Olympic Games: Past and Present

Posted on

It doesn't feel like any time has passed since we were last waving our GB flags and sharing in the patriotic spirit for the London Olympics in 2012. All of a sudden, the Rio 2016 Olympics has sprung upon us and we're preparing ourselves for some quality telly time with the favourites including Mo Farah, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Tom Dalley in his itty bitty speedos. In preparation for the world's leading sports contest, we're taking a look at the Games' history and the iconic artistry that accompanies it.

Words by Sophie Soar

A Legendary Game

Unlike the modern Games we know and love today, the roots of Olympic sporting history are much older and vastly different to the current glorious Games of rowdy spectators and doping. The origins of the contest are found in the city of Olympia during the Ancient Greek era.

The event was a religious one, honouring Zeus and Pelops, the mythical king of Olympia. The Games undoubtedly drew a crowd with a fair few goddesses parading about their finest Grecian bling of Versace-esque Hellenic pendants and coiling serpent cuffs. Aphrodite eat your heart out!

Archaeologists found inscriptions in Olympia that lists the runners of a footrace in 776BC, which has led many to agree this to be the year the Games started. These are believed to have spun from 8th century BC to 4th century AD.

According to legend, it was in fact Hercules, the son of Zeus and our favourite Disney hunk, who first labelled the Games as "Olympic" and set out the four-year custom. He is also credited for setting the length of a stadium by walking in a straight line for 200 steps… Not bad for a day's work.

Modern History

The creation of the modern Olympic sports event was inspired by the ancient Games held in Olympia. This was created by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), founded in 1894 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

Medals weren't always the order of the day for Olympic champs either. During the 1900 Olympics in Paris, winners received paintings instead of medals as the organisers thought them to be far more valuable than their preened and polished counterparts. Sacre bleu!

Coubertin envisioned the competition to solely provide a means for amateur sportsmen and women to participate in their preferred fields, however the contest now rests solely in the hands, feet, legs and muscle of professional athletes, not to mention their inordinate brand funding and high tech sportswear (sweat-free sock trainers anyone?).

Rumour has it that back in the day, the Ancient Greeks didn't have to worry about which bookies would offer up to sponsor them, as they competed in the nude. That's right... totally starkers! They would often oil themselves up to imitate the appearance of whichever gods they most aspired to.

The Games have also experienced a fair share of turbulence during its 122-year history. In 1916, 1940 and 1944, the Games were cancelled due to World wars and later in 1980 and 1984, the Games were boycotted during the Cold War, limiting participation.

The evolution of the contest altered significantly too with the explosion of mass media, which has since commercialised the Games; the contest amongst sports brands for sponsorships is a bloody fight. Sponsors compete for their place on the world stage, or rather, their place scrawled across the front of a sports bra.

However, this promotion technique provides a platform for the alternating host cities to showcase their cultures and countries to the world. After all, half a million visitors headed to our shores in July and August 2012, predominantly for the Olympics but also for those visiting Buckingham Palace, Westminster, the London Eye… Maybe even a couple of Rokit stores


As a part of the preparation and for the duration of the Olympic Games, there is another focus outside of the sport that rests alternatively on artwork. This includes the Olympic poster which is used to represent the host city, country and contemporary artists.

The poster usually evolves from an art competition that takes place within the host country, with strict guidelines for content. For London 2012, the likes of British favourites Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread and Martin Creed designed posters for both the Summer Olympics and the Paralympics. Their entries were exhibited as part of the London 2012 Festival and unveiled at the Tate Britain alongside the programme for the festival.

There have been 88 final posters to date, with distinct design shifts throughout time. In 1960, the poster design for the Winter Olympics moved the general look from ancient motives and sculptures to an approach based more around graphic design. It was then for the 1992 Winter Olympics that the design becomes more simple and abstract, closer resembling the Olympic posters we see today, or stare at, confusedly, in an attempt to decipher their meanings.

Rio 2016

With a total of 10,500 athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees participating for Rio, the contest is at its biggest and best yet. It is a record number of sports and athletes competing in the 306 sets of medals to be won, with the introduction of Rugby Sevens and golf. English Heritage is currently campaigning for jousting to become a new Olympic sport so who knows what 2020 could have in store?!

In amongst the political controversy sparked by the funding for the new stadium and the Russian athletes' ban, two countries, South Sudan and Kosovo, are debuting alongside two new independent teams: the Refugee Olympic Athletes to "show solidarity with the world's refugees" and an Independent Olympic Athletes team.

So our GB flags are ready, we have our beers on ice and for the lucky few, tickets have been bought. How will you be celebrating the Games this year?