The Olympics the biggest sporting event in the world, the ultimate test of human athletic endeavour, a time when sporting dreams can be fulfilled and legends made… also one heck of a good time for the year's chosen city, such as London in 2012, not to mention TV viewers around the world.
But what we now know as the modern Olympics, where races are timed to the thousandth of a second, political statements are often made and competitors from nearly every country in the world compete in a heavily staged-managed extravaganza, had far more humble beginnings on the rugged plains of Ancient Greece.
While the specific origins of the Games are lost in the mists of time legend says they were founded by Heracles, a son of the god Zeus. The first written record of the Games taking place is in the year 776BC (based on inscriptions found at Olympia in Greece). That year, a cook by the name of Coroebus won a footrace of approximately 192m. And whilst his cooking skills have been long forgotten, the athlete is forever remembered as the first Olympic champion.
Whether or not the fact that those first competitors did so naked contributed to the success of the Games that year is unknown but the concept took off and every four years for the next 1200 years they were held. Events such as wrestling, javelin, discus, boxing and equestrian were all contested at Olympia during the Games, with large crowds (excluding married women, records indicate) gathering to watch the competition.
Development of the modern Games
History shows that the Roman emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, took exception to the supposed pagan influences on the Games and most likely abolished them in 293AD. Clearly a party-pooper of epic proportions, it wasn't until about 1500 years later that his action was righted and a version of the Games was revived. And so it was that in the year 1896 the first modern Games under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were held in Athens.
Despite some early hiccups, the Olympic Games were eventually co-ordinated to occur every four years continuing all the way through the 20th century (except for three Games during WWI and WWII). In 1996 Atlanta had the honour of hosting the centenary Games and this year's 2012 London Olympics will mark the 30th event.
Through wars and shifting global, social and economic dynamics, the Games have not only survived they have flourished. The modern Olympics, which started as an event with 241 competitors from 14 nations at the 1896 Games, has now grown to a global phenomenon that sees around 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries on show with an intriguing history.
Controversies and scandals
Political statements have been made such as when two US athletes did the Black Power salute at the Mexico City Games in 1968, and tragedies have struck such as the terrorist attack in 1972 at Munich where 11 Israeli athletes were killed. There have also been moments of outrageous scandal such as the Ben Johnson story; in 1988 Jamaican-born Johnson won gold for Canada in the 100m but was soon found guilty of illegal drug use, stripped of his title and sent home in disgrace one of many drug scandals to blight the good sportsmanship reputation of the Olympics.
In another example of disregard for the values of the Games figure skater Tonya Harding was involved in a scandal that saw her fellow US competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, intentionally injured in the run-up to the 1994 Olympics. Nancy went on to win a Silver medal in the Lillehammer games in Norway, whilst Tonya finished 8th amidst much controversy.
The 2012 Olympic Games the sports, the rules and the itinerary
Various other controversies have had their place over the history of the Games but the lead up to this year's Olympics has been smooth sailing to date, with the 2012 Games poised to see 26 sports contested ranging from headline events such as the 100m sprint, the Marathon and cycling road races, to more obscure sports such as handball, trampoline and synchronised swimming. Unfortunately, the tug of war hasn't remained on the agenda it was held just once, at the Paris Olympics of 1900.
These many different sports and events have different stages of competition but generally speaking, most events have qualifying rounds through which all competitors must advance if they are to succeed. There is no hard and fast format for each sport, but the basic pattern is for a gradual process of elimination, often leading to quarterfinals, semi-finals and eventual finals. Importantly, the top three competitors/teams in each event take out gold for first, silver for second and bronze for third.
The two weeks of the Games are divided up to focus on generally specific sporting areas. For example, week one is when all the swimming events take place, while in week two, the big guns of the athletics world take to the stage in track and field. Other sports are rigidly scheduled by the IOC throughout each Games and it's a good idea to pinpoint the events you want to watch well in advance. That said, all the big events are well-covered on TV.
And so that brings us to London 2012. The choice of the city as host was something of a surprise when announced several years ago but the transformation of facilities and infrastructure has been exciting to watch. Coinciding with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, there is little doubt that with a great city hosting a great event, this year's Games will be one to captivate and mesmerise... just as the Olympics have done for centuries.