From Olympia to Sydney.

This year's summer Olympic Games take place in Sydney, Australia, from September 15 to October 1. Since the modern games were started over a hundred years ago they have become the world's biggest sporting event, with a television audience of around half of the world's population. The Sydney Games open a new era where the sky is the limit.

The ancient Olympic Games began in Greece in the eighth century BC and continued for 1,200 years. In 393 AD, when Greece was under Roman occupation, they were banned by the Christian Emperor Theodosius, who viewed them as a pagan festival, and disappeared for the next millennium and a half. In the late 1800s they were revived by Frenchman Baron Pierre de Courbertin who single-handedly conceived the idea and worked towards its fulfilment. His efforts succeeded, and the first Olympics of modern times were held in Athens in 1896.

Ancient legends

There are many different legends about the beginnings of the Olympics. The most popular relates that the guardians of the infant god Zeus held a foot race to celebrate Zeus's victory over his father Cronus for control of the world. The Games at Olympia in the western Peloponnesus were originally held as a religious festival.

The earliest recorded Olympics were held in 776 BC. They lasted a single day and were held every four years during the months of July or August. For the first thirteen Olympics, the competition consisted of a single race of 200 yards, approximately the length of the stadium. The race was called the 'Stade', from which the word 'stadium' was derived. Later they consisted of ten events: running, the pentathlon, jumping, discus, javelin, wrestling, boxing, the pancration (a combination of boxing and wrestling), chariot racing and horse racing. Winners would be awarded crowns of olive leaves and statues would be built to honour them.

Athletics was an important part of many religious festivals in ancient Greek culture. The original Games were held in honour of the spirits of the dead. In Homer's Iliad, for example, the famous warrior Achilles holds games as part of the funeral services for his friend Patroclus.

A truce was announced before and during each of the ancient Olympics to allow visitors to travel safely to Olympia. All male Greeks who were free citizens had the right to take part in the Games. Not only were women not permitted to compete, married women were also barred from attending the games under penalty of death.

World peace

The torch relay before the Games begin symbolizes the transmission of Olympic ideals from ancient Greece to the modern world. The torch is lit in Olympia and is carried to the host city by a series of runners. After the last runner has lit the Olympic Flame in the main Olympic stadium, the host country's head of state declares the Games officially open, and doves are released to symbolize the hope of world peace.

The Olympic Flag, with its five interlocking rings of different colours, represents unity among the nations of Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, and Europe.

In the modern Games the opening ceremony includes the parade of nations, in which the teams from each nation enter the main stadium in a procession. The Greek team always enters first, to commemorate the ancient origins of the modern Games, and the team of the host nation always enters last.

Chronicle of the modern

The first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896, but the real popularity and significance was reached after World War I.

At the Antwerp Games in 1920 the Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi, the "Flying Finn", won three of his nine career gold medals. At the 1924 Games in Paris, Nurmi was again the outstanding athlete. The American swimmer Johnny Weissmuller won 3 gold medals. At the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, Weissmuller won another three swimming gold medals. He would later become Hollywood's most famous Tarzan.

The most celebrated athlete of the 1932 Games in Los Angeles was Babe Didrikson. She won the 80-meter hurdles race and the javelin event, establishing new world records in both disciplines.

At the Berlin Games of 1936 the American, Jesse Owens won three individual events and added a fourth gold medal in the 4x100-meter relay. The 1940 and 1944 Olympics, scheduled for Tokyo and London, were cancelled because of World War II.

In the 1960s African runners, e.g. Wilson Kiprigut of Kenya and Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia dominated the Olympics and athletes from Eastern Europe were successful in gymnastics and weightlifting. In 1960 (Rome), 1964 (Tokyo), and 1968 (Mexico City) boxing gold medallists were from the United States, such as Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali), Joe Frazier, and George Foreman.

The Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut was the star of the 1972 Games in Munich. She won three gold medals. Four years later, at the Montreal Games, Nadia Comaneci of Romania was the first gymnast ever to achieve the perfect score of 10.00.

The most outstanding performance at the 1976 Games came from the East German women's swimming team, which won 11 of 13 races. East Germany, with a population of about 16 million people, won 40 gold medals. In contrast, the United States, with a population of more than 200 million, won 34 gold medals. However, the press is now beginning to reveal cases of won lawsuits against the former East German authorities which forced its successful athletes to use stereiods.

At the Moscow Games in 1980, with 62 nations boycotting, the Soviet team easily managed to gather 80 gold, 69 silver, 46 bronze medals.

In 1984 the American Carl Lewis emerged as the greatest track-and-field athlete of his time. At the 1988 Games in Seoul Lewis repeated his victory in the long jump and was awarded gold in the 100-meter race after Ben Johnson was disqualified. The American athlete, Florence Griffith Joyner, more famous for her flamboyant outfits and make-up worn on the track, won the 100-meter and 200-meter races and was a member of the winning 4x100-meter relay team. At the 1996 Games the American Michael Johnson won gold medals in the 200- and 400-meter dashes.

The future

What will this year's Olympics in Sydney bring? Shortly, we will know. Despite the fact that the Games' image and its ideals were often tarnished by the occurrence of political rivalry, professionalism, drug taking, sponsorship and corruption, one thing we can be sure of: the thrill of competing and the joy of watching the competitions will always be as vital and uncorrupted today as it was when the ancient Greeks took to the arena.

Joe Harper