The Olympic Games are an international sporting event that occurs every four years, once during the summer (the Summer Games) and once during the winter (the Winter Games). The 2012 Summer Games were held in London, the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The Olympic Games are formally known as the Games of the XXX Olympiad, where “XXX” represents the Roman numeral representation of the event. The 2008 Summer Olympics, for examples, was formally known as the Games of the XXIX Olympiad.


The purpose of the Olympic Games is to bring together the world's finest male and female athletes in some predesignated group of summer and winter sports. Winners in each of these contests are now generally regarded as the champions in their sport for the four-year period following their triumph.


Both men and women can compete in the Olympic Games, with minimum and maximum age limits (if there are any) being established by the international governing bodies for the sports involved. In general, the minimum age for participation in most Olympic sports is 16, although that age varies for some sports. The minimum age for marathon competitors, for example, is 20. A new category of Olympic Games was introduced in 2010 with the Youth Olympic Games held in Singapore. The age limit for participants in those games was 14 to 18 years of age.


The first records of an Olympics game-like event date to the year 776 BCE at Olympia, Greece. Competitions were held among a number of city-states and kingdoms on the Greek peninsula in a number of athletic events. The original event consisted of a single race across the length of a stadium of 180–240 meters (one “stadion”). Over time, a number of other running and nonrunning events were added, and the games extended from a single day up to as many as five days. These events included not only longer running races, but additional contests in boxing, wrestling, equestrian events, javelin, discus, and pentathlon (a group of five different athletic events). The ancient Olympic Games were brought to an end in 393 CE by edict of the Roman emperor Theodosius I. One reason for the emperor's decision was that contestants in the Olympic Games typically participated in the nude, apparently an affront to the most fervent of the early Christian emperors.

Former Brazilian basketball player Horténcia Marcari (left) passes the Olympic torch to former Brazilian tennis player Gustavo Kuerten during the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, August 2016.

Former Brazilian basketball player Horténcia Marcari (left) passes the Olympic torch to former Brazilian tennis player Gustavo Kuerten during the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, August 2016.

The first of the modern Olympic Games were held in Athens' Panathenaic stadium from April 6–15, 1896. A total of 241 athletes (all male) from 14 nations participated in 43 events in athletics (sprints and runs, discus and shot put, hurdles, jumps, and pole vault), cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting, and wrestling. The 1900 games were held in conjunction with the Paris Exposition and the 1904 games in association with the World's Fair in St. Louis. In both cases, the Olympic events were overshadowed by the main focus of the Exposition, in 1900, and the World's Fair, in 1904. Although no special stadium or other facilities were available at the 1900 games, they were marked by the first appearance of women athletes.

After an attempt to insert a so-called “intercalated” event in 1906 (in the middle of a four-year Olympiad, the games resumed their regular quadrennial schedule in 1908 with the London games, a pattern that has been followed every four years since then. The first winter games were introduced in 1924 in Chamonix, France, and the first Summer Youth Olympics, in Singapore, in 2010, and the first Winter Youth Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, in 2012. In 1948, German neurologist Ludwig Guttmann recommended the inclusion of athletes with physical disabilities in a “parallel Olympics,” or paralympics games. Such a competition was first held in conjunction with the 1960 games in Rome and has been a part of every Olympic competition since that time. The only years in which Olympic Games have not been held as scheduled were 1916, 1940, and 1944, all because of world wars.

Intercalated games—
A proposed series of Olympic Games schedule in the even off years between regularly scheduled Olympic Games, always to be held in Athens. In fact, the intercalated games were held only once, in 1906.
The four-year period between Olympic Games. Also, a synonym for “Olympic Games.”
An Olympics event designed for physically challenged men and women, first held officially in 1960, and since repeated every four years.
The physical location in which an Olympics event is held.

The Olympic Games have changed substantially since they were first conceived by Baron de Coubertin as an amiable opportunity for the world's best amateur athletes to come together in friendly competition. Today, the Games are a huge commercial operation with venue costs easily exceeding the billion-dollar mark and professional athletes as welcome as amateurs. The business now routinely endorses a large variety of commercial products (at a cost to the producers) and guards the use of its name against organizations it regards as unsuitable for the Olympics ideal (such as the use of its name in the “Gay Olympics”). The games themselves have also been saturated with political factors, most notably perhaps boycotts of the games on a number of occasions, including the 1936 games (Ireland), 1956 games (Cambodia, China, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland), 1980 games (a group of 65 nations objecting to the policies and actions of the Soviet Union), and 1984 games (Soviet Union and 14 sympathetic partners). Probably the saddest single day in the history of the Olympics occurred on September 5, 1972, when Palestinian terrorists kidnaped 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team, eventually killing all of them; this event is now widely known as the Munich Massacre (for the site of the event).


The sports included in an Olympics event vary from games to games. Five sports have been included in every Summer Olympic Games since 1896: athletics, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, and swimming. A few sports have been included in the Olympics schedule for almost all of that period, including weightlifting and wrestling. A number of sports have made brief appearances, and then disappeared from the games, including Basque pelota (1900 only), cricket (1900), rackets (1908), rugby sevens (2006), and water motorsports (1908). Seven sports have been included in all 21 Winter Olympic Games, including cross-country skiing, figure skating, ice hockey, Nordic combined, ski jumping, and speed skating. The two newest winter sports are freestyle skiing and short-track speed skating (both introduced in 1992).


Athletes who compete in the Olympics Games follow training and conditioning regimens appropriate for their individual sports.


Each player who competes in the Olympics wears equipment required or recommended for the sport in which they are involved.

Training and conditioning

Olympic athletes are among the best trained athletes in the world, who follow the most recent and most highly approved methods of training and conditioning for their individual sports.


Olympic athletes are challenged by the specific risks and medical issues characteristic of the sports in which they compete.



Barney, Robert Knight, Stephen R. Wenn, and Scott G. Martyn. Selling the Five Rings: The International Olympic Committee and the Rise of Olympic Commercialism. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2004.

Pound, Richard W. Inside the Olympics: A Behind-the-scenes Look at the Politics, the Scandals, and the Glory of the Games. Chichester, UK: Wiley, 2006.

Shaw, Christopher A. Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2008.

Wallechinsky, David, and Jaime Loucky. The Complete Book of the Olympics: 2012 Edition. South Yarra, Victoria, Australia: Hardie Grant, 2012.

Wallechinsky, David, and Jaime Loucky. The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics: 2014 Edition. London: Aurum, 2014.


Crane, Gregory, ed. “The Ancient Olympics.” Perseus Digital Library Project. August 13, 2004. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Olympics/ (accessed January 18, 2017).


International Olympic Committee, Chateau de Vidy, Case postale 356, Lausanne, 1001, Switzerland, 41 21 621 61 11, Fax: 41 21 621 62 16, pressoffice@olympic.org, http://olympic.org .

U.S. Olympic Committee, One Olympic Plaza, Colorado Springs, CO, 80909, (719) 632-5551, Fax: (719) 866-4654, communications@usoc.org, http://www.teamusa.org .

David E. Newton, AB, MA, EdD

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.