The Olympic tradition goes back more than 2,500 years, to the first Olympian Games held at Olympia in the Greek kingdom of Elis. By the year 692BC, the games were lasting five days and included prayers and sacrifices to Zeus. Part of the sacrifice ritual included offering up 100 oxen at each Olympiad, their remains making up a six-metre pile of ash which was discovered 900 years later.
The programme included the familiar track-and-field events, plus horse-racing, boxing, wrestling and a no-holds-barred combination of the two, called the pancratium. The rules forbade only eye-gouging and biting, and combat continued until one of the competitors admitted defeat or died. Since the dead competitor had not surrendered, they were considered the winner.
Modern javelin throwers would recognise the spear, but not the way it was thrown. A strap, wound around the shaft, spun the javelin to achieve greater distance and accuracy. The Olympian games also included a race in full armour. After a runner, named Orsippes, fell headlong over his suit, the race rules were changed so that the runners carried a shield and wore a helmet, and nothing else.
The Olympian Games were abolished in 393AD by the Emperor Theodosius the Great, but were revived in 1850 by the Shropshire doctor, William Penny Brookes. Brookes' Wenlock games included a pig chase and a blindfold wheelbarrow race.
In 1892, Baon Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat, attended the event and in 1894 he invited a delegation to Paris to revive the ancient games. His plan mixed tradition and modernity and included the historic discus throw, as well as modern-day cycling events and commemorative competitions, such as the marathon.
The first Modern Olympiad opened in Athens on Easter Monday, 1896, with fewer than 300 athletes. Results were mediocre, with events such as the 100m race taking as much as 12 seconds. The games grew in popularity, however, and by 1908 the Olympics were marked by intense rivalry between British and US teams. The lengths to which teams were prepared to go to in order to win was evident in British officials' decision to carry an exhausted Italian runner over the marathon line simply to defeat their US counterparts.
World War I put paid to the 1916 Olympic Games and World War II halted plans for the event in 1940 and 1944. The games continued to flourish, however, and in 1924 the summer and winter sports were separated, resulting in games being held every two years. This year's Sydney Olympics, for example, will be followed by Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2002.
THINGS TO DO
* Pupils can draw their own time line of the history of the Olympics.
* List the original and current Olympic sports. How have they changed? (Taekwondo is new this year).