The Olympic Games

A global movement

When it comes to sports, the sack race, tug of war and rope climbing are scarcely trendy. At least not today. But at one time they were Olympic disciplines.

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We owe the existence of the Olympic Games to the French educationalist and Greece aficionado Baron Pierre de Coubertin. By the end of the 19th century, Classical antiquity was en vogue again. Inspired by the growing popularity of archaeology, people started to romanticize the civilization of Ancient Greece. When German archaeologists excavated the ruins of Olympia in 1875, the decision was finally made to revive the Games.

In addition to the sporting competitions, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduced artistic disciplines in 1912, awarding medals for architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. The swimmer Alfréd Hajós was one of two Olympians to win medals in both sporting and artistic disciplines. In 1896 he won gold in the 100-meter and 1200-meter freestyle events, which were then being held offshore. Hajós had to conquer ice-cold waters and the swell of the sea, and later claimed that the instinct to survive had driven him on more than the will to win. In his hometown of Budapest, he subsequently built a swimming stadium where competitors could race without fearing for their lives, earning himself the silver medal in architecture at the Paris Olympics of 1924.

However, the Olympic Games failed to produce any artistic highlights. The juries may have been star-studded, with Béla Bartók, Maurice Ravel, Manuel de Falla and Igor Stravinsky among the judges in 1924, but of the mere seven musical contenders not one was deemed worthy of a medal. Unable to keep pace with the sporting competitions, the artistic disciplines were finally scrapped after the 1948 event.

In the early years the funding of the Olympics was usually kept to a bare minimum, and the venues had little chance of recouping their costs. As recently as 1948 the President of Argentina Juan Perón promised to subsidize the London Olympics by having each major landowner in his country donate a bull. In 1928 Amsterdam became the first host city to sell its film and photo rights and only allow accredited cameramen and -women. But the Games didn't become lucrative until the 1960s, by which time almost every household had a television set. The IOC at least could cash in, as it has done since: a short while ago, the United States media company Discovery paid 1.3 billion euros to broadcast the Summer and Winter Olympics between 2018 and 2024 – and those rights were for Europe alone.

The athletes were long denied one opportunity that we take for granted today: the chance to make money. This – quite intentionally – had led to well-off athletes predominating. By contrast, their counterparts in poor countries found it difficult to cover their costs from their day jobs. When the IOC finally allowed professionalism in 1981, it opened up the Games to all social classes – not a second too soon.

The majority of disciplines have stood the test of time. Fencing, cycling, swimming, athletics and artistic gymnastics have been represented every four years. By contrast, some were only granted the briefest of appearances: sports like cricket and croquet only featured once. The tug-of-war lasted for two decades at the start of the 20th century. The rules allow the occasional inclusion of new, fashionable sports, and sometimes even spark sporting trends. Spectators can thank NBC for getting beach volleyball adopted at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The company already held the American rights for broadcasting the sport and wanted to use the Games to boost its popularity. It therefore threatened to reduce its royalty payments if the Olympic Committee refused to sanction the move.

Five new sports will be represented at the 2020 Games in Tokyo: skateboarding, surfing, baseball/softball, karate and sport climbing. The wrestlers, by contrast, have had their day. Despite being one of the most historic Olympic disciplines, it will no longer feature in Japan.

Martin Kaluza is a Berlin-Based journalist.

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