The modern Olympics were first held in 1896 in Athens, Greece. They began after decades of increased interest in reviving the ancient games. Various Olympic-style games had been held starting in the 1600s, although they were small and mostly involved participants from the regions where they were held. The push for an international competition was led by a French baron named Pierre de Coubertin, who helped found the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894. The first modern Olympics took place two years later, when a total of 245 athletes — all men — from 14 countries competed in 43 events.
The Ancient Olympic Games
In ancient Greece, athletic festivals were held every four years in the city of Olympia and came to be known as the Olympic Games. Only men from Greece were allowed to compete, and women were barred from even watching. The first known Olympic Games were held in 776 B.C., but many historians believe that they probably were held even earlier. The ancient games ended in 393 A.D., when the Roman emperor Theodosius banned them because he believed that they were influenced by paganism.
Interest in reviving the ancient games began to increase after the Greece's war of independence from the Ottoman Empire, which lasted from 1821 to 1832. In 1856, Evangelos Zappas, a wealthy Greek businessman, made an offer to Greece's King Otto to sponsor modern Olympic Games. These were held in 1859 in Athens, although only athletes from the Ottoman Empire and Greece competed. Zappas died in 1865, but his estate also sponsored Olympic Games in 1870 and 1875 in Athens, where Zappas had paid to have the ancient Panathenaic Stadium restored for the games.
Similar competitions had been held from time to time elsewhere in Europe since at least the early 1600s. Like Zappas' Olympic Games in Athens, though, they mostly included athletes from the areas where the competitions were being held. One example was the Wenlock Olympian Society Annual Games, which were held in Shropshire, England, each year starting in 1850. It was the Wenlock Olympian Games that inspired Pierre de Coubertin to revive the ancient Olympics as an international competition held every four years.
Restoring the Games
In 1894, Coubertin organized a conference in Paris, where he pitched to athletic officials from nine countries his idea of restoring the Olympic Games. After a unanimous vote in favor of reviving the games, Coubertin was put in charge of forming a committee to organize them, which is how the International Olympic Committee began. With funding again provided by the estate of Evangelos Zappas, the IOC held the first modern Olympics in 1896 at Athens' Panathenaic Stadium, which had been further renovated for the games. The 43 events held that year were in nine different sports: track and field, swimming, gymnastics, cycling, weightlifting, tennis, wrestling, fencing and shooting.
Since the renewal of the Olympics, many changes have taken place. Women began competing in 1900, and winter sports were added in 1908. Starting in 1924, the games were separated into the Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics, and until 1992, both were held in the same year every four years. In 1994, the Winter Olympics were held after only a two-year cycle and then returned to a four-year cycle, so that the summer and winter games would alternate every two years. By the early 21st century, the number of sports, events and participants had greatly increased, with the summer and winter games combining to include more than 12,000 athletes in more than 360 events per cycle.