After seven years of preparation, the Olympics and Paralympics are taking place in London in front of a worldwide audience of billions. Contrast this with the 1900 Paris Olympics, when the athletes outnumbered the spectators.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be hearing a great deal about fastest times, longest jumps, smashed world records. All new, all very exciting, but we shouldn’t turn our backs on the history of the games, which throws up some extraordinary trivia.
At the first modern games in Athens in 1896, no women competed. Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics felt that their inclusion would be "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect."!
Altogether all there were 245 male competitors in Athens. Many individual countries now field a far greater number than this.
Women first got their chance at the 1900 Paris Games. They competed in lawn tennis, golf and croquet. It is commonly stated that first woman to win an Olympic event was England's Charlotte Cooper, with the tennis singles title. However the sailor Hélène de Pourtalès sneaked in ahead of her. She was part of a mixed Swiss team that won a sailing event.
Women's athletics and gymnastics debuted at the 1928 Olympics and over time there have been fewer and fewer “men only” sports. The final Rubicon will be crossed in 2012 with the inclusion of women's boxing.
More and more sports have joined the Olympic roster, but others have fallen by the wayside. These include croquet, cricket, Jeu de Paume, pelota, polo, roque (no, I don’t know either), rackets, tug-of-war, lacrosse and motor boating.
Pigeon shooting was one of the sports on the 1900 Paris programme. Fortunately this was the only time that animals have been deliberately killed at the games. (Although some might suggest that this particular event should have been reintroduced this year in Trafalgar Square...)
In 1912, at the ripe young age 64, the Swede Oscar Swahn won a shooting gold. At the 1924 games, aged 72, he put in a dismal performance, managing only a silver! The astonishing Oscar holds a hat-trick of records: oldest Olympian, oldest gold medallist, oldest medallist full stop. The oldest female Olympian was the equestrian Lorna Johnstone, who competed for Britain aged 70 at the 1972 Munich Games. No gongs for Lorna, I’m afraid.
During the first few modern Olympics, the marathon did not have an exact distance. In 1908, the British royal family requested that the marathon begin at Windsor Castle so that the royal children could see the start. The distance from the Windsor Castle to the Olympic Stadium was 42,195 meters (or 26 miles and 385 yards). This later became the standardized length of a marathon.
The marathon provides a striking example of how Olympic ethics have changed. Tom Hicks, who won the 1904 event, took several hours to recover after the race. It’s possibly because, during the event, he received numerous infusions of brandy laced with strychnine! This concoction was supposed to improve his stamina. At the time nobody questioned this sort of doping. However there were strict guidelines as to how much preparation one could make for the games: training hard wasn’t seen as fair play.
There’s a lot of pressure on the 2012 GB squad. They did extraordinarily well in Beijing, but there are great expectations that they will do even better with home advantage. Whatever happens, we can be proud that Great Britain is the only nation to have won at least one gold medal at every Summer Games.
Finally, some Olympic firsts.
The FIRST Olympic Games for which we have written records were held in 776 BC.
The FIRST recorded Olympic champion was a naked runner, Coroebus, a cook from Elis. He won the only event – a 192 metre run called the stade.
The FIRST ever event of the modern Olympic Games was heat one of the 100 metre sprint, held on 6 April 1896.
The FIRST Olympic champion of the modern era was James Brendan Connolly of the United States. He won the triple jump.
The FIRST brothers to win Olympic gold medals were Americans John and Sumner Paine. They came first in the military pistol and free pistol shooting events in 1896.
The FIRST team sport added to the Olympics was football in 1900.
The FIRST black athlete at the Olympics was Constantin Henriquez de Zubiera, competing for France in 1900.
The FIRST black gold medallist was African-American John Taylor, who was a member of the 1908 US relay team.
Answers to the Olympic Blog “Do you know?”
1.b, 2.a, 3.a, 4.c, 5.b, 6.d, 7.a, 8.b
How good is your knowledge on the Olympics. Try the Olympic quiz on