A history of the world in 101/2 inches: 17 The Olympic Games

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Nobody knows when the first Olympic Games took place. There was certainly such a festival at Olympia in 776BC, after which it became a regular four-yearly event, but there is a good deal of evidence that the Games had been going on for some time before that, if sporadically.

The Greeks even calculated their calendar in "Olympiads" - periods of four years between successive celebrations of the Games, and for that purpose, 776BC was taken as the first year of the first Olympiad. (The use of the word "Olympiad" to describe the competition itself is an error that dates back at least to the 16th century.) The 293rd Olympiad ended in AD393, when the Roman emperor Theodosius banned the Games because they were becoming too pagan.

The earliest known Olympic gold medallist (actually it was an olive wreath) was Coroibus of Elis, a cook who won a 200-yard foot race. This sprint down the length of the stadium was apparently the only athletics event in the early Games, though a second race, over twice the distance, was added at the 14th Olympics. There were, however, also competitions in music, oratory and theatre. The accent shifted to physical prowess only when the Spartans joined in during the 18th Olympics, bringing a pentathlon of running, jumping, wrestling, the javelin and discus-throwing to the event.

The earliest Games had been held to honour Zeus, and, because of the intense religious connotations, included a ceasefire in all wars in the region. It was the growth of competition for personal gain and glory, particularly in the chariot races, that led Theodosius to call a halt.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) brought the games back in 1896, when 13 countries competed in Athens. The United States won nine of the 12 track and field gold medals. The Olympics have since been held every four years, except for the war years of 1916, 1940 and 1944, though not without considerable teething troubles. In 1900, the Olympics was merely a sideshow at the World Exhibition in Paris and dragged on over five months. In 1904, the Americans squabbled so much over whether they should be held in Chicago or St Louis that most European nations stayed at home. The event was revived with the "Intercalated Games" of 1906 in Athens, which set the Olympic movement back on track for the highly successful London Olympics of 1908 (at which the English protested about the Irish flag, the Russians complained about the Finnish Flag and everybody complained about the British judges and referees).

The best dispute came in the tug of war, when the Americans complained that the Liverpool Police team which beat them in the first round had been using illegal boots. The Americans promptly walked out, leaving Britain to take gold, silver and bronze medals with their teams from City Police, Liverpool Police and K Division Metropolitan Police. One of the winning team, Frederick Humphreys, won another gold medal in the last ever Olympic tug of war in 1920.

Other events of which little has been seen in recent Olympics include cricket, at which Britain beat France - the only other team that entered - in Paris 1900; and croquet, at which France won all the medals in 1900.

Although there had been women's archery events in the 1904 Olympics, and women's swimming in 1912, there were no track and field events for women until 1928. Women had been banned completely from the Ancient Olympics, even as spectators.

Other useful Olympic facts:

Longest-standing record: Bob Beamon's long jump in 1968.

Records still held by Britons: 1500 metres (Sebastian Coe, 1980) and decathlon (Daley Thompson, 1984).

Most unlikely quote: "The Americans are such good losers," said by David Cecil, Baron Burghley, after winning the 400 metres hurdles in 1928.