The Olympics have changed considerably since their humble beginnings in ancient Greece. At first, only Greeks were allowed to compete; now the Olympics are a worldwide event. The ancient Greek Olympics had few events in comparison to their modern incarnation. No winter sports existed, and while individual competition dominated the ancient Olympics, the modern version includes team sports, such as basketball. Nevertheless, one thing has remained constant throughout history, and that is that sprinting has always played an important part in the Olympics.
The first Greek Olympics took place in 776 B.C. It lasted for one day and featured sacrifices in honor of the Greek gods, especially Zeus. The only athletic event was a sprint from one end of the race course to the other. It was called a stadion, or stade, and its distance was about 630 feet. This single running race continued to be the only athletic event in several successive Olympics.
Like their modern counterpart, the Greek Olympics occurred every four years. The four-year period between Olympic Games became a Greek measure of time called the Olympiad. For about 400 years, each Olympiad was named after the athlete who had won the running race in the last Olympics. For example, because an athlete named Koroibos was the victor in the first Olympics in 776, the subsequent four-year period was called the Olympiad of Koroibos.
Expansion of Olympics
Eventually the Olympics became a five-day event and included other contests, such as boxing and the pentathlon. In the pentathlon, the athlete participated in five events, including a sprint. There was also a sprint twice as long as a stade. However, the original stade continued to be the chief event, and its popularity continued until Emperor Theodosius I abolished the games in 394 A.D.
Early Revival Attempts
The French tried to revive the Olympics during the French Revolution. Contests were held three years in a row from 1796 to 1798. The French had recently invented the metric system, so for the first time, Olympic athletes competed on race tracks measured in meters. Running races were also included in other attempts to revive the Olympics, such as the Grand Olympic Festival, which took place in Liverpool during the 1860s. Greece also attempted to revive the Olympics at about the same time. This revival, called the Olympia of Zappas, featured a re-enactment of the ancient stade sprint.
When the modern Olympic Games began in 1896, sprinters ran a 100-meter dash and a 400-meter dash. A 200-meter dash was added in the 1900 Olympics, and teams of four sprinters began to run relay races in the 1912 Olympics. Women’s sprint events were added in the 1928 Olympics. The format of the races changed. Ropes, which originally separated the sprinting lanes, were eventually discarded. Olympic sprinters first started races from an upright position, sometimes with starting gates that opened up when the race began, but starting blocks were introduced in the 1948 Olympics, and runners now start from a crouched position. Running conditions have improved. In 1956, Olympic sprinters began to run on synthetic tracks and sports apparel became lighter and more user-friendly. Performance has improved over the years. For example, in the 1986 Olympics, Thomas Burke won the 100-meter dash in a time of 12.0 seconds, but in 2008, Usain Bolt ran it in 9.69 seconds to set a world record.