117 Fun Facts About The Olympics
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117 Fun Facts About The Olympics

One of my first modern memories is waking up to record my first summer Olympics in 1996. I was excited to learn about every new event and athlete. I’ll be leading Rustic Pathways travel programs in Japan this summer, and then I’ll be watching the games right after.

For the record, judo is my favorite summer sport and curling is my favorite during the winter games. Enjoy my giant list of facts about the Olympics. May the Olympic spirit flow through us all.

About 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris

The 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris start on Wednesday, July 24, 2024, with the official opening ceremony on Friday, July 26. Best of all, fans will be able to watch the summer Olympics in person, unlike the Tokyo 2020 Olympics which were impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.

The 2024 games include the Refugee Olympic Team, with the number of refugee-athletes increasing from 10 in 2016 to 29 in 2024. The new Olympic sports for 2024 include: surfing, karate, skateboarding, and sport climbing. Baseball and softball will return to the summer games. They were cut in 2012.

The Olympic mascot is designed by the host country and represents a cultural trait of the host. The mascots for 2024 are called Phryge which means liberty cap and symbolizes the pursuit of liberty and freedom.

Facts About the Ancient Olympic Games

First Olympic Games (776 BC): The first Olympic games were held in Olympia, Greece, in 776 BC, and again every four years for 12 centuries. Olympia was a sacred area with olive tree plantations and a giant statue of Zeus.

Olympic Truce: In ancient Greece, an Olympic Truce was declared during the games to ensure athletes and spectators could travel safely to the events. The games lasted five or six months.

First Olympic Events (776 BC):

  • From 776 to 724 BC, the only event at the Olympic Games was the stadion, a 190-meter footrace. The word stadium in English comes from this word. Contrary to popular belief, there was no chariot racing or marathon at this time.
  • Pankration was introduced in 648 BC. Pankration was a brutal combination of wrestling and boxing. The only rules were no biting and no eye-gouging. The bouts had no points, time limits, or weight classes. Fighters indicated surrender by raising an index finger. By the way, pankration competitors fought naked and covered in oil.

Most Successful Olympic Athlete: The most accomplished athlete of this early Olympic era — the Usain Bolt of his day if you were — was Leonidas of Rhodes who won 12 titles across four consecutive Olympiads (164-152 BC). He won gold in three different foot race distances (190 meters, 400 meters and a race of varying distances holding weights in kind of a cross-fit style event) for four consecutive games.

Panathenaic Stadium track with empty seating, historical sports venue in Athens.

Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, Greece, historic venue for the Olympics.

Facts About the Modern Olympics

Introduction and Early Modern Olympics

Modern Olympics Revival (1896): In 1896, the first modern Olympics were brought back by Baron Pierre de Coubertin. De Coubertin, a French teacher and historian, wanted to use the Olympic symbol to promote physical education and international peace. Baron Pierre de Coubertin envisioned the games as a way to encourage amateur competition in sports while increasing cultural understanding and a spirit of camaraderie between nations. The Olympics was the Rustic Pathways of its day.

First Marathon (1896): The marathon was introduced in the first modern Games in 1896, to commemorate the run of Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens.

First Olympic Event Winner (1896): The first Olympic event winner was James Brendan Bennet Connolly, who won for triple jump in 1896. He tried to take a leave of absence from Harvard to attend but the school turned him down. So, the first Olympic award winner was a Harvard dropout.

Youngest Olympian (1886): The youngest Olympian of the modern Olympic games was a 10-year-old bronze medal-winning Greek gymnast Dimitrios Loundras. Loundras competed in the team parallel bars event in 1896.

Unusual Events (1900): The 1900 Paris Olympics featured croquet and live pigeon shooting. Croquet is not in the Olympics anymore. Leon de Lunden of Belgium won the pigeon shooting medal.

Women in the Olympics (1900): Women have been allowed to compete in the Olympics since 1900. Women earned the right to vote in the United States in 1920.

Tug of War (1900): Tug of war was an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1920. Kids on the playground unite!

First Modern Medal Awards (1904): The 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis were the first modern Olympics that awarded gold, silver and bronze medals for first, second and third place. In the 1896 Olympics, first-place winners got a silver medal and an olive branch, and second-place winners got a bronze medal and a laurel branch. There were no awards for third place.

Marathon Standardized (1908): In the 1908 London Olympics, the marathon distance was standardized to 26 miles and 385 yards exactly (42.195 km).

Empty podium with I, II, and III for medal winners in a stadium.

Early 20th Century Olympic Milestones

Continental Participation (1912): The 1912 Stockholm Games was the first to include athletes from all five continents. From 1912 to 1948, the Olympics included competitions in art categories such as architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. The 1912 Olympics were the last to feature gold medals made entirely out of solid gold. I wonder if those last two facts about the Olympics are related?

Longest Wrestling Match (1912): 1912 also featured the longest Greco-Roman wrestling match in Olympic history at 11 hours and 40 minutes, contested between Martin Klein of Estonia and Alfred Asikainen of Finland in 1912. The men tied. Time limits were introduced later to every one’s glee.

Olympic Flag (1913): The Olympic flag was introduced in 1913, representing unity among the continents. The games were canceled in 1916 due to World War I. A flag didn’t help, I guess.

Olympic Oath (1920): The Olympic oath, introduced in 1920, is taken by an athlete from the host country during the opening ceremony.

First Winter Olympic Games (1924): The first Winter Olympics were held in Chamonix, France, in 1924.

Olympic Flame (1928): The first time the Olympic flame was lit during the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics opening ceremony.

Notable Events and Records

First Olympic Village (1932): The 1932 Los Angeles Olympics saw the first Olympic Village built for athletes.

First Live Broadcast (1936): The 1936 Berlin Games were the first to be broadcast live on closed-circuit television in Germany.

Youngest Gold Medalist (1936): The youngest gold medalist is American Marjorie Gestring, a 13-year-old American springboard diver, who won in 1936.

Best Sportsmanship: King Soloman Edition (1936): During the 1936 games, two Japanese pole-vaulters tied for second place and cut their medals in half to share them.

Best Sportsmanship: Sharing is Caring Edition (2000): At the Tokyo Olympics (2021), men’s high jumpers Mutaz Essa Barshim from Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi from Italy both cleared 2.37 meters. They were given the option to have a jump-off to decide the winner, but instead agreed to share the gold medal.

Olympic Torch Relay (1936): The Olympic torch relay was started at the 1936 Berlin Olympics under the Nazi regime to highlight Aryan logistics and glory. The Olympics are mostly remembered for Jesse Owens winning four gold medals, deflating that Nazi supremacy myth.

World War II Impact

Canceled Games (1940 and 1944): Tokyo was initially selected to host the 1940 Summer Olympics, but the games were moved to Finland and eventually canceled due to war. In fact, both the 1940 and 1944 games were canceled due to World War II.

Rows of green stadium seats numbered for spectators.

Political and Social Milestones

Germany and Japan Banned (1948): Germany and Japan were banned from the 1948 Olympics after the World Wars.

1956 Boycotts: Egypt, Iraq, Cambodia, and Lebanon boycotted in response to Egypt’s invasion by Israel, the United Kingdom, and France. The Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein boycotted to protest the Soviet Union’s actions in Hungary. The People’s Republic of China boycotted because the Republic of China (Taiwan) was allowed to compete in the Olympics.

South Africa’s Exclusion (1964): The IOC did not invite apartheid South Africa because the country’s Olympic committee refused to denounce segregation in sports, leading to South Africa’s exclusion for the next two decades.

Black Power Salute (1968): During the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute during the medal ceremony, protesting racial discrimination.

Munich Massacre (1972): The 1972 Munich Olympics were tragically marked by the Munich Massacre, where Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli athletes hostage and killed them.

1976 Montreal Boycott: Two dozen mostly African countries boycotted the 1976 Olympics protesting New Zealand’s support of South Africa’s apartheid state.

1980 Moscow Boycott: Jimmy Carter led a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics by 66 nations to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

1984 Los Angeles Boycott: Most of the Warsaw Pact nations, along with Cuba and East Germany, refused to compete in the 1984 Olympics.

Nancy Kerrigan Attack (1994): American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by a hitman hired by Jeff Gillooly, the husband of her rival, Tonya Harding.

Technological and Infrastructure Milestones

First Televised Olympics (1960): The 1960 Rome Olympics were the first televised games.

First Paralympic Games (1960): The first official Paralympic Games were held in Rome in 1960. 400 physically disabled athletes competed and won medals in 57 events across 8 sports.

Largest Olympic Stadium (1964): Japan built the world’s largest Olympic stadium, holding 70,000 spectators, for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

First International Satellite Broadcast (1964): The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were the first to be broadcast internationally via satellite.

First Olympic Drug Testing (1968): Drug testing was first introduced in the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France. Someone tell the East German team!

Security and Scandals

1972 Munich Massacre: The Munich Massacre led to a significant increase in Olympic security measures.

Ben Johnson Scandal (1988): At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for steroids.

Nancy Kerrigan Attack (1994): The attack on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 highlighted security issues in figure skating.

Atlanta Bombing (1996): During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, resulting in two deaths and injuring 111 others, leading to increased security measures at subsequent Games.

Historic Athletic Achievements

Bob Beamon (1968): Beamon set a world record in the long jump at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, breaking the existing record by a margin of 55 cm.

Nadia Comaneci (1976): At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci scored the first perfect 10 in Olympic gymnastics history.

Miracle on Ice (1980): The U.S. men’s ice hockey team, consisting mostly of amateur players, defeated the heavily favored Soviet Union team in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

China’s First Gold Medal (1984): China competed for the first time since 1952 and won its first Olympic gold medal in 1984.

Ian Millar’s Record: Canadian Ian Millar holds the record for competing in the most Olympic Games, participating in ten games from 1972 to 2012.

Participation and Inclusion

Germany Reunites (1992): Germany reunited, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia participated as separate nations for the first time.

South Africa Returns (1992): South Africa returned to the Olympics in 1992 after being banned for apartheid policies.

Dream Team (1992): The 1992 United States men’s Olympic basketball team was the first American Olympic team to feature active professional players from the National Basketball Association (NBA). At the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, they defeated their opponents by an average of 44 points per game and won gold.

Financial and Hosting Challenges

Montreal’s Debt (1976): The 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal left the city with a $2 billion debt, taking over three decades to pay back.

Most Attended Olympics (1996): The 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, were the most attended with 8.3 million tickets sold.

Internet era Olympic facts

Technological Milestones

First Internet Broadcast: The Sydney 2000 Olympics were the first Olympic Games to be broadcast live on the internet.

First Use of Social Media: The London 2012 Olympics saw the first widespread use of social media. Hooray?

Gender Equality Milestones

Cathy Freeman’s Historic Win (2000): Australian Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman lit the Olympic flame and later won gold in the 400 meters. Her performance was a significant moment of acknowledgement for Australia’s Indigenous community.

First Olympics with Female Athletes in Every Sport (2000): The Sydney 2000 Olympics were the first to have women compete in every sport.

First Olympics with Female Athletes from All Countries (2012): Later, the London 2012 Olympics were the first where all participating countries sent female athletes.

Scandals and Controversies

Salt Lake City Bribery Scandal (2002): IOC members were bribed to vote for Salt Lake City as the host city for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Russia’s Ban from 2022 Winter Olympics: Russia was banned from the 2022 Winter Olympics due to doping violations. Qualified athletes were allowed to compete but could not do so under the Russian flag.

Financial and Hosting Milestones

Most Expensive Olympics: The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics were the most expensive Olympic Games ever, costing over $50 billion.

First Olympics in South America: The 2016 Games in Rio marked the first time the Olympics were held in South America.

Participation and Inclusion

First Participation of Kosovo and South Sudan: Kosovo and South Sudan participated for the first time in the 2016 Rio Games.

Introduction of Refugee Olympic Team: The Refugee Olympic Team was first introduced in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Bangladesh’s First Qualification: Bangladesh, the most populous country never to win an Olympic medal, had its first athlete qualify in 2016.

Medal Achievements

Fiji’s First Gold: Fiji won its first-ever gold medal in rugby sevens in 2016.

Kosovo’s First Medal: Kosovan athlete Majlenda Kelminda won gold in the women’s 52kg judo competition in 2016, Kosovo’s first medal.

Michael Phelps’ Record: The most decorated Olympian in history, Michael Phelps, won 28 medals, including 23 golds, from 2004 to 2016.

Swimmer performing the butterfly stroke in a pool lane.

Olympic Sports Facts Grab Bag

Olympic symbols and traditions

The Olympic rings symbolize unity among the five inhabited continents. The colors were chosen because every flag in the world has at least one of the colors used in the rings.

The Olympic motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” means “Faster, Higher, Stronger.”

The Olympic torch relay lights the torch using a parabolic mirror and sun rays.

The parade of nations: Greece always leads the parade at the opening ceremony to honor the games’ Greek origins.

The Olympic languages: The permanent official languages are English and French. The host country’s language is also used.

Notable Athletes and Achievements

Michael Phelps: Holds the record for the most Olympic medals, with 28 medals.

Athletes Winning in Both Winter and Summer Olympics:

  • Eddie Eagan (USA): 1920 Boxing (Gold); 1932 Bobsleigh (Gold)
  • Jacob Tullin Thams (NOR): 1924 Ski Jumping (Gold); 1936 Sailing (Silver)
  • Christa Luding-Rothenburger (GER): 1984 Speed Skating (Gold); 1988 Speed Skating (Gold and Silver); 1988 Cycling (Silver)
  • Clara Hughes (CAN): 1996 Cycling (Bronze); 2002 Speed Skating (Bronze); 2006 Speed Skating (Gold and Silver); 2010 Speed Skating (Bronze)
  • Lauryn Williams (USA): 2004 Athletics (Silver); 2012 Athletics (Gold); 2014 Bobsleigh (Silver)

Medal Facts

Composition: Gold medals must contain at least 6 grams of gold; silver medals must be at least 92.5% silver.

Participation and Inclusion

Wild Card System: Ensures participation from smaller nations like Nauru and Tuvalu.

Nations Without Medals: More than 70 nations have never won an Olympic medal. Bangladesh is the most populous country without a medal.

Vatican City: The only nation-state that has never sent an athlete.

Rules and Governance

Brand Promotion Restrictions: Athletes cannot promote any brand, company, or sponsors during the Games. This is to maintain the Games’ neutrality.

Hosting: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) awards the games to cities, not countries.

About the Author

Scott Ingram

Scott is the Director of Admissions at Rustic Pathways. He has spent the last 15 years in the student travel and experiential education world. Before helping families find the perfect Rustic Pathways program, he led gap year programs that took students around the world and spent three years teaching English in Japan.