The modern Olympic programme

One of the confusing things about the modern Olympics, for a casual observer, is the constant introduction of new sports. The list of Olympic events has a slightly arbitrary look: it’s hard to see the rationale for including some sports ahead of others. One factor is the principle that an Olympic sport must be widely practised around the world, but that doesn’t explain everything.

Rugby is due to be re-introduced in 2016, as rugby sevens. Rugby union was an Olympic event until 1924–here’s the US Olympic rugby team from 1920:

The same goes for golf (which was included in 1900 and 1904). But why don’t we have Olympic snooker or squash or karate? Why don’t we still hand out Olympic medals in the tug-of-war? (this photo from the 1904 Olympics).

And why don’t we have Olympic cricket? Admittedly the precedents for cricket in the Olympics aren’t very promising. It was included once, in 1900. Originally the plan was a four-way tournament between England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Eventually there was just one match (two days and twelve-a-side) between England and France, when the other two pulled out. England (represented by the ‘Devon County Wanderers’) beat France (represented by ‘All Paris’–many of whom were actually British residents living in Paris) by 158 runs:

But cricket now surely qualifies as a sport played right around the world, very much more so than it did then. This page has the full list of ‘associate’ and ‘affiliate’ members of the ICC (currently 96 of them, if I have counted right: Argentina, Belgium, Bermuda, Botswana, Canada etc. etc.)

Ancient festival programmes

It’s tempting to imagine that this constant adjustment of the Olympic programme wouldn’t have happened in the ancient games, where tradition was so important, but actually there are lots of similarities.

Admittedly the situation was different in some ways just because there was a much smaller number of events competing for entry. One reason for the variations in the modern programme is simply the fact that there are so many sports, each with its own governing bodies pushing for entry. The ancient world just didn’t have so many sports.

But if we put that difference aside, there are plenty of similarities. There is a lot of evidence for programmes being adjusted from year to year in the many hundreds of smaller-scale festivals which were dotted around the Mediterranean world. Usually those changes would have been on the initiative of the festival funders and organisers, but they might sometimes have required a process of debate and negotiation involving city officials and others.

Even the biggest and most famous festivals were open to variation.

The Olympic programme was pretty conservative later in its history, from the second century BC onwards. But over the first half of its history there was a process of pretty frequent adjustment. It’s hard to reconstruct the rationale for these adjustments. But it’s clear that the Olympics started just with running events: first of all just the stadion (200m approx.), then the diaulos (400m) and dolichos (long-distance race) added 40 or 50 years later.

The first combat events are said to have been introduced in 704 B.C., then several varieties of horse race and boys’ events in the following centuries, the last being the boys’ pankration introduced in the Olympics of 200 B.C.

Plutarch and the Pythian programme

The athletic and (especially) the musical events of the Pythian festival at Delphi were adjusted even in later centuries (e.g., see here on the introduction of contests in ‘pantomime’ dancing in the Roman period).

The philosopher Plutarch was an official at Delphi in the late first and early second century AD, and gives us a glimpse of how these changes must have been debated in the festival’s governing body (in this case in relation to the musical/literary competitions):

At the Pythian festival there was a debate about whether the newer competitions ought to be eliminated…Some thought that the prose writers and poets especially ought to be excluded from the festival…During the Council meeting I tried to dissuade those who wished to change established practices and who found fault with the festival as if it were a musical instrument with too many strings and too many notes…

Some of Plutarch’s fellow council members want to sweep away all the new and inauthentic additions (some viewers of the modern games might sympathise) but Plutarch speaks out for variety.


We get here just a small glimpse of the organisational complexity of ancient festivals–also its debates and power struggles. Those things are not unique to the modern world. We can also see how tradition was always accompanied by innovation in the ancient Olympic and Pythian festivals. These festivals ran for an astonishingly long time–more than 1000 years. They were highly traditional occasions, symbols of the connections between the Greek past and the Greek present. But their organisers were not afraid to keep on changing them and improving them in response to changing tastes. The changes we see every four years in the modern Olympic programme are surely not so different.