The summer Olympics brings together athletes from almost every nation on Earth, but it also showcases sports from all over the planet. Did you know that surfing has its origins in Hawaii, or that boxing was first recorded in what is now Iraq? Meanwhile, basketball and volleyball were invented within 10 miles, and four years of one another.
We’ve chosen 16 events from the modern Summer Olympics to show just how internationally diverse the competition is. We’ve generally chosen sports that have a definitive origin, rather than pursuits such as running, jumping and swimming, which are universal and ancient.
Country of origin: India
How it started: Feathered weights resembling shuttlecocks have been batted about all over the world for centuries. More structured games resembling badminton are first documented in the 19th century. The modern game is often traced to Poona in the Indian State of Maharashtra, where British officers developed some of the rules. These were later transplanted back to England, where the game took off. The curious name comes from the Duke of Beaufort’s home of Badminton House in Gloucestershire, England - yet, oddly, nobody is quite sure why.
First Olympics: Despite its huge popularity around the world, badminton didn’t make it to the Olympics until Munich 1972, and only then as a demonstration sport. It was fully accepted to the Olympics at Barcelona 1992.
Country of origin: USA (Massachusetts)
How it started: It’s no surprise to learn that basketball was invented in America, the country where it still enjoys enormous popularity. It was a Canadian, though - PE teacher James Naismith - who invented the game. Naismith, working at what is now Springfield College, Massachusetts, laid down the rules in 1891, using the game as a way to keep students active indoors during wet weather. A soccer ball was used for early games. Curiously, the Olympic sport of volleyball was invented just 10 miles away in 1895.
First Olympics: The sport has been bouncing around at the Olympics since first featuring as a demonstration game in 1904. It reappeared in 1924, and settled into a permanent fixture in Berlin 1936.
Country of origin: Hawaii
How it started: Although long associated with California, the first recorded game took place on Waikiki Beach, Hawaii in 1915. Then, as now, the game is very similar to indoor volleyball, which was invented in 1895 in Massachusetts (see basketball).
First Olympics: Beach volleyball debuted at the Atlanta 1996 games.
Country of origin: USA
How it started: Somewhat surprisingly, BMX racing dates back only to the 1970s, when children began racing bikes around dirt tracks in southern California. Soon, bikes made especially for dirt tracks became popular, and official league tables were set up. BMX freestyle began shortly thereafter, with riders competing to perform tricks on skateboard ramps.
First Olympics: BMX racing became an Olympic sport at Beijing 2008, while BMX freestyle had to wait until Tokyo 2020 (2021).
Country of origin: Ancient Sumer
How it started: People have probably been throwing punches at each other since before we were fully human. The first recorded competitive boxing, though, is a relief image from ancient Sumer (in modern-day Iraq) from the third millennium BCE. The first depiction showing gloves is almost as old, and from Minoan Crete. Modern codified boxing can trace its origins to 19th century London.
First Olympics: Boxing has been an Olympic sport since 1904, and was also one of the prominent sports of the ancient Olympics.
Country of origin: Spain
How it started: With terms such as ‘en-garde’, ‘epee’, and ‘allez’, we might easily assume that fencing is a French invention. Written historical evidence, however, points to 15th century Spain as the wellspring of competitive swordplay. The sport flourished in both Spain and Italy before taking route in France, where the modern form and terminology were cemented.
First Olympics: Fencing has been a mainstay of the Olympics since the first games in 1896.
Country of origin: Scotland
How it started: Many ancient civilizations, including the Romans and the Ming Dynasty, had golf-like games, in which a ball is knocked towards a hole. The modern game, though, was developed in Scotland from the 15th century. The first recorded mention of the game is from 1457, when James II banned it (under the impression that it was distracting his subjects from practicing their archery). St Andrews had the first standard golf course, with 18 holes, as early as 1764.
First Olympics: Although golf was an early Olympic sport, present at both the 1900 and 1904 Olympics, it got knocked into the long grass for 112 years, to re-emerge at the Rio 2016 games.
Country of origin: Denmark
How it started: Handball-like games were played in ancient Greece, but the modern game has its origins in northern Europe. The rules were gradually developed across Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Norway in the late 19th century, and first codified by the Danish athlete Holger Nielsen in 1906. Nielsen was himself an Olympian, bagging medals for fencing and shooting, but never handball, which did not enter the Olympics until late in his life.
First Olympics: Debuted in Berlin 1936, but not fully featured again until Munich 1972.
Country of origin: Japan
How it started: Judo developed in Japan out of jiu jitsu in the 1880s and quickly went on to become the most popular martial art in the wider world. More than most Olympic sports, its creation can be attributed to one man. Jigoro Kano developed the techniques and promoted judo not as a sport but as a discipline or way of life. For this reason, he always remained ambivalent about its possible inclusion at the Olympics, though he did oversee an informal demonstration at Los Angeles 1932.
First Olympics: Men’s judo debuted, appropriately, at the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, though it wasn’t until 1992 that a women’s event was established.
Country of origin: Ryukyu Kingdom (Japan)
How it started: Along with judo, karate is perhaps the best known and most practiced martial art in the western world. It originated hundreds of years ago on the Ryukyu Islands, now part of Japan, but once an independent kingdom. It matured as a discipline in the 19th century and became popular throughout Japan. The martial art spread to the West after the Second World War, partly through American servicemen who had been stationed in Okinawa.
First Olympics: Despite widespread popularity, karate did not make it to the Olympics until Tokyo 2020 (2021).
Country of origin: Soviet Union
How it started: This combination of gymnastics with dance includes various pieces of apparatus such as hoop, ball, clubs, ribbon or rope. The discipline grew through developments in several countries, including Sweden, France, the USA and Switzerland. But it was in the Soviet Union that competitive rhythmic gymnastics began, in the 1940s.
First Olympics: While conventional gymnastics have been part of the Games since the first modern Olympics, the rhythmic version had to wait until Los Angeles 1984.
Country of origin: Austronesian People
How it started: The simple technology of moving a boat with a sail is of very ancient origin. Historians believe that the first ocean-going sail boats were pioneered by the Austronesian people, perhaps 5,000 years ago. It was these vessels that allowed humans to spread out from what is now Taiwan, and populate the many islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Competitive sailing has also been part of human culture since ancient times.
First Olympics: Reflecting its long-standing history, sailing has been part of the Olympics almost since the beginning, debuting in Paris 1900.
Country of origin: Hawaii/Polynesia
How it started: Surfing’s roots go back to prehistory, and the activity was always an important part of Polynesian culture, especially on the Hawaiian islands. From there, the sport spread to California in the late 19th century.
First Olympics: It took until Japan 2020 for surfing to ride the Olympic wave. Given that the sport requires a certain kind of beach, it’s not guaranteed that the event can be held at all future Games.
Country of origin: South Korea
How it started: Taekwondo is a martial art reliant on punches and kicks. It is a relatively modern discipline, beginning only in the 1950s within the Korean military. It is a development of earlier Korean martial arts.
First Olympics: The discipline was demonstrated, as you might expect, at the Seoul 1988 Olympics. It became a full medal event at Sydney 2000.
Country of origin: France
How it started: Several countries can lay claim to inventing tennis. The true picture is somewhat complex, with numerous influences feeding in to form the modern game. The oldest known antecedent is a 13th century game from northern France, in which the ball was struck with the palm of the hand. This later evolved into the game of ‘real tennis’, associated with royalty. King Louis X of France is history’s first known (by name) tennis player, though only because he died after drinking too much wine, following a match. The modern game was largely developed in England.
First Olympics: Tennis was part of the very first modern Olympics in 1896, but did not stick around as a permanent fixture. Only in Seoul 1988 did it become a mainstay.
Country of origin: Ancient Greece
How it started: Wrestling of one kind or another predates our species. Many apes and monkeys will grapple with one another to establish hierarchy. As a pastime, it dates back at least 15,000 years, as recorded in cave paintings. In that sense, it is slightly meaningless to give a location for the origins of wrestling. That said, the sport is intimately associated with the Ancient Greek Olympics. Indeed, the form practiced at the modern Olympics is still known as Greco-Roman wrestling.
First Olympics: Wrestling was part of the first Olympics in 1896. It skipped the 1900 Games, but has been part of the event ever since 1904.
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