The History of the Olympic Games - Ancient & Modern

Host Cities
of the
Olympic Games

Harvey Abrams, BS, MAT, Ph.d/abd.

Updated June 25, 2015
These pages are dedicated to K & A.

Introduction - A Brief Summary

  • The modern Olympic Games are always hosted by a city - not by a country.
  • The ancient Olympic Games were always hosted by the Elians at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia.
  • The first modern Olympic Games were hosted by Athens (Greece) in 1896.
  • The first ancient Olympic Games started sometime between 1100 - 780 BCE, not in 776 BCE. However all records were lost in ancient times -- even the ancient Greeks didn't know when they actually started.
    The first recorded victor in the ancient Olympic Games was designated by Hippias of Elis to be the first year of the the 1st Olympiad, calculated by modern historians to be the year 776 BCE.
  • The most recent celebration of the modern summer Olympic Games was hosted by London (England / Great Britain / United Kingdom) in 2012.
  • The most recent celebration of the winter Olympic Games was hosted by Sochi (Russia) in 2014.
  • The next celebration of the modern summer Olympic Games will be hosted by Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) in 2016.
  • The next celebration of the winter Olympic Games will be hosted by in PyeongChang (South Korea) in 2018.
  • The 2020 summer Olympic Games will be hosted by Tokyo (Japan). The decision was made by the International Olympic Committee at the 125th IOC session held on September 7, 2013 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • The 2022 winter Olympic Games will be hosted by a city to be selected at a meeting of the IOC on July 31, 2015. There are three cities in the final selection phase of the bidding process: Oslo (Norway), Almaty (Kazakhstan) and Beijing (China).
  • There are several cities worldwide that will apply to host the 2024 summer Olympic Games.

    Read more details about the bidding process at the IOC web site: Host City Election News

Ancient Olympic Games Host Cities

  • Olympia
  • Rome

    With only one exception, the ancient Olympic Games were always in the same place -- OLYMPIA -- a sacred precinct in the western part of the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece. OLYMPIA itself was not a town, but a religious site. Today the ancient site is still its own tiny entity and nearby - within walking distance - there is a small town of "Olympia" with a population of under 1,200 people, with hotels, a museum, restaurants, etc. The nearby town of ELIS is within the region known as ELIS.

    A bit confusing, but think of it this way - this region would be similar to a "county" in any one of the states in the USA, with the town having the same name. The town of Elis is in the region of Elis. (So compare it to the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania which is also the COUNTY of Philadelphia, one of 67 counties in the state of Pennsylvania. Whereas Pittsburgh is only one part of ALLEGHENY COUNTY in western Pennsylvania).

Greece (above)
Ancient Olympia (below)

The map above shows all of Greece with the Peloponnese in the lower part in yellow. The orange island at the bottom is Crete. The pink islands on the right are all part of Greece and this is where many tourists travel today when they take cruises to the Greek Islands.

The gray area at right is Turkey. Two thousand years ago this gray region was part of Greece and under their influence and control. Troy was there. Then the Romans conquered the Greeks and it became part of the Roman Empire. When Rome collapsed in the 5th century CE this region was called the Byzantine Empire, and then they controlled most of Greece. But then in 1453 this region was conquered by the Muslim Ottomans and it became known as the Ottoman Empire and then they controlled Greece for over 450 years.

The Ottoman Empire ended in 1922, following World War I, and this gray area at right became the nation of Turkey. To this day there remains tension between the Greeks at left and the Turks at right.

The Olympic Games in the ancient era took place in the Peloponnese (yellow) and attracted Greeks from the entire Greek world - and they all walked to Olympia. The modern Olympic Games took place in Athens (red area) in 1896, 1906 and 2004. Istanbul, Turkey was one of the three finalist cities bidding to host the Olympic Games of 2020 butt Tokyo (Japan) was selected to be the host city.

This is a more detailed map of the Peloppenese peninsula, the yellow part from the map above.
Click on this image to see the details on this map.
Then CLICK AGAIN and the map gets huge.
Look for PYRGOS in larger letters and then look to the right for OLYMPIA.

Honoring ZEUS

Two Ancient Greek coins: silver diskobolos (left) and gold Greek God ZEUS (right).

The Olympic Games were not just a sports event like today - it was a serious religious event, a FESTIVAL that honored the Greek God ZEUS. The ancient Olympic Games were hosted by the ELIANS who were the guardians of the religious sanctuary to Zeus. As hosts they tried -- and succeeded for a few hundred years -- to be neutral, that is, not allied to other Greek city-states, similar to modern day Switzerland. But in the fifth century BCE (480 BCE) they allied themselves with Sparta and warred against their neighbors. The Elians lost control of the sanctuary to the Spartans, then to other Greek city-states, then finally to the conquering Romans. In 80 BCE the Roman general Sulla moved the Olympic Games to Rome and only a single race for boys was held at Olympia, the stade race. But then Sulla died and the next Olympic Games returned to Olympia in 76 BCE. The Games stayed in Olympia until they were banished along with all other "pagan" festivals by Roman Emperor Theodosius I in 393 CE.

The Ancient Greek Calendar:

The ancient Olympic Games and the modern Olympic Games are QUADRENNIAL events, meaning they are held every four years. This four year period of time is known as an OLYMPIAD.

To the ancient Greeks it (an OLYMPIAD) was their calendar, a way of designating time. However, this calendar was not used by every Greek city-state and there is great difficulty in studying ancient history because of the calendar and modern attempts to "date" things. There was no accurate dating system in the ancient era and every civilization used a different calendar system. There were calendars for the Babylonians, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans and many others. The one thing they all had in common was that they were conquered by the Romans. As the Roman empire grew, there was a need for a more common system. Julius Caesar created the Julian calendar in 46 BCE.

Our modern calendar is based upon revisions to the ancient Roman Julian calendar that were made and instituted by the Catholic Church in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. This revised calendar is known as the Gregorian Calendar. Using this revised calendar from 1582 becomes an issue when trying to date the ancient Greek Olympiads from 776 BCE, which was year "one" of the 1st Olympiad.

To make it very simple to understand -- your birthdate this year would not have been the same date in ancient Greek times.

  • Just as in ancient Greece, the modern Olympic Games are held every four years.
  • Both Ancient and modern Olympic Games are held at the beginning of the Olympiad.
  • The 1st ancient Olympic Games were held in year "1" of the 4 year Olympiad (1st Olympiad) and we now date this as 776 BCE.
  • The 1st modern Olympiad began in 1896 when Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games and they were held in Athens. Therefore, these Games are referred to as The Games of the First Modern Olympiad. More specifically, the Games were held in "year one" of the "first modern Olympiad."
  • The 1st Modern OLYMPIAD were the years 1896, 1897, 1898 and 1899.
  • The 2nd Modern Olympiad were the years 1900, 1901, 1902 and 1903
  • The 3rd Modern Olympiad were the years 1904, 1905, 1906 and 1907
  • The 4th Modern Olympiad were the years 1908, 1909, 1910 and 1911
  • Go ahead and make your own list of all the Modern Olympiads and fill in the host city from the list below.
During the early years of the Modern Olympic Movement there was a disagreement over who should host the Olympic Games. The Greek Government wanted the Games in Athens permanently. But Pierre de Coubertin, the French "founder" of the Modern Olympic Games, wanted the Games to rotate around the world to major sporting cities. Coubertin actually wanted the Olympic Games to start in Paris in 1900 but the Greeks were so insistent he agreed to have the Games start earlier - in 1896, and hosted for the first time in Athens.

The Olympic Games of the second Olympiad were held in Paris, France and the Olympic Games of the third Olympiad were in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. The Greeks went ahead and scheduled their own Olympic Games in 1906, a tenth anniversary celebration of the 1896 Games. Coubertin was not happy about this because it broke the four year cycle of the Olympiad. HOWEVER, Coubertin was also worried that the Olympic Games might fail because he was not happy with the 1900 and 1904 Olympics that were part of World Fairs.

At that time - 1906 - these Athens Games were considered "official," in spite of the calendar - not being a QUADRENNIAL event. From an historical perspective - the 1906 Olympic Games must always be included in Olympic record keeping. They happened -- they cannot be ignored. However, they are not called the Games of the fourth Olympiad -- because the Games of the Fourth Olympiad were held in 1908 in London, England. Is this confusing you? Don't worry -- it was confusing to everyone back then too. The Greek government did not hold any future Olympic celebrations because it was to expensive. The modern Games have continued to be hosted in cities around the world. The Greeks tried to get the 1996 Games because it was the centennial (100th birthday) of the Olympic Games, but the Games were hosted in Atlanta (USA). However the next Olympic Games -- in 2004 -- were held in Athens, Greece.

From Ancient Olympic Games to Modern Olympic Games

The ancient Greeks celebrated their Olympic Games without interruption for over 1,000 years, from 776 BCE to 261 CE. Quite remarkable! After the year 261 CE it is unknown what happened to the Games because all the records have been lost. That means there are no papyrus scrolls, no vase paintings, no monuments with inscriptions that tell us what happened. There are no additional records in existing ancient Olympic "victor lists," which were "books" recorded by ancient historians and writers. Everything has been destroyed due to wars, fires and natural destruction such as earthquakes and floods. Actually -- the written record of the ancient Olympic Games just abruptly ends, probably because there was an invasion by the Heruli, a barbarian tribe from the coast of what is now southern Russia. Invading in a fleet of 500 ships they devastated Byzantium and Greece before the Romans forced them to retreat. The Elians erected defensive walls with towers around the Olympic sanctuary, but we had no evidence that any celebrations were held until historians found evidence in the 1990's.

There must have been something happening at Olympia. It must have remained a religious site to the Greek god Zeus. We know this because in the 1990's a bronze plaque was found that records the victors of boy's events in the Olympic Games of 381 CE and 385 CE. Then in 391 CE the Roman emperor Theodosius I, accepted the new religion known as Christianity as the official state religion of Rome. When he accepted Christianity he outlawed all pagan religious festivals throughout the Roman Empire.

Allow me to repeat that: Theodosius, a Roman Emperor, outlawed both the ancient Greek Gods and his own Roman Gods because he accepted the new religion of Christianity for his empire. Christian priests then took ancient Greek and Roman temples and converted them to Christian churches, some of which can still be visited to this day.

It is frequently written that the last Games held at Olympia were in 393 CE, but there is no evidence to support this. It is known that in 393 CE the Roman army was sent to Olympia to destroy the religious site in order to prevent the Greeks from having their pagan festivals. By 395 CE it is known that the great statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, had been removed to a Roman palace in Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Empire. Sadly for us this ancient statue was destroyed in a fire in 462 CE. We have an idea what it looked like because of the many images that have appeared on ancient Greek silver and gold coins.

But evidence has been found that there might have been later Olympic Games until 425 CE. In 426 CE Theodosius II, grandson of Theodosius I, issued an edict to destroy all pagan temples, which we assume had already been done by Theodosius I in 393 CE. Such edicts by a Roman emperor 33 years later indicates that the Greeks may have continued some festivals through the years, but there is no historical evidence to support this theory about the Olympic Games...no written records or victor lists, no descriptions in ancient Roman written books, no reliefs or carvings on stones or bronze markers. We are guessing about why an army would be sent to Olympia again.

The temple of Zeus at Olympia was burned to the ground. Rome itself had already been sacked by Allaric and the Visigoths in 410 CE. The "Dark Ages" had begun. Keep in mind that all these dates have been calculated by historians who have tried to use mathematics to "date" events. To study this problem of dating ancient events you would need to read more about the history of calendars.

For a much more detailed site on the history of calendars go here: The Greek Calendar and the index page for more calendar topics at: History of the Western Calendar.

Almost 1500 years had passed when Pierre de Coubertin, of France, organized a revival of the ancient Olympic Games and the first celebration was held in Athens, Greece in 1896. In the first 50 years of the Modern Games they have been cancelled three times. In 1916 the Games were scheduled to be in Berlin (Germany) but were cancelled due to World War I. In both 1940 and 1944 the Olympic Games were cancelled due to World War II. They were supposed to be hosted by Tokyo (Japan) and when the Japanese cancelled the Games an alternate city was chosen - Helsinki (Finland). But in 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Finland and for the second time the Olympic Games were cancelled.

In 1980 the United States led a boycott of the Moscow Olympics and in 1984 the Soviets retaliated and led a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics.

Wars, politics, corruption -- these are forces that affect the modern Olympic Games as much as they affected the ancient Olympic Games. It affects the Host of the Games and it affects the calendar. Although an Olympiad cannot be cancelled because it is a period of time, the Games of an Olympiad can be cancelled.

Below is a list of the host cities of the Ancient and Modern Olympic Games with Arabic numbers being used as well as Roman numerals (21st Olympiad as well as XXI Olympiad).

The proper way to refer to any Modern Olympic Games celebration is to use the Roman numeral system:
  • The Olympic Games of the IV Olympiad
  • The proper way to say it is:
    "The Olympic Games of the fourth Olympiad."

The Olympiad only refers to the summer Olympic Games - not to the Winter Olympic Games. The winter Olympic Games were an afterthought and are not numbered within the Olympiad, they are only dated, such as the "Winter Olympic Games of 1928."

Host cities of the Ancient Olympic Games

(approximate dates):
  • 1100 BCE - 780 BCE - Olympia in the region of Elis (All ancient records were lost or destroyed)
  • 776 BCE 1st Olympiad - to 84 BCE Olympia (Dates started by Hippias, an ancient writer from Elis).
  • 80 BCE - Rome
  • 76 BCE - 393 CE - Olympia

Host cities of the Modern Olympic Games (Summer Games)

1896 - 1st Olympiad - I Olympiad - Athens, Greece
1900 - 2nd Olympiad - II Olympiad - Paris, France
1904 - 3rd Olympiad - III Olympiad - St. Louis, Missouri, USA
1906 - 3rd Olympiad, year 3 - III.3 Olympiad - Athens, Greece (sometimes called the "interim Games")
1908 - 4th Olympiad - IV Olympiad - London, England (Great Britain)
1912 - 5th Olympiad - V Olympiad - Stockholm, Sweden
1916 - 6th Olympiad - VI Olympiad - Cancelled - World War I (Scheduled for Berlin, Germany)
1920 - 7th Olympiad - VII Olympiad - Antwerp, Belgium
1924 - 8th Olympiad - VIII Olympiad - Paris, France
1928 - 9th Olympiad - IX Olympiad - Amsterdam, The Netherlands
1932 - 10th Olympiad - X Olympiad - Los Angeles, California, USA
1936 - 11th Olympiad - XI Olympiad - Berlin, Germany
1940 - 12th Olympiad - XII Olympiad - Cancelled, World War II (Scheduled for Tokyo, Japan. Then re-scheduled for Helsinki, Finland & cancelled a 2nd time)
1944 - 13th Olympiad - XIII Olympiad - Cancelled, World War II (London considered, but war continued)
1948 - 14th Olympiad - XIV Olympiad - London, England (Great Britain)
1952 - 15th Olympiad - XV Olympiad - Helsinki, Finland
1956 - 16th Olympiad - XVI Olympiad - Melbourne, Australia and Stockholm, Sweden (Horses were not permitted to be imported into Australia so the Equestrian events were in Stockholm)
1960 - 17th Olympiad - XVII Olympiad - Rome, Italy
1964 - 18th Olympiad - XVIII Olympiad - Tokyo, Japan
1968 - 19th Olympiad - XIX Olympiad - Mexico City, Mexico
1972 - 20th Olympiad - XX Olympiad - Munich, Germany
1976 - 21st Olympiad - XXI Olympiad - Montreal, Canada
1980 - 22nd Olympiad - XXII Olympiad - Moscow, Soviet Union (USSR)
1984 - 23rd Olympiad - XXIII Olympiad - Los Angeles, California, USA
1988 - 24th Olympiad - XXIV Olympiad - Seoul, South Korea
1992 - 25th Olympiad - XXV Olympiad - Barcelona, Spain
1996 - 26th Olympiad - XXVI Olympiad - Atlanta, Georgia, USA
2000 - 27th Olympiad - XXVII Olympiad - Sydney, Australia
2004 - 28th Olympiad - XXVIII Olympiad - Athens, Greece
2008 - 29th Olympiad - XXIX Olympiad - Beijing (also known as Peking), China
2012 - 30th Olympiad - XXX Olympiad - London, (England/Great Britain/United Kingdom)
2016 - 31st Olympiad - XXXI Olympiad - Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
2020 - 32nd Olympiad - XXXII Olympiad - Tokyo (Japan)
2024 - 33rd Olympiad - XXXIII Olympiad - Four cities have announced their plans to bid to host these Games: Boston (USA), Hamburg (Germany), Rome (Italy) and Paris (France). Other cities are still considering whether or not to submit bids.

Host cities of the Winter Olympic Games

1924 - Chamonix, France
1928 - St. Moritz, Switzerland
1932 - Lake Placid, New York, USA
1936 - Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
1940 - Cancelled due to World War II (Scheduled for Sapporo, Japan. Then re-scheduled for Garmisch-Partenkirchen & cancelled a 2nd time)
1944 - Cancelled due to World War II
1948 - St. Moritz, Switzerland
1952 - Oslo, Norway
1956 - Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy
1960 - Squaw Valley, California, USA
1964 - Innsbruck, Austria
1968 - Grenoble, France
1972 - Sapporo, Japan
1976 - Innsbruck, Austria
1980 - Lake Placid, New York, USA
1984 - Sarajevo, Yugoslavia
1988 - Calgary, Alberta, Canada
1992 - Albertville, France

The International Olympic Committee then decided to change the schedule of the Winter Olympic Games and hold them two years after the Summer Olympic Games. This decision was made because they were having difficulty evaluating both summer and winter bid cities within a short period of time. So two years after the Winter Olympic Games at Albertville there was another Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer. After these Winter Games a four year cycle of time elapsed before the next Winter Olympic Games. NOTE that this four year cycle is not called an Olympiad - a term used ONLY for the summer cycle of four years. Therefore the Winter Olympic Games take place in year 3 of the Olympiad.

1994 - Lillehammer, Norway
1998 - Nagano, Japan
2002 - Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
2006 - Torino, Italy
2010 - Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
2014 - Sochi, Russia
2018 - PyeongChang South Korea
2022 - Three cities were bidding: Oslo (Norway), Almaty (Kazakhstan) and Beijing (China) but Oslo has dropped out, leaving just two (2) bid cities.

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Created on Sunday, August 27, 2000
Updated October 15, 2007
Updated March 16, 2012
Updated September 30, 2012
Updated October 11, 2012
Updated September 7, 2013
Updated August 20, 2014
Updated May 27, 29 2015
Updated June 25, 2015
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Copyright © 2000, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 Harvey Abrams. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the expressed written permission of the author. Or the wrath of Zeus will be upon you.