The Evolution of the Early Olympics*

1900 Paris Exposition Palace of Electricity

1900 Paris Exposition, Palace of Electricity

The Evolution of the Early Olympics

By Robin Voigt


Baron Pierre de Coubertin, an influential French aristocrat and historian, proposed a revival of the Ancient Olympic Games at a congress that he organised in Paris in 1894. The congress resulted in the formation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Athens was chosen to stage the first of the Modern Olympics in 1896.

Pierre de Coubertin had been keen for the inaugural Games to be held in Paris but as Ancient Greece was the birthplace of the Olympics, Athens was perceived to be the more appropriate choice to stage the first Games of the modern era.

They became known as the Games of the First Olympiad and were declared a success. However the subsequent two Games after this were fraught with controversy and confusion.

Both the Games of the Second Olympiad in Paris in 1900 and the Games of the Third Olympiad in St Louis, Missouri in 1904 were held in conjunction with the World’s Fair, and the sporting events were simply treated as a side-show to the main fair. They were disorganised, the venues were poor and there were no officially agreed rules and regulations.

In fact the 1900 and 1904 Games almost caused the downfall of the Modern Olympic movement and it took the interim Games of 1906 held in Athens and the London Games of 1908 to get them back on track.

After the success of the inaugural Modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 there were calls for the Games to be staged there permanently. However Pierre de Coubertin rejected this believing that they should be organised in different countries every four years in order to raise awareness of the Olympic movement and to ensure that they were truly international and more nations could compete.

It was finally agreed to hold the second of the Modern Olympic Games in de Coubertin’s home city of Paris but the staging of the 1900 Games became embroiled in political controversy. The French Government took control, a new committee was formed to take over from the IOC to oversee all sporting events connected to the Exposition and de Coubertin ended up playing only a minor administrative role.

The 1900 Summer Games in Paris took place from 14th May to 28th October and were held alongside the Exposition Universelle International which was staged to celebrate the achievements of the past century – the diesel engine (running on peanut oil), escalators, talking films and the telegraphone (the first magnetic audio recorder) were first displayed there.

The fair was spread over 216 hectares and an estimated 50 million people visited during the seven months that it ran. Countries from around the world were invited by France to take part to showcase their culture and achievements. The buildings were huge and ornate; many featured the newly emerging style of Art Nouveau in their architecture. After the fair was over, many of the buildings were demolished and everything that could be salvaged and recycled was sold.

One of the most impressive exhibits was the Palais de l’Optique which housed the world’s largest refracting telescope at that time. Designed to follow the movement of the stars, it was 120 metres long, with a movable 2-metre mirror which projected onto a 144 m² screen. Grouped around the main gallery were rooms which showed all that was known in the field of optics. One room contained a diorama of the underwater world; another featured truly amazing paintings which depicted the terrestrial arrival of man on earth. There was also a ‘moon’-themed restaurant.

But the centerpiece of the fair was the Palais de l`Électricité which supplied the energy for the entire exhibition using machinery driven by steam-driven pumps. It was the most spectacular building at the fair and quickly became the most popular for visitors to see.

The building was massive and opulent, with archways and staircases. Dubbed the Temple of Fire it was fitted with five thousand multicoloured incandescent lamps and eight massive lamps. It was surrounded by a vast grassed area which featured a lake and illuminated fountains at the entrance. The top of the building was decorated with a chariot led by hippogryphs – a mythical creature, part eagle and part horse – firing brilliantly coloured flames.

However the extravagance and excitement of the World’s Fair overshadowed the sporting events which suffered from poor marketing and organisation. The sports competitions ran from 1st July to 23rd November and 1224 participants from 31 countries took part. There were 1201 men and 23 women but many of the athletes taking part weren’t even aware they were competing in the Olympic Games. De Coubertin later commented that he should not have stepped aside and that it was a miracle that the Olympic Movement survived.

Although the 1900 Paris Olympics were largely a complete shambles, the next Games in St Louis in 1904 were even more disastrous, rated as possibly the worst in Olympic history. The 1904 Summer Games were the first Olympics held in the United States and there were many problems and disputes during the running of these Games.

It was the first time the Games were held outside of Europe. Only 15 countries competed as in those days the journey to the United States from other parts of the world was lengthy and expensive. The Games at that time weren’t a competition between nations but a contest between individual amateur sports people. Many top athletes were not able to take part as participants had to find their own way there and pay for travel and accommodation expenses themselves.

There were 650 participants, nearly all were men; only six were women – all of whom competed in archery. In the main the competitors were Americans, an estimated 525 were from the host country, with Canadians making up the next largest group. Less than half the events had competitors from other countries. It was very much an American college competition with the athletes competing for their college teams rather than for the USA itself.

The 1904 Games had originally been scheduled to take place in Chicago, but were relocated to St Louis, Missouri with President Roosevelt’s approval as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition was being held there at the same time. Also known as the St Louis World’s Fair it was an international event to mark the centenary of the Louisiana Purchase and showcase the world’s newest technologies which included the motor car, airplanes and electricity.

As the Exposition was on such an immense scale, the planned 1903 opening was delayed until 30th April 1904 to allow for the building to be completed and participation of more foreign countries.

It was even bigger than the Paris World’s Fair, spread over 1272 acres, with more than 1500 ornate buildings, and connected by 120 km of roads and walkways. Exhibits were staged by 62 nations, as well as the United States government and 43 US states. Industries and businesses were promoted and scientific, educational and cultural displays were offered, along with variety of entertainment. Nearly 20 million people attended the Exposition during the seven months it was open.

The sporting competitions ran for almost five months from 1st July to 23rd November 1904 but like Paris they were considered just an adjunct to the fair and not all the events were Olympic ones. The track and field competitions, which were considered to be the main Olympic events, were held over a few short days from 29th August to 3rd September 1904.

One of the most outstanding performances at the 1904 Games was by George Eyser, a member of the Concordia Turnverein Club. He was a German-American gymnast who won six medals on the one day. All the more amazing considering that he competed with a wooden leg, having lost his left leg in an accident in his youth.

1904 Anthropological Days

1904: Anthropological Days, a Turk throwing the javelin

1904 Anthropological Days Negrito

1904: Anthropological Days, Archery

Another interesting fact about the 1904 Games, which is not well known, was that separate competitions called ‘Anthropology Days’ took place for minority groups on August 12th and 13th just before the official Olympic events. These were staged by the organisers of the World’s Fair and received no endorsement from the International Olympic Committee.

‘Natives’ who had been brought over to be in the Fair’s ethnic displays, from the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Patagonia, as well as American Indians and pygmies, were recruited to take part in ‘sports’ events such as mud fighting, rock throwing, greased-pole climbing and spear throwing. They also half-heartedly competed in javelin, archery, discus and tug-of-war – sports they knew nothing about and did not take seriously.

Grounded in the belief of the physical superiority of the Anglo-American race, the ‘Anthropology Days’ were designed as a ‘scientific’ test of the speed, stamina and strength of ‘savages’ compared to ‘civilised men’.

Olympics founder Baron de Coubertin rightfully criticised the event, calling it embarrassing and inhuman. He did not attend the Games because he believed that world fairs like these were purely exercises in nationalism and undermined the seriousness of the Olympic Games.

After a rocky beginning due to these Games, the United States has now hosted the Olympic Games more than any other country, eight times including both summer and winter Olympics. They were the first Olympic Games at which gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded for first, second and third place.

At the first Summer Olympics in Greece in 1896 only two medals were awarded – a silver medal to the winner and a bronze medal to the runner-up. In 1900 mainly cups or trophies were handed out, but the winners of some events were presented with a rectangular-shaped gilt-silver medal. In the next three Olympics in 1904, 1908 and 1912 the winners were awarded solid gold medals, smaller in size to the medals of today. However although larger, today’s medals are not made of solid gold. They are made of approximately 93% silver, 6% copper and just over 1% gold. The last Olympic medals that were made of solid gold were awarded at the 1912 Stockholm Games in Sweden. Each host city is responsible for minting the Olympic medals while the IOC makes the final decision about the finished design.

Both the 1900 and 1904 Olympic Games did damage to the Olympic movement and its ideals, but in 1906 an international sporting event in Greece, known as the Intercalated Games, pulled the Olympics back from the brink of disaster.

After the successful running of the inaugural Games in Athens in 1896, Greece was keen to become permanent host to the Olympics but the IOC had opposed this. The IOC did however give its approval to the Greek National Olympic Committee (NOC) to hold the 1906 Intercalated Games in Athens. The Games were held from 22nd April to 2nd May and once again Greece put on a highly successful event which helped put the Olympic movement back on the map.

These games in Greece were considered at the time to be Olympic Games and were in fact referred to as the ‘Second International Olympic Games in Athens’ by the International Olympic Committee. Although medals were handed out to the participants during these games, the medals won there and records are not officially recognised by the IOC today. Greece did not hold the Olympic Games again until 2004 when it hosted the Summer Olympics for the second time in Athens.

Although the nationality of competitors was listed in the first three Olympic Games the athletes participated in them as individuals or as representatives of college teams. The concept of representing their countries was not endorsed until the 1906 and 1908 Games.

London was the first official Olympics where athletes competed for their countries and marched into the stadium behind their respective national flags. It was the first time too that National Trials were held to select the representatives from each country.

The 1908 Summer Games, officially known as the Games of the Fourth Olympiad, were awarded to Great Britain after Italy cancelled its plans to hold the Games in Rome due to the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 1906. Italy had been having financial and organisational problems for some time. It announced that it needed funds to reconstruct Naples and withdrew as host of the Games. Rome had to wait 52 years before the Games were eventually staged there.

After Italy’s withdrawal from the Games, Great Britain stepped in with only two years to prepare. It was London’s first Olympics, however Britain was well practised at staging big events. Everything was ready in record time and a successful Games was staged.

The number of countries participating in 1908 was 22 and 2024 athletes took part, 44 of whom were women. The official IOC overall figure is still given as 2008 but more competitors have been confirmed in recent times. Numbers in those days are difficult to confirm as records weren’t always accurate and some reports list the number of entrants as opposed to the number of actual competitors who ended up taking part. The Games in London ran for a long period of time from 27th April until 31st October. They included both summer and winter events and 22 sports were represented.

Due to the length of time required to stage both summer and winter sports at the same games, the IOC eventually decided to separate the two into the Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics. It gave the Winter Olympics more prominence and also made more financial sense.

The first separate Winter Olympics were held in 1924 in Chamonix, France. Five sports (nine disciplines) were contested – bobsleigh, ice hockey, curling, Nordic skiing and skating. The Winter and Summer Olympic Games were held in the same years until 1992 when they were placed in a separate four-year cycle by the IOC.

As with the Summer Olympics various winter sports have come and gone or been trialled at the Winter Games. Some of the winter sports which were seen as demonstration sports, then ultimately discontinued, included dog-sled racing, ski ballet, ice stock sport (a form of Bavarian curling), bandy (a form of Russian ice hockey), military patrol and skikjøring (a Norwegian word meaning ski driving) where a person on skis is pulled along by a horse, dogs or motor vehicle.

After the Summer Olympics were held in Berlin in 1936 there was a 12-year break from both Summer and Winter Olympics due to World War II before the Games were held again.

In 1948 the Olympic Games resumed again with London hosting the Games for its second time. It was the first Olympics Games since Pierre de Courbertin’s death in 1937. The 1948 London Games were officially called the Games of the XIV Olympiad but the event also came to be known as the ‘Austerity Games’ due to the economic climate of the time with post-war rationing of food and petrol, and limitations to building. No new venues were built for the Games; existing sites were used and adapted. The opening and closing ceremonies, as well as many of the main events, were held in Wembley Stadium (at that time known as the Empire Stadium), while athletes were housed in accommodation at Royal Air Force bases and London colleges.

Nevertheless it was a successful relaunch of the Olympic movement, a show of strength and hope for the future. Millions around the world tuned in to their radio sets and the BBC broadcast the Games live for the first time on television. Fifty-nine nations were represented and 4396 athletes took part – 3951 men and 445 women.

Demonstrating the growth in stature of the Olympic movement since then 205 nations took part in the 2012 London Olympic Games and 10,519 athletes competed – 5864 men and 4655 women who are fast catching up to the men in numbers. London is now the first city in the world to host the Summer Olympic Games for a record three times – in 1908, 1948 and 2012.

Looking back on the early years of the Modern Olympic era various sports have come and gone. Athletics, football, cycling, swimming, boxing, tennis, shooting and fencing were some of the main sports contested at the 1908 London Games and all of these were still on the program at the 2012 Games.

1900 Motor boating Aiglon

1900: Motor Boating

There were also a number of idiosyncratic inclusions in the 1908 London Games – the tug-of-war, motor boating and bicycle polo (a demonstration event) which have been dropped, the last two only appearing the once. Some of the provisional plans for the 1908 Games included events such as military horse riding, motor racing, flying machines, bandy, cricket and golf.

Competitions in painting, architecture, literature, music and sculpture inspired by sport were also discussed. The Olympic Art competition, which was the idea of Pierre de Coubertin, awarded medals for works of art in any of these five categories. The art competition did not make it onto the program in 1908 but was staged for the first time at the following Games, the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, and continued until 1948.

Athletics has always remained one of the main events of the Olympic Games, contested at every Summer Olympics since the Athens Games in 1896. Originally only men were permitted to take part but women’s track-and-field events debuted officially at the 1928 Amsterdam Games.

Athletic events have varied considerably over the years. Some are no longer contested and distances have changed from imperial to metric. Twelve events were held in 1896 and by 2012 there were 47. The modern program includes track and field, road running and racewalking events.

In 1896 at the inaugural Olympic Games held in Athens 11 sports were planned but only nine were contested. Yachting and rowing had been scheduled but had to be cancelled due to strong winds on the day of competition. There were problems too staging the swimming events. As there were only four swimming events the organisers had been unwilling to spend the money on a specially constructed stadium so the swimming took place in the open sea in the icy waters of the Bay of Zea on the eastern coast of the Piraeus peninsula.

Competitors in the longest race, the 1200 metres, were taken out to sea by boat and expected to battle their way back to shore in the bleak conditions, an estimated 20,000 spectators lining the shores of the bay. The waters were cold and choppy and it was difficult to make out the course, which was marked out by hollowed-out pumpkins floating on the surface, in contrast to the moored surface buoys that would be used today. The competitors struggled in the conditions and many gave up because of the huge waves and the terrible cold.

1896 Swimming Alfréd Hajós Hungary

1896: Swimming, Alfréd Hajós (HUN)

Alfréd Hajós of Hungary made it to shore two and half minutes ahead of the runner-up, winning both the 100 metres and the 1200 metres freestyle. He later famously declared he was just happy to have survived the event, saying ‘I must say that I shivered at the thought of what would happen if I got a cramp from the cold water. My will to live completely overcame my desire to win.’

Although Hajós was the first Olympic swimming champion of the modern era, as the swimming championships didn’t occur until the sixth day of the 1896 Games, the honour of the first male Olympic champion went to James Connolly of the USA in the triple jump.

Hajós was an amazing all-round athlete. As well as swimming he excelled in track and field events, winning national titles in Hungary in the 100-metre sprint, 400-metre hurdles and the discus. He played forward on the national soccer teams of 1901, 1902 and 1903.

Hajós also became one of only two Olympians to win a medal in both sport and the art competitions when he won a silver medal for architecture at the 1924 Games. The only other Olympian to achieve that was Walter Winans of the USA who won two medals for shooting, gold in the 1908 Games and silver in 1912 Games, and won gold for sculpture in the 1912 Stockholm Games.

1908-1912 Shooting and Art Walter Winans

1908-1912: Shooting and Art, Walter Winans (USA)

1908 Lottie Dod Archery

1908: Archery, Lottie Dod (GBR)

Other versatile Olympians were Lottie Dod who took the silver medal at the 1908 Olympics for archery, as well as winning five Wimbledon tennis championships. She competed at a high level in golf, field hockey and curling, and also excelled at mountaineering, cycling and figure skating; Jim Thorpe won gold medals at the 1912 Olympics for both the pentathlon and decathlon, as well as playing professional baseball, basketball and football; and Babe Didrikson-Zaharias won two gold medals at the 1932 Olympics in the hurdles and javelin, as well as silver in the high jump; he also excelled at golf and basketball.

We don’t see all-round athletes now like there were in these early days as sport today is more competitive and needs to be more specialised in order to succeed.

The men’s 100 metre freestyle for sailors was one of only four swimming events on the program at the 1896 Summer Games in Athens. It was only open to sailors of the Greek Royal Navy and just three competitors took part. With all other nationalities excluded the host country was able to increase its medal count by three.

Although the concept of national teams didn’t begin until 10 years later the nationality of competitors and number of medals are nevertheless noted in many sources

In 1896 women were not allowed to compete at the first Modern Olympic Games, although one woman, Stamata Revithi, tried to enter the marathon. She defied the rules and ran the distance alone in protest the day after the event but was prevented by authorities from entering the stadium at the finish. A second woman, Melpomene, is reported to have covered the same course from Marathon to Athens in March 1896, during the test run a few short weeks before the marathon took place on 10th April. There is debate amongst historians as to whether Melpomene and Revithi was one and the same person.

1900 Tennis Charlotte Cooper

1900: Tennis, Charlotte Cooper (GBR)

It was not until the second Modern Olympic Games in 1900 in Paris that women officially competed when they were allowed to enter into the lawn tennis, croquet, golf, equestrian and yachting competitions. There were 23 female competitors in all. England’s Charlotte Cooper became the first woman to win an individual Olympic event in the modern era, winning gold for the ladies singles tennis, and also took out the mixed doubles at these Games. She won the Wimbledon Ladies Singles championship five times in her career, the last occasion being in 1908 when she was aged 37, becoming the oldest winner of the title.

Women were not permitted to participate in track and field events and gymnastics until the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, Netherlands. There were a number of other firsts at these Games – it was the first time the Olympic flame was lit, the first time the parade of nations started with Greece, the first time the Games took the name of the ‘Summer Olympics’ and the first time a standard schedule of 16 days for the program was introduced. Johnny Weissmuller, who later played Tarzan in several movies, won two gold medals in the swimming.

1896 Rope climbing

1896: Rope Climbing

Many unusual sports have been held at other Olympics, particularly in the early years when rope climbing, pole climbing, club swinging, stone throwing, live pigeon shooting, a triathlon for gymnasts rather than athletes, a swimming event only for members of the Greek Navy, dueling pistol shooting, the standing high jump, underwater swimming and a swimming obstacle race were all included as official events.

One mind-boggling event that was proposed for the 1920 Olympics was throwing the grenade. It had been treated as a sport in various military meets during and after World War I but didn’t make it into the Olympics!

Some of the strange events over the years were demonstration events or exhibitions. Demonstration sports were included in the first four Olympics, but were not officially introduced until the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, when a demonstration of glima, traditional Icelandic wrestling, was introduced into the program. Medals were awarded to the participants but were not counted as official.

The aim of these demonstration sports was to promote a lesser known sport which was usually a popular sport in the host country. The organising committees of most of the host nations from then on decided to include at least one demonstration sport in their program. Eventually demonstration sports were dropped after the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona due to the difficulties of organising these extra events as the Olympics grew in size.

In 1900 at the Paris Olympics some of the odd sports demonstrated were cannon firing, fishing, pigeon racing, fire fighting and kite flying. Some of these were held as part of the World’s Fair which ran in tandem with the Games and they are not regarded by the IOC as fully part of the Olympic Games.

1900 Ballooning

1900: Hot Air Ballooning

Hot air ballooning was a colourful and popular spectator sport at these Games. Contestants were given marks for distance covered, duration and elevation; however it was only considered a demonstration event and never made official.

Some of the official events at the early Olympics were more bizarre than the demonstration sports.

One of the most questionable sports was live pigeon shooting. It took place only once in Olympic history in the 1900 Summer Games in Paris, although the IOC denies it was ever an official event. Birds were released from cages into the air and the participants had to shoot down as many as possible. When the shooter missed two birds he was eliminated. The winner was the participant who shot down the most birds by the end of the competition. More than 300 defenceless pigeons were killed that day – blood and feathers showered over the spectators, and dead and injured birds lay on the ground, a testament to the carnage that had taken place.

1900 de Lunden Belgium live pigeon shooting

1900: Live Pigeon Shooting, Léon de Lunden (BEL)

This was the first and only time in Olympic history when animals were deliberately killed in the name of sport. Not surprisingly the event was discontinued after this. It was replaced in later Olympics by clay pigeon shooting (a clay disk thrown as a flying target).

Underwater swimming was another official event which was only held once at the Olympics. This too was on the program of the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris. The event took place in the River Seine at Basins d’Asnières-Courbevoie and it was difficult for the competitors to see in the murky conditions. The distance achieved by each swimmer was measured in a straight line from the starting point.

Frenchmen took out the first and second places but the unfortunate third place getter, Peder Lykkeberg from Denmark, although thought to have swum further than anyone else, swam in circles unable to orientate himself in the dark and gloomy waters of the Seine. As the swimmers were under the water this competition was hardly a riveting event for the spectators and the event was dropped from any further Olympics.

The men’s 200 metres swimming obstacle race was another unusual event which only made one appearance at the Olympics. A part of the program of the 1900 Summer Games in Paris, it was also held in the River Seine. The competitors first had to swim to a pole and climb it, next swim to a row of boats and climb over them, then swim under another row of boats, and finally after this exhausting procedure swim as fast as possible to the finish line.

Diving first made it onto the Olympic program at the 1904 Summer Games held in St Louis, Missouri. The plunge for distance was a bizarre underwater diving competition that was scheduled at these Games. Taking a running jump, competitors dove as far as they could into the pool and when their heads broke the surface of the water the distance they had attained was measured and the longest distance won. They were allowed to hold their breath for up to 60 seconds, using the momentum of the dive to glide under water but were not permitted to use their arms and legs to propel themselves. The heavier participants actually had an unfair advantage as the momentum tended to take them further.

There were five entrants in this competition and all were from the United States as was the case with many of the events at the 1904 Games. It was only contested the once and dropped from any further Olympics.

Another unusual event staged at the 1904 Summer Olympics was the men’s triathlon, which was an event for gymnasts rather than track and field athletes and was part of a 12 event, all-round competition in the German Turnverein gymnastics program. The triathlon was decidedly athletic in nature, consisting of three track and field events (the 100 yard dash, long jump and shot put) and the medals were decided on these three events alone.

However before he was eligible to enter the triathlon the participant first had take part in nine gymnastic performances (three on the horizontal bar, three on parallel bars and three on the horse, split between the long horse (or vault) and the side horse (or pommel horse). Of the 119 gymnasts who competed in the triathlon, 111 were from the United States. The event was won by Max Emmerich – not all that surprisingly from the USA.

The tug-of-war was originally part of the Ancient Olympics and this sport was revived in the early Modern Games. It was held at the Olympics from 1900 through to 1920 and at the time considered part of the athletics program.

1908 Tug-of-War

1908: Tug-of-War

The tug-of-war pitted two teams of eight men against each other, at either end of a rope, in a test of strength. Club teams competed against each other as opposed to nation against nation, which meant it was possible for a nation to win more than one medal. The tournament was a round-robin style event and many of the participants were police teams.

Rope climbing was part of the gymnastics program in the 1896, 1904, 1906, 1924 and 1932 Olympics. In this event the competitors, started in a seated position on the floor, their legs outstretched, then climbed a suspended vertical rope, pulling themselves up using only their hands and arms and upper body strength. They could not use their feet or legs to push off the floor or on the rope, although they were allowed to kick their legs while climbing.

In the 1896 Olympics very long climbing ropes of 14-15 metres were used, and competitors were judged on speed and style. In subsequent Olympic competition the rope was approximately half that length. The event was eventually dropped from the Olympic program after the 1932 Summer Games held in Los Angeles.

1932 Club Swinging Roth

1932: Club Swinging, George Roth (USA).

Club swinging was also part of the gymnastic events at the Olympics and was held twice, firstly at the 1904 Summer Games in St Louis, Missouri and again in the USA at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

It was an ancient sport originally developed by Persian Pehlwani wrestlers, spread throughout the Middle East and was eventually adopted by British soldiers in the 19th century. Known today as the Indian Clubs it is now making a return in popularity as a form of modern physical exercise.

In 1904 the contestants performed with 3lb wooden clubs that looked a little like bowling pins or juggling clubs. However it was not a juggling competition but derived from Indian martial arts and required agility, strength and balance. The contestant performed with only two clubs which never left his hands and were swung quickly about his body and head in a complicated routine. He was judged on speed and style.

George Roth from the USA won the gold medal at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. These Games were held during the Great Depression and Roth was unemployed at the time. He struggled to feed his family and after the medal presentation in front of a packed stadium had to hitch-hike his way home. However as the US economy slowly recovered, life turned around for Roth. After eight years of night study he gained a degree in geology and petroleum engineering and went on to form his own consultancy business and to discover oil and gas fields in California.

Stone throwing was held at the Intercalated Games in Greece in 1906. The event was similar to the shot put but the difference was the way it was launched. The shot put must be kept above the line of the shoulder and pushed away from the body whereas the stone could be thrown like a javelin. The stone was a little lighter than the shot put, weighing 14 lbs. The winner was Nicolaos Georgantas of Greece who achieved the longest distance with a throw of 19.925 metres.

1904 weightlifting one hand

1904: Weightlifting One Hand

The men’s 56 pound weight throw was a track and field event held at both the 1904 Summer Games in St Louis, Missouri and again at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.

It required great strength, muscle control, balance and flexibility, reminiscent of the weight lifting feats performed by the old time strongmen. The competitor used both hands to grasp a triangular handle attached directly to the heavy metal, spherical-shaped weight, then while standing inside a seven-foot throwing circle swung it around his body several times to gain momentum, finally releasing the weight at the front of the circle and tossing it as far as he could into a landing area.

This event is still contested in the Scottish Highland Games where it is thrown for both distance and height (throwing the weight over a high horizontal bar) in two different competitions.

Duelling pistol shooting was held twice, at the Intercalated Games in Athens in 1906 and at the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm. The event was held over 20 metres and 30 metres and competitors were required to shoot at life-size mannequins dressed in frock coats with a bull’s eye on the dummy’s chest. Needless to say most spectators found this competition rather confronting, objections were raised and it was dropped from the Olympic program.

The standing high jump, standing long jump and standing triple jump (the hop, step and jump) were all part of the Olympic track and field program between 1900 and 1912. No run-up was allowed and the competitor jumped from a standing position with both feet together, bent at the knees and swinging his arms to help propel himself.

1906 Standing long jump Ray Ewry USA

1906: Standing Long Jump, Ray Ewry (USA)

Ray Ewry, an amazing athlete from the United States was a master of the standing jumps, winning a total of eight Olympic gold medals in the Games of 1900, 1904 and 1908. He won all three standing jump events in 1900 and 1904, but in 1908 the triple jump was dropped from the program so he wasn’t able to defend his title in this event. Nevertheless he still won the standing high jump and the standing long jump at the 1908 Games, as well as winning two golds at the Intercalated Games in 1906. He set the world record of 1.65 metres for the standing high jump in 1900, and 3.47 metres for the standing long jump in 1904.

His feats were even more impressive as he had been stricken with polio as a young boy and spent part of his childhood in a wheelchair. He retired in 1911 so didn’t compete in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm which was the last time these events were held.

Motor boating (also called ‘water motor sports’) was a demonstration event in 1900. It made its debut as an official sport in the 1908 Olympic Games but it was only ever held the once. There were three categories – the A-class (open), B-class (under 60 feet) and C-class (6½-8 metres). Six non-Olympic handicap events were also held at the same time.

As with many of the sports in the early Olympics it was strictly for men. The course was approximately eight nautical miles and the competitors were required to do five laps, making a total of 40 nautical miles for the race. The races took place off the southern coast of England at Southampton at the end of August.

It was not a great spectator sport as it was difficult to see the action from afar and the speeds were very slow by today’s standards, an average of about 19mph. The competition was also marred by bad weather- six of the nine events were cancelled. This was the only time motorised sport was allowed in the Olympics and the event was dropped from the program after 1908.

1900 Equestrian Four-in-hand Max Guilleaume Germany

1900: Equestrian Four-in-Hand, Max Guilleaume (GER)

Equestrian sports first made their appearance at the Olympics in Paris in 1900. There were some unusual events which have since been discontinued – mail coach, four-in-hand (the driving of a mail coach with four horses on reins), hacks and hunter (riding around a course with an occasional jump to negotiate), the long jump and the high jump for horses. The main equestrian events these days in the Olympics are dressage, eventing and jumping.

At the Olympic Congress in Paris in 1894 it was planned to award an Olympic gold medal for alpinism or mountaineering but the organisers of the 1896 Olympics couldn’t agree on the criteria to award it. Eventually gold medals were awarded at the 1924 Winter Olympics to the 1922 British Everest Expedition.

Golf was contested in the early Olympics, but only twice, in the Games of 1900 and 1904. Two events (a men’s and a women’s competition) were held in 1900 at the Paris Summer Games, at the Compiègne Club in Compiègne, about 30 miles north of the capital.

But in 1904 when the Games were held in the USA only men were permitted to play in the golf competition. It was held at the opening of the course at the new Glen Echo Golf Club in St Louis and there were an almost overwhelming number of events. Alongside the two main Olympic competitions, there was a team event of 36-hole stroke play and an individual championship, there were putting contests (under lights at night), driving contests, contests for non-qualifiers and match-play losers and team Nassau tournaments.

Although now one of the world’s most popular sports it has taken a long time to see golf reinstated on the Olympic program. After a 112 year absence it will finally make its return in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It will be the first time the Olympic Games have been held in South America.

The Olympic Games has evolved from these early years to a huge worldwide event. The Paralympics are now a major part of the Olympic movement as well, growing in stature since a small number of World War II veterans took part in the 1948 Olympics in London. In 1960 the first official Paralympic Games were held in Rome, but they were only open to athletes in wheelchairs.

Over the years competitions for athletes with different disabilities were added and in 1988 at the Summer Olympics held in Seoul, South Korea, the Summer Paralympics were held immediately after the Olympic Games for the first time, in the same city using the same facilities.

The IOC has recently introduced the Youth Olympic Games (YOG). It aims to bring together some of the world’s best young athletes, aged between 15 and 18. It is different to other youth sports events in that it is combined with a Culture and Education Program which encompasses Olympism, well-being and healthy lifestyles, social responsibility, skills development and expression. There are workshops and team-building exercises, and also opportunities for the young participants to meet Olympic athletes.

The Youth Olympic Games are deliberately set up on a much smaller scale than their senior counterpart and run for a shorter time. They are held as separate summer and winter events every four years, two years apart from each other. The first Summer Games were held in Singapore in 2010 and first Winter Games were held in Innsbruck, Austria in 2012. The second Summer Games took place in 2014 in Nanjing, China and the second Winter Games in 2016 have just completed in Lillehammer, Norway.

Hosting the Olympics brings many benefits to the host nation as it focuses the world’s attention on that country, the host city in particular getting huge international media coverage. Corporate sponsorships and billion-dollar television deals are made. Bidding to become the host nation is hotly contested and officially begins eight years out from the Games when nations are short listed by the IOC.

The Games are important economically, politically and socially to the host nation, showcasing its strengths, promoting its culture, increasing tourism and new businesses. National pride is strengthened and the country is drawn together so there is an important social aspect to them too. Benefits include job creation, the selling of commodities, investments in public infrastructure, transport, new housing, sporting facilities and road renovations, all of which can be enjoyed for decades to come after the Olympics are over.

Photos: Volker Kluge Archive

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