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Who invented the Olympic Games?

By Paul Niemann          Send a link to a friend

"Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

-- Special Olympics motto


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[AUG. 12, 2004]  As the Olympic Games open this Friday in Athens, Greece, we take a look at how the Olympics began more than 2,700 years ago. We look at four Summer Olympics sports with interesting origins, which means that we leave out any coverage of our favorite team -- the Jamaican bobsled team.

The very first Olympic Games took place in 776 B.C. in Olympia, Greece; hence the name "Olympics." The winners at the first Olympic Games received an olive tree wreath and a hero's return to their city-states. Victory was considered to be the highest honor a mortal could attain. Three-time winners became exempt from taxation, and they had statues made of themselves. Special coins were struck to commemorate equestrian victories.

Only four sports have been featured at every modern Olympic Games, which began in 1896: track and field, fencing, weight lifting and cycling. Others, such as tug of war, rugby, polo, lacrosse and golf, were once played in the Olympics but have since been discontinued. Here's a brief primer on the origins of several popular Olympic sports:

The modern pentathlon

Before we get to the modern pentathlon, we have to go back to the ancient pentathlon, which made its debut in 708 B.C. The ancient pentathlon consisted of the discus throw, the javelin, the long jump, the stadium-length race and wrestling.

The modern pentathlon was introduced in the Stockholm Olympic Games of 1912 by the fonder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. In the modern pentathlon, barely resembling the original version, contestants must shoot, fence, swim, compete in show jumping and run.

Why these five events? Legend has it that a young cavalry officer was ordered to deliver a message on horseback. The officer had to fend off the enemy with his sword and pistol, but his horse was shot in the process, leaving him to swim and run the rest of the way to deliver the message.

Believe me when I tell you that the other three origins can't top that one, so no one will blame you if you switch over to the comics now.


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Beach volleyball

This two-on-two sport traces its origin back to California in the 1920s, when there were six players on each side. Matches played with two people per team first occurred in 1930. Beach volleyball was played in France as early as 1927, also with six players per team, and it spread to Bulgaria, the former Czechoslovakia and the former USSR a few years later. American soldiers helped spread it to even more countries during World War II. Beach volleyball made its Olympic debut at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta and is one of the most popular events at the Olympics.

Table tennis

The exact origin of table tennis is unknown, but it's believed that it was first played by using cigar box lids for paddles and a carved champagne cork for a ball. The sport was originally named "pingpong" because of the sound the ball makes when it hits the table. Table tennis debuted at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.


While games involving the kicking of a ball have been around for thousands of years, modern soccer, known everywhere outside of America as football, originated in England during the eighth century. English sailors spread the game worldwide in the 1800s. Today, it is the most popular sport in the world.

Soccer (sorry, but I just can't get used to calling it football) made its Olympic debut as a demonstration sport in the 1896 Athens Olympics. It became an official Olympic sport in the 1908 London Olympics, and it took only 88 years for the women's game to be included in the Olympics, at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where the American women's team won the gold medal.

Let the games begin!

P.S. If you're interested in volunteering to work with the Special Olympics, please visit www.SpecialOlympics.org or call (202) 628-3630 for information.

[Paul Niemann]

Invention Mysteries is written each week by Paul Niemann. To see Paul's list of the nine greatest inventions of all time, go to www.InventionMysteries.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2004

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