Tokyo Olympics: A short(ish) history of the Modern Olympics 1896-2016

The International Olympic Committee was founded by French educator and historian Pierre de Coubertin in 1894 to promote international understanding through sport.

Since then, the United States have hosted four Olympics - St Louis 1904, Los Angeles 1932 & 1984, and Atlanta 1996 - while London is the only city to host three in 1908, 1948 & 2012.

Paris will join London with three Olympics in 2024, after previously staging them in 1900 & 1924.

The Games have never been staged in Africa. Melbourne (1956) and Sydney (2000) have hosted the Olympics in Oceania.

The United States have won more gold medals (1022) and more medals (2522) than their nearest rivals - the now defunct Soviet Union (395 & 1010) - with Great Britain (263 & 851) the next-best current competitor. 

New Zealand has won 46 gold medals and 117 medals overall.


Ancient Greece was the birthplace of the Olympic Games, so Athens was chosen to host the first Modern Olympics in 1896.

Only 245 athletes from 14 nations - more than 200 from the host nation - competed in 42 events, with the United States winning 11 gold medals and Greece 10.

Spyridon Louis runs the final lap of the Athens 1896 marathon
Spyridon Louis runs the final lap of the Athens 1896 marathon. Photo credit: Getty

Women were not allowed to compete, but Greek Stamata Revithi ran the marathon course one day after the official men's race. She was not allowed to enter Panathinaiko Stadium to cross the finish-line.

Highlight of the Games was Spyridon Louis' victory in the men’s marathon, while German Carl Shuhmann, who won four events in wrestling and gymnastics.

PARIS 1900

De Coubertin's homeland of France was originally intended as the site of the first Modern Olympics to coincide with the 1900 World Fair, but the IOC could not wait that long and scheduled Athens 1896 in the meantime.

Events were spread between May and October, alongside the Paris Exposition.

The Games included some events for the only time, including car and motorcycle racing, ballooning, cricket and underwater swimming. Real pigeons were used as targets during shooting.

American athlete Alvin Kraenzlein
American athlete Alvin Kraenzlein. Photo credit: Getty

Most of the 997 athletes came from France, which topped the medal count with 29 gold and 112 overall, while sweeping the medals in 12 events.

American athlete Alvin Kraenzlein won four individual events - the 60m sprint, 110m & 200m hurdles, and long jump - still a record for track and field.

Helene de Pourtales became the first female Olympic champion, as part of the Swiss sailing team.

Fijian-born Victor Linderg became the first Kiwi to win an Olympic event, as a member of the British Osborne Swimming Club that took out the water polo contest.


The first Olympics staged outside Europe also saw the formal introduction of gold, silver and bronze medals for event placegetters.

Chicago actually won the bid, but deferred to organisers of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, scheduled for the same period.

Events were hosted at the campus of Missouri's Washington University, but with Russia and Japan at war, and other nations struggling to get to St Louis, only 62 of the 651 competitors came from outside North America.

The United States led the medal count with 78 gold and 239 overall.

American gymnast George Eyser won six medals, despite a wooden left leg, while Frank Kugler became the only athlete to win medals in three different sports at the same Games, placing in wrestling, weightlifting and tug o' war.


These Games were originally allocated to Rome, but moved, after the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 1906 saw funds diverted to rebuilding Naples. They lasted 187 days, making them the longest of the modern Olympics.

The opening ceremony featured a parade of teams and national flags for the first time, although this came with its share of political complications. At the time, Finland was part of the Russian Empire, but refused to march under Russian colours, opting to march without a flag.

The Swedish team boycotted the ceremony, because their flag was not flying above the stadium, while the US team refused to dip their flag to King Edward VII in the royal box, declaring "this flag dips to no earthly king".

Dorando Pietri finishes the London 1908 marathon
Dorando Pietri finishes the London 1908 marathon. Photo credit: Getty

Among the bizarre events contested was Olympic duelling, with contestants wearing protective clothing and shooting each other with wax bullets.

Perhaps the most iconic event at London was the marathon, where Italian Dorando Pietri finished first, but was assisted four times by officials over the closing stages. The Americans protested and had second-placed Johnny Hayes declared winner, but Queen Alexandra awarded Pietri a silver cup for his efforts.

Host Great Britain finished atop the medal table with 56 gold and 146 overall, well clear of the United States (23 & 47)

New Zealand made its first Olympic appearance as part of a combined Australasia team with Australia. 


Twenty-eight nations and 2408 athletes contested 14 sports, although the schedule also included art competitions that were later struck from the records as being too unathletic.

Among the sports dropped from the programme were the winter sport of figure skating and boxing, which the Swedes apparently found too barbaric.

One of the most famous winners at Stockholm was American Jim Thorpe, who took out both the pentathlon and decathlon, but had his medals taken away the following year, after the IOC discovered he had played baseball for money, violating Olympic amateur rules.

Sixty-nine years later - 30 years after Thorpe's death - the IOC backtracked on the disqualification and returned his medals to his children.

American athlete Jim Thorpe
American athlete Jim Thorpe. Photo credit: Getty

Japan became the first Asian country to compete at the Olympics, but 'lost' marathon runner Kanakuri Shizo, who suffered heatstroke during his race, stopped to quench his thirst at a party along the route, then caught a train to Stockholm and left the country without notifying officials.

Fifty years later, he was invited back to complete the course in an unofficial time of 54 years, eight months, six days 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds.  

The United States (25 gold & 63 overall) and Sweden (24 & 65) finished a virtual stalemate atop the medal table.

Still competing as part of Australasia, Kiwi Malcolm Champion won gold with the swimming relay team, while Wimbledon champion Anthony Wilding took bronze in the indoor tennis tournament.


Of all places, Berlin was supposed to host the 1916 Games, but they were cancelled when World War I broke out. 

Among the punishments dished out to the losers was suspension from the Olympics, so Germany, Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire (essentially Turkey) were banned. 

Antwerp was among the candidates for the 1920 Olympics and was given first preference when the war ended. Organisers had little more than a year to prepare, some venues were unfinished and athlete accommodation was crowded.

But the Games became a symbol of peace and global unity, with an Olympic oath and flag adopted for the first time.

Nedo Nadi (left) fences against Helene Mayer.
Nedo Nadi (left) fences against Helene Mayer. Photo credit: Getty

Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi emerged as the star performer, with victories in 10,000m, and individual and team cross country, and a silver medal over 5000m.

Italian fencer Nedo Nadi finished with five gold medals, while the United States topped the overall medal count, with 41 gold and 95 total, including a clean sweep of women's swimming events.

After competing as part of Australasia previously, New Zealand sent its first official team of four athletes, with rower Darcy Hadfield winning a bronze medal in single sculls.

PARIS 1924

Paris became the first city to host two Olympics, heading off Amsterdam, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Prague and Rome, but made a massive financial loss.

In his last Games, Pierre de Coubertin introduced the Olympic motto 'Citius, Altius, Fortius', meaning 'Faster, Higher, Stronger')

These Games were immortalised by the move Chariots of Fire, that depicted the rivalry between British sprinters Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who refused to compete in the 100m, because it was held on a Sunday, but won the 400m instead.

Finland dominated long distance running, with Paavo Nurmi winning the 1500m and 5000m, only an hour apart, and cross country race, then contributing to the 3000m and cross country team success. The 'Flying Finns' also took out the 10,000m, steeplechase and marathon.

Harold Abrahams wins the 100m at Paris 1924
Harold Abrahams wins the 100m at Paris 1924. Photo credit: Getty

The United States again dominated the medal count with 45 gold and 99 overall, with Finland and host France next.

New Zealand sent a team of four to Paris, with future Governor-General Arthur Porritt taking the bronze medal behind Abrahams in the 100m.


Amsterdam had stepped aside from the 1920 Games in favour of Antwerp and fended off attempts from Los Angeles to have the 1928 Olympics transferred to the US.

For the first time, Greece lead the other nations into the opening ceremony, with the host nation bringing up the rear. These were also the first Games to adopt a 16-day schedule that still exists - previous programmes had spread over several months.

Uruguay defended its surprise football gold medal from four years earlier, while India won its first gold medal in hockey - the first of six consecutive titles.

Finn Paavo Nurmi won his ninth and final gold medal in the 10,000m, while American Johnny Weissmuller - perhaps the most famous actor to play the character of Tarzan - won two swimming gold medals, adding to his three at Paris 1924. 

Tarzan actor and swimmer Johnny Weissmuller
Tarzan actor and swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. Photo credit: Getty

The United States topped the medal table with 22 gold and 56 overall, heading off Germany, which returned to the Olympics for the first time since World War I.

New Zealand won its first gold medal, when boxer Ted Morgan won the welterweight division.


With the world suffering through an economic depression, no other cities bid for these Games, which still reportedly made a US$1m profit.

With women's participation still limited - 1206 men and only 126 women competed - American Babe Didriksen won gold medals in the javelin and hurdles, and silver in the high jump, after her technique during the first-place jump-off was deemed illegal. 

Because women were restricted to just three events, she potentially missed out on medals in the discus, long jump and relay, and could have placed in 200m and pentathlon, if they had been on the programme.

Didriksen was the outstanding sportswoman of her era, helping found the LPGA golf tour and even pitching in Major League baseball exhibitions.

Stanislawa Walasiewicz wins the women's 100m at Los Angeles 1932
Stanislawa Walasiewicz wins the women's 100m at Los Angeles 1932. Photo credit: Getty

But perhaps the most bizarre story from these Games was the case of Polish sprinter Stanislawa Walasiewicz, who won the women's 100m, but lost her title to American Helen Stephens at Berlin four years later.

Ironically, Polish media accused Stephens of being male and she was forced to undergo a genital inspection to prove she was female. 

Walasiewicz moved to the US, changing her name to Stella Walsh and winning several national titles, but was shot dead in 1980, as an innocent bystander in an armed robbery. The post mortem found she had male genitals and would not have past a modern sex test.

The United States topped the medal count with 41 golds and 103 overall, well ahead of Italy (12 & 36).

Kiwi rowers Cyril Stiles and Rangi Thompson won New Zealand's first Olympic silver medal in the coxless pair.


Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler saw his nation's first Olympics as an opportunity to push his racial and anti-semitic ideals on a worldwide audience.

Germany had barely returned to Olympic competition, after it was banned for its part in World War I, and within a few years, Hitler would spark another global conflict by invading Poland.

These Games were probably as much about politics as they were about sport. As the Nazis took control of Germany, other nations pushed for the festival to be moved, with Rome seen as the alternative. The Italians would become Germany's closest ally in World War II.

Hitler's last contribution to sport was probably commissioning director Leni Riefenstahl to film the competition. The result Olympia established many of the techniques now common in sports coverage. 

The most famous subplot to these Olympics was the performance of black American Jesse Owens, who dominated track and field competition under Hitler's nose, winning the 100m, 200m, long jump and relay.

Ironically, German rival Luz Long helped Owens, when he nearly failed to qualify for the long jump final, and was later awarded the Pierre de Coubertin Medal for sportsmanship. 

Jack Lovelock wins Berlin 1936 gold
Jack Lovelock wins Berlin 1936 gold. Photo credit: Getty

In football, Italy won the gold medal and Austria - Hitler's homeland - took silver, but only after the dictator ordered their 4-2 quarter-final loss to Peru replayed and the South Americans refused to front.

Germany achieved Hitler's goal of medal supremacy with 33 gold and 89 overall, heading off the United States (24 & 56).

New Zealand's moment of glory came in the men's 1500m, when Jack Lovelock won our first of three gold medals in this event. Lovelock died in 1949, when he fell under a train in New York.


Another of Hitler's allies - Japan - was meant to host the 1940 Olympics at Tokyo, but they were cancelled, due to the outbreak of World War II, along with the 1944 London Games.

Germany and Japan were not invited to London four years later. 

Dutchwoman Fanny Blankers-Koen, nicknamed 'the Flying Housewife', won gold medals in 100m, 200m, hurdles and relay, but the three-event limit for women denied further medals in long and high jump, where she held world records.

Fanny Blankers-Koen wins the London 1948 100m
Fanny Blankers-Koen wins the London 1948 100m. Photo credit: Getty

The United States resumed its dominance of medals, winning 38 gold and 84 overall, clear of Sweden (16 & 44), but host Great Britain could only manage three gold and 23 medals.

For the first time since debuting as a national team, New Zealand failed to medal. The only other time was Moscow 1980, when the country boycotted, but several athletes attended as individuals, without success.


The Finnish capital was meant to host the 1940 Olympic, until World War II forced their cancellation.

Helsinki beat out Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Amsterdam for the 1952 Games, and would produce the most world records of any Olympics, until Beijing 2008. Among the countries debuting were the Soviet Union, People's Republic of China and Israel.

Germany and Japan were also invited to attend for the first time since World War II.

With the Cold War in full swing, the Soviets and Americans used the Olympics as an extension of their political rivalry. The Soviets declared: "Every record won by our sportsmen, every victory in international contests, graphically demonstrates to the whole world the advantages and strength of the Soviet system."

Soviet gymnast Viktor Chukarin took four gold medals, Czech distance runner Emil Zatopek took out three events - 5000m, 10,000m and marathon - the only man to win all three at the same Olympics.

Future world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson took out the middleweight boxing gold, but another future champion Ingemar Johansson was disqualified in the heavyweight final for passivity and did not receive his silver medal until 30 years later.

Yvette Williams wins long jump gold at Helsinki 1952
Yvette Williams wins long jump gold at Helsinki 1952. Photo credit: Getty

The United States again topped the medal count with 40 gold and 76 overall, with the Soviet Union biting at their heels (22 & 71).

Despite the political undertones, Helsinki was regard as 'the last real Olympics', as money, drugs and even more politics began to taint the Olympic ideal.

Long jumper Yvette Williams became the first NZ woman to medal at the Olympics, winning her specialty event, while swimmer Jean Stewart followed eight days later, with bronze in the 100m backstroke. Athlete John 'Dutch' Holland also finished third over 400m hurdles.


The first Games staged in the southern hemisphere sparked concern that northern athletes would be inconvenienced by the reversal of seasons. Regardless, the Australian city edged out Argentina's Buenos Aires - another southern city - by one vote in the final round.

Doubts over Melbourne intensified, when equine quarantine meant equestrian events could not be staged in Australia and were relocated to Stockholm in June.

Athlete attendance dropped steeply from 5000 at Helsinki four years earlier to 3300, not helped by poltically motivated boycotts. Egypt, Iraq, Cambodia and Lebanon stayed home due to the Suez Crisis, while People's Republic of China stayed away to protest Taiwan's attendance.

Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland protested the Soviets' presence, after they had invaded Hungary with tanks and air strikes to suppress student demonstrations in Budapest a month before.

Politics spilt into the pool - literally - when Hungary faced Soviet Union in water polo. Their playoff match was nicknamed 'Blood in the Water', after Hungarian star Ervin Zador was punched by an opponent and forced to leave the game with a facial wound.

Ervin Zador is helped from the pool against Soviet Union
Ervin Zador is helped from the pool against Soviet Union. Photo credit: Getty

Police were called in to control angry spectators, referees stopped the game, Hungary declared 4-0 winners and went on to beat Yugoslavia for gold.

But romance also had its day, when American hammer gold medallist Hal Connelly and Czech discus gold medallist Olga Fikotova fell in love, and would later marry. Fikotova moved to the US, but was banned by her national federation and eventually carried the American flag at Munich 1972.

The Soviets headed the medal count with 37 gold and 98 overall, compared with the United States' 32 and 74.

New Zealand captured two gold medals, with sailors Jack Cropp and Peter Mander prevailing in the 12m Sharpie class, and race walker Norman Read winning the 50km event.

ROME 1960

The Italy capital was meant to host the 1908 Olympics, but had to withdraw on economic grounds, after Mt Vesuvius erupted and destroyed nearby Naples.

At various other times, Rome had been proposed as an alternative for other Games, where venues were in doubt, but won the right to finally host, ahead of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Danish sailor Paul Elvstrom won his fourth straight Finn class gold medal, barefooted Abebe Bikila won the marathon to become the first black African champion and Pakistan ended India's streak of six gold medals in men's hockey.

Cassius Clay won the light-heavyweight boxing crown and would later change his name to Muhammad Ali, staking his claim as arguably the greatest heavyweight champion off all-time.

Peter Snell wins 800m gold at Rome 1960
Peter Snell wins 800m gold at Rome 1960. Photo credit: Getty

The Soviets (43 gold & 103 medals) again best the United States (34 & 71), but New Zealand produced once its finest hours in Olympic history, with training partners Peter Snell and Murray Halberg winning 800m and 5000m gold medals just minutes apart.

Another Arthur Lydiard-coached runner, Barry Magee, also took bronze in the marathon. 

TOKYO 1964

The first Olympics staged in Asia also marked the first where South Africa was not invited, due to its apartheid policies. It would not return until Barcelona 1992.

Tokyo was originally awarded the 1940 Games, but lost those rights, when Japan invited China, before they were cancelled altogether during World War II.

The Olympic flame was lit by Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 - the day the Americans dropped an atom bomb on that city during the war.

Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina won two gold medals, a silver and two bronze, bringing her total to 18 medals over three successive Olympics - a record finally broken by US swimmer Michael Phelps at London 2012.

Ehtiopian Abebe Bikila became the first man to defend his Olympic marathon title.

Zambia declared its independence on the day of the Tokyo closing ceremony, becoming the first nation to enter the Olympics as one country and leave as another. The team entered the opening ceremony as Northern Rhodesia, but walked as Zambia in the closing ceremony.

Yoshinori Sakai lights the Olympic flame at Tokyo 1964
Yoshinori Sakai lights the Olympic flame at Tokyo 1964. Photo credit: Getty

The United States won more gold medals (36) than any other country, but the Soviet Union won more medals (96).

Peter Snell retained his 800m crown and added the 1500m title, with compatriot John Davies third - the first time two Kiwis won medals in the same event.

Helmer Pedersen and Earle Wells also won gold in the Flying Dutchman class, and Marise Chamberlain took bronze in the women's 800m, as New Zealand enjoyed their most successful Olympics yet.'


Mexico's capital continued Detroit's string of unsuccessful attempts to host the Olympics, with the US industrial city losing its fifth consecutive bid since the end of World War II.

Because Mexico City sits at 2240m altitude, with less air resistance, sprint times on the track were faster than ever before, with world records in the men's 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and both relays, and women's 100m, 200m and 4x100m.

Conversely, due to difficulty breathing thin air, distance running times were much slower than existing records.

The most impressive performance came from American Bob Beamon, who beat the long jump mark by more than half a metre. His 8.90m stood as a world record for 23 years, until beaten by Mike Powell at the 1991 world championships, and still exists as an Olympic record more than half a century later.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos perform 'Black Power' salutes
Tommie Smith and John Carlos perform 'Black Power' salutes. Photo credit: Getty

American Al Oerter won his fourth straight discus gold medal, future world professional champion George Foreman took out the heavyweight boxing crown, while Dick Fosbury won the high jump with his unconventional 'flop' technique, now the dominant style in that event.

But politics again reared its head, with South African banned for its apartheid policies, after Africa and Eastern bloc countries threatened to boycott.

African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos performed 'Black Power' salutes during their 200m medal ceremony, while Czech Vera Caslavska used her gymnastics dominance to protest the Soviet invasion of her country.

The United States lead the medal count with 45 gold and 107 overall, but these were their last Games on top, until they hosted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

New Zealand's coxed four won a rowing gold medal, while shooter Ian Ballinger and marathon runner Mike Ryan collected bronze.


With the motto 'Cheerful Games', these Olympics were meant to wipe away the memory of the previous Nazi-dominated festival of 1936.

Instead, they became synonymous with the massacre of 11 Israeli team members by Palestinian Black September terrorists.

Two of the victims were killed, as the eight gunmen invaded the athletes' quarters, while the other nine died, when a terrorist exploded a grenade in a helicopter 18 hours later.

Sports were suspended immediately after the incident, but once the dust settled, IOC president Avery Brundage declared "the Games must go on".

Elsewhere, American Mark Spitz emerged as the dominant swimmer, with world records en route to each of his seven gold medals. Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut became a darling of the Games, despite losing the all-round gold to teammate Lyudmilla Turischeva.

Mark Spitz dominating the pool at Munich 1972
Mark Spitz dominating the pool at Munich 1972. Photo credit: Getty

In a massive upset, United States lost the men's basketball final 51-50 to the Soviet Union, after the final three seconds were replayed three times, allowing the Soviets to score the winning basket. Afterwards, the American refused to accept their silver medals. 

On the track, Soviet Valeriy Borzov unexpectedly won the 100m/200m double, but only after Americans Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson missed the start of their quarter-finals in the shorter sprint.

The Soviet Union topped the medal count with 50 gold and 99 overall, heading the USA (33 & 94).

New Zealand achieved an iconic victory in the rowing eights, winning silver in the coxless four, while athlete Rod Dixon continued our fine tradition over 1500m with bronze.


New Zealand took centrestage at Montreal - for all the wrong reasons.

With South Africa still persevering with its racial segregation policies, the United Nations had urged a sporting embargo, but 29 countries - mainly African nations - boycotted the Olympics, after the All Blacks toured there in early 1976.

The boycott deprived track and field fans of a keenly anticipated rematch between distance runners John Walker of New Zealand and Filbert Bayi of Tanzania, who had set the Christchurch Commonwealth Games alight two years earlier with a world record 1500m duel.

Without the Africans, Walker ultimately prevailed in a slow time, writing another chapter in our 1500m love affair.

Finn Lasse Viren repeated his 5000m/10,000m double from four years earlier, heading off Kiwi Dick Quax in the shorter event.

Romanian Nadia Comaneci became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the Olympics, while Princess Anne - a member of the British equestrian team - was the only female not required to undergo a sex test.

John Walker wins 1500m gold at Montreal 1976
John Walker wins 1500m gold at Montreal 1976. Photo credit: Getty

American Bruce Jenner won the men's decathlon and became known as 'world's greatest athlete', but 40 years later, married a Kardashian, transitioned to become female and changed his name to Caitlyn.

East Germany emerged as a sporting superpower, finishing second - behind the Soviet Union - on the medal table, but its achievements were later undermined, when its state-supported doping programme was exposed.

As well as Walker, the NZ men's hockey team stunned their rivals Australia in the final, with Tony Ineson scoring the winning goal from a penalty corner and goalkeeper Trevor Manning shattering a kneecap, while making a key save.

The men's rowing eight were unable to defend their gold medal from four years earlier, but picked up bronze instead.


When the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the USA led a boycott of the Moscow Games that extended to 24 countries, including New Zealand.

Only 80 nations attended these Olympics - the least since Melbourne 1956 - although some athletes - including a handful of Kiwis - defied their national boycotts to compete under the flag of their national Olympic committees or the IOC.

As a result, most of the 203 events contested were won by Eastern block nations, primarily the USSR or East Germany, including 97 world records and 241 Olympic records.

Four years earlier, two men in the 400m freestyle final failed to break four minutes, but in Moscow, 16 swimmers broke that mark and eight failed to make the final. 

Cuban Teofilo Stevenson defends his Olympic crown at Moscow 1980
Cuban Teofilo Stevenson defends his Olympic crown at Moscow 1980. Photo credit: Getty

But many of these performances - possibly most - were later attributed to drugs, with the Moscow Olympics becoming known as the 'Chemists' Games'. 

Athletics competition was highlighted by the duel between British runners Steve Ovett and Seb Coe, with Ovett upsetting the world recordholder over 800m, but beaten into third over his favoured 1500m.

Cuban boxer Tefilio Stevenson became the first to win three consecutive gold medals in the same weight class.

Due to the US boycott, several regular features of the closing ceremonies went unfulfilled, including the ceremonial handover of the Olympic flag to the next host city - Los Angeles.

The host nation topped the medal count with 80 gold and 195 overall.

Four Kiwis attended - modern pentathlete Brian Newth, and canoeists Ian Ferguson, Geoff Walker and Alan Thompson - and while none were among the medals, Ferguson and Thompson would return four years later to spark a golden run in their sport.


Although 14 Eastern bloc nations stayed away in retaliation for the US-driven boycott of Moscow four years earlier, a record 140 team attended the second Olympics staged at Los Angeles. 

They were also the most profitable of the modern Olympics, generating a surplus of US$250m. 

Los Angeles' only rival for hosting rights was the Iranian capital of Tehran, but that was withdrawn after the revolution in that country.

American sprinter Carl Lewis became the poster boy for these Games, winning the 100m, 200m, long jump and relay in the first of four Olympic appearances.

American Joan Benoit won the first women's marathon, but although Romanian Maricica Puica won the 3000m, that dramatic race was best remembered for the collision between favourite Mary Decker and barefooted South African teenager Zola Budd that eliminated both from contention.

Mary Lou Retton in action at Los Angeles 1984
Mary Lou Retton in action at Los Angeles 1984. Photo credit: Getty

American Mary Lou Retton emerged as the darling of gymnastics competition, while future NBA stars Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullins guided the USA to victory in basketball. They would return eight years later as members of the 'Dream Team'. 

In the absence of their closest rivals. the United States returned to the top of medal standings, with 83 gold and 174 overall, with New Zealand finishing eighth, courtesy of eight gold medals - still the most in our history.

Canoeist Ian Ferguson led gold rush, winning the K1 500 and combining with Paul MacDonald for victory in the K2 500, before that pair joined Alan Thompson and Grant Bramwell for success in the K4 1000.

Thompson also won the K1 1000, Mark Todd took the equestrian eventing crown, the NZ coxless four prevailed, while Rex Sellers and Chris Timms (Tornado), and Russell Coutts (Finn) won sailing gold.

Boxer Kevin Barry upset future professional star Evander Holyfield en route to silver, while the men's coxed four and sailboarder Bruce Kendall captured bronze.

Wheelchair-bound archer Neroli Fairhall, who won Commonwealth Games gold two years earlier, became the first paraplegic to compete at the Olympics.

SEOUL 1988

While the previous two Olympics had been plagued with boycotts, the Seoul Games was notably only for the absence of North Korea - and ally Cuba - after an attempt to share the event with South Korea failed.

The Soviet Union and East Germany dominated the medal table, but this was the last time those nations would attend, as they ceased to exist in 1991 and 1990 respectively.

These Games were also held at the height of doping in sport, with Eastern Bloc nations, in particular, later exposed for some of their methods during this era.

Two Bulgarian weightlifters were stripped of their gold medals after failing drugs tests and their entire team withdrew afterwards. 

Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson provided the highlight - and lowlight - of the Olympics, powering to a new world record over 100m, but later losing the record and gold medal, when he returned a positive test for stanozolol.

The gold was subsequently awarded to American Carl Lewis, with silver to Brit Linford Christie, bronze to American Calvin Smith and compatriot Dennis Mitchell fourth, but Smith was the only top-five finisher never to fail a drugs test during his career.

Ben Johnson wins the 100m at Seoul 1988
Ben Johnson wins the 100m at Seoul 1988. Photo credit: Getty

American Florence Griffiths-Joyner (aka 'FloJo') had smashed the women's 100m world record at US Olympic trials and added the 200m (21.34s) at Seoul - both marks still stand 33 years later. 

American Greg Louganis defended both diving titles won four years earlier, despite hitting his head in the springboard and suffering concussion.

East German swimmer Kristin Otto won six gold medals in the pool, while Swedish fencer Kerstin Palm, 42, became the first woman to contest seven Olympics.

The US men, made up of college players, were sensationally beaten by the Soviet Union in basketball semi-finals and had to settle for bronze in their worst-ever Olympic result. Four years later, they would unleash their best NBA players on the world in response.

New Zealand won three gold in their haul of 13 medals, with canoeists Ian Ferguson and Paul MacDonald (K1 500), and equestrian eventer Mark Todd defending their titles from Los Angeles, and sailboarder Bruce Kendall improving on his 1984 bronze.

But Kiwi boxing referee Keith Walker had to be escorted out of the stadium by security, after presiding over Bulgarian Alexander Hristov’s upset victory over hometown favourite Byun Jong-Il in the bantamweight division.


The hometown of IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch easily headed off Paris, Brisbane and Belgrade for the hosting rights, with Samaranch abstaining from the vote.

With the Soviet Union no longer existing, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania entered their own teams, while the other states competed as the 'Unified Team', before eventually splitting off on their own.

Likewise, Yugoslavia split off into Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia & Herzegovina.

South Africa rejoined the Olympics from its apartheid-inspired ban, while East and West Germany competed as a combined team, after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

Barcelona was probably best known for the emergence of the US 'Dream Team' in basketball. After their third placing at Seoul with amateur players, USA Basketball called up NBA players for the first time, assembling a team of legends, led by Michael Jordan, 'Magic' Johnson and Larry Bird. 

Michael Jordan with the Dream Team at Barcelona 1992
Michael Jordan with the Dream Team at Barcelona 1992. Photo credit: Getty

The closest anyone got to them was 32 points by Croatia in the final.

The Unified Team edged the USA on the medal table, winning 45 gold and 112 medals overall.

New Zealand's only gold medal came from boardsailor Barbara Kendall, who followed in brother Bruce's footsteps with her victory, while the equestrian eventing team, swimmer Danyon Loader, and the Star and women's 470 sailors all took silver.


In a closely contested vote, Atlanta trailled through the first two rounds, but eventually headed off Athens to become the third US city to host an Olympics.

These Games were marred by the explosion of a pipe bomb at Centennial Olympic Park, killing two and injuring 111 people. Security guard Richard Jewell was considered a suspect, but Eric Rudolph was eventually convicted of the terror attack, along with three others.

American Amy Van Dyken won four swimming gold medals and Irishwoman Michelle Smith became her country's most decorated Olympian with three gold in the pool, despite doping allegations and a later suspension for tampering with a urine sample.

American Michael Johnson starred on the track with gold over 200m and 400m, and a new world record in the former. 

Michael Johnson's world 200m record at Atlanta 1996
Michael Johnson's world 200m record at Atlanta 1996. Photo credit: Getty

Andre Agassi became the second tennis player - after future wife Steffi Graf - to achieve a career 'Golden Slam', winning all four ATP major tournaments and Olympic gold. Graff won hers in the same year (1988).  

With the Eastern Bloc presence greatly diluted, the United States returned to the top of the medal table, winning 44 gold and 101 overall. 

Kiwi swimmer Danyon Loader produced a stunning freestyle double over 200m and 400m in the pool - New Zealand's only gold medals in that event. Blyth Tait and Sally Clark took gold and silver in individual equestrian eventing.


Australia's second Olympics became lauded as the benchmark for others to follow, with some foreign journalists declaring "the IOC should quit while it's ahead".

Yet they came very close to not happening, with Sydney trailling throughout the bidding process and barely edging Beijing in the last round of bidding, due mainly to China's poor human rights record.

Aussie favourite Cathy Freeman lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony and became the darling of the Games with her 400m win on the track in front of a record 112,000 spectators.

British rower Steve Redgrave won gold in his fifth consecutive Games, with his part in the victorious coxless four, while Aussie teenager Ian Thorpe made a splash in the pool, breaking a world record over 400m freestyle and anchoring the home team to relay victories over the USA.

The women's all-round gymnastics final was marred by a series of falls during the vault, before it was discovered the vault horse had been set 5cm too low, throwing the athletes off their routines.

Cathy Freeman wins the 400m at Sydney 2000
Cathy Freeman wins the 400m at Sydney 2000. Photo credit: Getty

In basketball, American Vince Carter performed one of the most famous dunks in history - dubbed 'le dunk de la mort' (dunk of death) by French media - jumping over 2.18m (7ft 2in) French centre Frederic Weis. 

The United States led the medal count with 37 gold and 93 overall, just ahead of Russia (32 & 89).  

Rowing single sculler Rob Waddell won New Zealand's only gold medal, with equestrian rider Mark Todd, and boardsailors Barbara Kendall and Aaron McIntosh taking bronze. Waddell would become a grinder for Team NZ's America's Cup programme and now serves as NZ Olympic chef de mission.


The Greek capital became the fourth city - after Paris, London and Los Angeles - to host the Olympics twice.

Shot put events were contested at ancient Olympia, while archery and the marathon finishes took place at the Panathenaic Stadium used at the first Modern Olympics in 1896.

Leading the men's marathon with 10km remaining, Brazilian Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima was attacked by an Irish priest and dragged into the crowd, but recovered to take the bronze medal. He was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin Medal for sportsmanship and 12 years later, lit the Olympic flame at Rio 2016.

The US men stumbled again in basketball, losing to Puerto Rico in pool play and to eventual winners Argentina in the semi-finals, finishing with bronze, despite the presence of several NBA stars.

Germany kayaker Birgit Fischer became the first woman to win gold medals at six different Olympics, the first to win gold 24 years apart and the first person to win multiple medals at five Games.

Michael Phelps in 200m medley at Athens 2004
Michael Phelps in 200m medley at Athens 2004. Photo credit: Getty

American Michael Phelps emerged as the star of the pool, winning six gold medals and two bronze.

The United States led the medal count with 36 gold and 101 overall, from China and Russia.

Kiwis Hamish Carter and Bevan Docherty battled for triathlon gold, with Carter eventually prevailing and Docherty taking silver.

Rowing sisters Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell won double sculls, while track cyclist Sarah Ulmer took out the individual pursuit. Canoeist Ben Fuohy also won silver in the K1 1000.


China had to overcome doubts about its human rights record and pollution to finally win an Olympics hosting bid, with the IOC hoping the Games would encourage the host nation to improve both issues.

As with most hosts, China poured considerable resources into beefing up their sporting programmes to make them competitive with the world's best, catapualting it to the top of the gold-medal count with 48.

Thirty-seven world records and 125 Olympic records were set during the Games, with 25 of those world marks achieved in the swimming pool, where specialised swimming suits had been developed by NASA and the Australian Institute of Sport.

Only two swimming world records survived the Beijing onslaught.

American Michael Phelps somehow improved on his six-gold haul at Athens, with eight victories - the most ever at a single Olympics.

Jamaican Usain Bolt emerged as the star of track and field, breaking the world 100m and 200m records.

But the Games were also hit by doping scandals, with the Bulgarian weightlifting team withdrawing, after 11 of their athletes tested positive before Beijing. Ten years later, samples taken from the Games were tested using improved technology and 61 athletes failed, with 50 medals being stripped.

One of the beneficiaries was Kiwi 1500m runner Nick Willis, who finished third in the final, but was later promoted to second, after Bahrain winner Rashi Ramzi was disqualified. Kenyan Asbel Kiprop was awarded the gold medal, but his sample was also among those tested positive in 2018. 

Mahe Drysdale recovers after his Beijing 2008 final
Mahe Drysdale recovers after his Beijing 2008 final.

Rowers Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell successfully defended their double sculls crown from four years before, Valerie Vili won her first shot put gold medal, while Tom Ashley continued New Zealand's tradition in sailboarding with victory.

August 16 was dubbed 'Super Saturday' by NZ media, with the Evers-Swindells and Vili prevailing within hours of Hayden Roulston's cycling silver, and rowing bronze to sculler Mahe Drysdale and the men's coxless pair.

Drysdale's was the most dramatic performance of the Games, with the three-time world champion falling ill on the day of his final and having to be carried out of his boat afterwards.     


London headed off challenges from Paris and Madrid to become the first city to host the Olympics three times, but celebrations were short-lived, when bombings rocked the London Underground within 24 hours of the announcement.

Additional security concerns were raised by the 2011 London riots.

American swimmer Michael Phelps became the most-decorated Olympian ever, with four more gold medals, bringing his tally to 18 across three Games. He would return to Rio four years later for more.

Jamaican Usain Bolt underlined his star status, defending his 100m and 200m crowns, and anchoring Jamaica to a 4x100m relay world record.

Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen faced doping allegations, after she rattled home over the final 50m to break the women's 400m medley world record by more than a second. Her time over the final lap was faster than the men's winner, but charges were later dropped.

Usain Bolt wins the 200m at London 2012
Usain Bolt wins the 200m at London 2012. Photo credit: Getty

Kiwi shot putter Valerie Adams was upset in her title defence, soundly beaten by Nadzeya Astapchuk of Belarus, but was eventually promoted to the gold medal, when her rival returned two positive drugs tests.

The United States headed the medal count, with 46 gold and 104 overall, clear of China and hosts Great Britain.

New Zealand enjoyed of its most successful Olympics, with sculler Mahe Drysdale, men's pair Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, and men's double Nathan Cohan and Joseph Sullivan all scooping gold at the rowing.

Bond and Murray took six seconds off the world best for their event in heats.

Sailors Jo Aleh and Plly Powrie won the women's 470 class, while canoeist Lisa Carrington took out the women's K1 200 and hasn't been beaten in that event since.


Euphoria over South America's first Olympics were tempered by the logistical challenge of hosting them during an outbreak of the Zika virus, with some leading athletes choosing not to attend.

The economic burden also proved testing, with many of the venues now lying abandoned and unused only five years later.

Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt continued their Olympic dominance, with the American swimmer winning five more golds, bringing his total to 23 across four Games.

Bolt defended his 100m and 200m titles, becoming the first to win those titles in three consecutive Games, while again anchoring Jamaica home for relay gold.

Rio also saw the emergence of American gymnast Simone Biles, with four gold medals, including the individual all-round crown.

Rugby sevens was introduced to the Olympic programme, with Fiji winning that nation's first gold medal in the men's event and Australia defeating New Zealand for the women's prize.

The United States dominated the medal table, with 46 gold and 121 overall, ahead of Great Britain and China.

Eliza McCartney celebrates pole vault bronze at Rio 2016
Eliza McCartney celebrates pole vault bronze at Rio 2016. Photo credit: Photosport

For the first time, New Zealand sent more women (100) than men (99) in its biggest Olympic team and achieved its best medal haul, with 18.

Rowers Hamish Bond and Eric Murray capped an eight-year unbeaten run by defending their pairs title, and were eventually named Halberg Awards Decade Champions. 

Sculler Mahe Drysdale also repeated his London success by the barest of margins, out-lunging Croatian rival Damir Martin on the line, while canoeist Lisa Carrington continued her K1 200 dominance.

Future America's Cup stars Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, who carried the NZ flag into the Rio opening ceremony, took out the men's 470 sailing title.

Among the Kiwis' nine silver medals, Valerie Adams was pipped by American Michelle Carter in the last round, as she attempted to win her third straight shot put title.

Teenager pole vaulter Eliza McCartney captured hearts with her surprise bronze medal, while veteran Nick Willis, 33, became the oldest man to win an Olympic medal over 1500m with his bronze.