How the Olympics Changed the World

A rugby match between France and Romania in Paris, 1924. (Image credit: IOC Olympic Museum Collections)

Just 241 men from 14 countries competed at the first-ever modern Olympic Games in 1896 — their jumps, sprints and front crawls reigniting an institution with roots more than two millennia old.

Those inaugural Games of the I Olympiad, held in Athens, were considerably less sophisticated than the multibillion-dollar Summer Olympics of today. In 1896, swimming competitions were held out in the open sea and an American who'd never seen a discus before arriving in Greece won the event. A yachting event was scheduled but had to be cancelled when no one thought to show up with boats.

The Olympics Games now feature more than 27,000 elite athletes from more than 200 countries competing in 28 sports. While the competitors are part of a tradition of sporting excellence, the history of the Olympics is also politically charged, often acting as a showcase for the world's squabbles.

From Hitler's propaganda games to the protests in Beijing, the modern Olympics have rarely been staged without controversy or drama that goes beyond the world of sport.

De Coubertin's dream: world peace

Politics has always been a part of the Olympics and was meant to be from day one, contrary to the lamentations of sportswriters.

When French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin proposed reviving a version of the ancient Greek Olympics, he did so with good intentions in mind. The late 19th century had been fraught with international conflict, and the baron saw the Olympics as a way of promoting peace between warring nations alongside the athletic competitions.

This has been the case in many ways, with touching moments of international cooperation speckling the highlight reels. When Cathy Freeman, an Australian Aborigine who won the 400m race in front of a jubilant home crowd in 2000 in Sydney, for example, many historians saw it as a symbol of reconciliation with Australia's native peoples. Or the rousing success of the 1992 games in Barcelona, when Germany competed as a unified nation for the first time since 1964 and post-apartheid South Africa was finally invited back to the Olympics after a 30-year absence.

What de Coubertin probably didn't bet on was how his Olympics would also be hijacked on occasion for more dubious political ends.

Propaganda games and polo brawls

The modern games have seen their share of international incidents:

  • Berlin, 1936: The first games since the end of the Great Depression were meant to be a great celebration of human triumph over adversity. Instead, it became a showcase for Hitler's Third Reich propaganda machine. With Nazism in full swing, American Jesse Owens became an instant hero, winning four gold medals and making a mockery of Hitler's Aryan ideologies.
  • Melbourne, 1956: Tensions were high at the boycott-riddled Melbourne games, which began just three weeks after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. A full-scale brawl actually broke out during a water polo match between the USSR and Hungary, with police called in to protect the Soviets from the rabid crowd.
  • Munich, 1972: Perhaps the most tragic moment in Olympic history came 10 days into the 1972 games, when eight Palestinian militants broke into the Olympic Village, killing two Israeli athletes immediately and taking nine others hostage, all of whom died soon after in a botched rescue attempt. The games continued.
  • Moscow and Los Angeles, 1980 and 1984: The Soviet and U.S. games era saw two consecutive games marred by tit-for-tat no-shows by the Cold War rivals and their allies. Fifty-six nations refused their Olympic invitations in 1980, while nineteen powerhouse Eastern Bloc countries stayed home in 1984, paving the way for American Carl Lewis to dominate in athletics.
  • Beijing, 2008: When Beijing was awarded the Summer Olympics in 2001, it was considered a big leap forward for the nation, eager to display its progress on a world stage. Controversy marred the lead-up to the games, however, with protesters calling for boycotts of Beijing due to China's involvement in Darfur, Sudan, and ongoing tensions in Tibet, not to mention human rights concerns in China itself. Expecting rallies during the event, organizers in Beijing  set up designated "protest zones" for demonstrators to do their thing without disrupting the Olympics.

History will always dissect the politics of the Olympic Games once they're done and in the books, but what is a certainty are some dazzling athletic achievements and at least a few feel-good stories.

Enjoy the games!

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.