21 key moments in the history of the modern Olympics

From Coubertin to Comăneci and from Spitz to Super Saturday, the modern Olympics have undeniably come a long way in 125 years...

A runner is helped across a finish line

1896

The brainchild of Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, the first modern Olympics are held in Athens. There are no gold medals; the winners each receive a silver medal, an olive branch and a diploma.

Advertisement

1900

The modern Olympics move to France for their second incarnation. Denied entry four years earlier, female athletes are permitted to take part for the first time.

1908

In the men’s marathon at the London Olympics, Italian chef Dorando Pietri is first to finish, despite collapsing five times in the last 400 metres. He is disqualified for being helped over the line.

1928

The eternal flame, the potent symbol of Olympic ideals, is lit for the first time. The torch relay isn’t introduced for another eight years.

1936

Adolf Hitler wants to use the Berlin Olympics as proof of Aryan racial superiority, a notion undone by black American athlete Jesse Owens who collects four gold medals.

Jesse Owens. (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Jesse Owens, who collected four gold mediates at the 1936 Olympic Games. (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

1948

In the first Olympics since World War II (dubbed the ‘Austerity Games’), Dutch mother-of-two Fanny Blankers-Koen comfortably wins four track-and-field golds at Wembley Stadium.

Fanny Blankers-Koen at the 1948 Olympics. (Image by Getty Images)
Fanny Blankers-Koen at the 1948 Olympics. (Image by Getty Images)

1952

At the Helsinki Games, the Czech runner Emil Zátopek performs an extraordinary feat – winning the 5,000m, the 10,000m and the marathon. It is the first time that he has raced over 26.2 miles.

1956

In a water polo encounter known as the ‘Blood In The Water’ match, violence erupts between players from Hungary and the Soviet Union. It comes just a month after an uprising against Soviet control of Hungary is viciously suppressed.

A polo player bleeds from the head
In 1956, violence erupted between players from Hungary and the Soviet Union. (Image by Getty Images)

1960

In Rome, Abebe Bikila wins sub-Saharan Africa’s first-ever Olympic gold when he triumphs in the men’s marathon. And, rather incredibly, the Ethiopian athlete did so barefoot.

What to read more about the history of the Olympics? Here are some of our most popular articles…

1964

75,000 visitors gathered in the National Stadium for the opening ceremony in Tokyo, Japan. It was the expensive opening ceremony in the history of the Games thus far, blending cutting-edge innovation with a revamped Japanese traditionalism. During the 1964 games, there was live broadcasting for the first time (and in full colour, too), the recording of results on computers, and “photo finish” technology

1968

In the thin air of high-altitude Mexico City, American long jumper Bob Beamon smashes the world record by nearly two feet. The jump is actually further than the measuring equipment can reach.

1972

American swimmer Mark Spitz wins seven gold medals in the pool, but the Munich Games are overshadowed by the killing of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists.

1976

In the gymnastics hall at the Montreal Olympics, the Romanian Nadia Comăneci becomes the first Olympian to be awarded a perfect 10 score.

Gymnast Nadia Comaneci performs a routine on the balance beam
Nadia Comaneci of Romania performs her routine on the balance beam during the 1976 Olympics. (Photo by Don Morley/Getty Images)

1980

The US boycotts the Moscow Olympics in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On the track, the long-awaited, two-race duel between British middle-distance runners Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe ends with a gold medal apiece.

1984

Carl Lewis emulates his compatriot Jesse Owens’ 1936 feat by winning gold in the same four events – 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay.

Carl Lewis holds an American Flag
Carl Lewis celebrates his win. (Image by Getty Images)

1988

Canadian Ben Johnson smashes the world 100m record, but is stripped of the title three days later after failing a drugs test.

A row of runners sprint for the finish line
Canadian Ben Johnson breaks from the pack during the 100 meter race of the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. (Image by Getty Images)

1992

With professional basketball players now allowed to compete at the Olympics, the US draws its team for Barcelona from the NBA. Containing the likes of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, they unsurprisingly coast to glory.

1996

Andre Agassi is victorious in the men’s tennis tournament at the Atlanta Games, the first man to win all four Grand Slam tournaments and Olympic gold.

Andre Agassi celebrates his gold medal
Andre Agassi, the first man to win all four Grand Slam tournaments and Olympic gold. (Image by Getty Images)

2000

In Sydney, 400m runner Cathy Freeman becomes the first Aboriginal Australian to win an Olympic track title. In rowing, Steve Redgrave takes gold for a fifth successive Olympics.

2008

Jamaica’s Usain Bolt dominates the headlines at the Beijing Olympics, becoming the only man to break both the 100m and 200m world records at the same Games.

Sprinter Usain Bolt celebrates on a running track
Jamaica’s sprinter, Usain Bolt. (Image by Getty Images)

2012

The home nation has plenty to celebrate in London on the day now forever known as ‘Super Saturday’. In the space of an hour, three British athletes – Jessica Ennis (heptathlon), Greg Rutherford (long jump) and Mo Farah (10,000m) – all take gold.

Jessica Ennis celebrates on the podium with her gold medal
Gold medalist Britain’s Jessica Ennis celebrates on the podium of the heptathlon during the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Image by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/GettyImages)
Advertisement

This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed