olympics

Close up shot of the red track with white lines
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After a brief hiatus of about 1,500 years, the Olympics were reborn in 1896. To stay true to history, the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece. Fourteen countries came to compete in the inaugural Games. Germany, France, Greece, and Great Britain had the strongest teams, but despite having fewer athletes, the United States went home with 11 medals — the most of any country. An American, James Connolly, became the very first modern Olympic champion after winning the triple jump event on the first day of the Games. Just like at the ancient Olympics, all the competitors were men, but this time they were clothed.

Athletes competed in 43 events at the 1896 games including:

  • Track and field
  • Swimming
  • Gymnastics
  • Cycling
  • Wrestling
  • Weightlifting
  • Fencing
  • Shooting
  • Tennis

The first Winter Olympic Games

Olympic skaters compete at the 2012 Winter Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria
Credit: Herbert Kratky/ Shutterstock

In 1924, athletes who didn’t run, jump, or swim decided to band together and begin the Winter Olympic Games to showcase their talents on the ice and snow. The first Winter Games were at high altitude in the Alps in Chamonix, France. Competitors participated in 16 events including:

  • Ski jump
  • Bobsled
  • Speed skating
  • Figure skating
  • Hockey

Norway emerged as the winner in terms of overall medal count at the first Winter Games with a total of 17 medals. Canada dominated hockey and scored a total of 110 goals while only allowing three. Of the more than 300 athletes in competition, only 11 were female — figure skating was the only sport that allowed women to participate until alpine skiing was added in 1936.

New sports

Olympic climbers compete in qualifier, scaling large wall in advance of upcoming Tokyo Olympics
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With the postponed 2021 Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, there are several new sports (and a couple of old ones) making an appearance on the itinerary:

  • Karate: Karate will be divided into two parts: kata (forms) and kumite (sparring). During the kata portion, competitors will demonstrate moves against a virtual opponent and will be evaluated based on form using a points system. For the kumite section, competitors will face off against one another and try to earn points by striking their opponent. The first to receive an eight-point lead wins.
  • Surfing: Athletes will compete in heats with four other surfers lasting about 25 minutes each. During this time, they will be judged on the difficulty of their maneuvers over the two best waves they catch.
  • Skateboarding: There will be two skateboarding competitions: street and park. The street competition will take place on an open course with stairs, rails, and ramps. The park competition will be held in a bowl-shaped course. Skaters will be judged on the difficulty and creativity of their runs.
  • Baseball/softball: Absent from the past two Olympic Games, men’s baseball and women’s softball will be returning in 2021, although only six countries will compete.
  • Sport climbing: Sport climbing is competitive rock climbing. Every climber will participate in three events: speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing. Speed climbing is a simple head-to-head race up two identical walls. Bouldering requires athletes to climb a 13-foot wall using as many fixed routes as they can within the time limit. Lead climbing is a timed climb to see which climber can reach the greatest height on a 49-foot wall.