Why are the Olympics important?

With only a few weeks to go until the opening ceremony of the Olympics the hot topic in our ‘Ask a Sports Engineer’ question box this week was about the Olympics and the importance of the event.


The Olympics originally started as a series of competitions between representatives from cities in Ancient Greece. The events were mainly athletic, but also included combat and chariot racing. In this era the Olympics were of fundamental religious importance as the events were held in parallel with rituals to honour Zeus and Pelops, mythical kings of Olympia- the location of the original Olympic ‘stadium’. The Olympics were held every four years and this period, known as Olympiad, was used by the ancient Greeks as a way of time measurement. Winning an event was of great value and recognition as the winners were idolised by the Greeks on a national level. The winners were also immortalized through the writing of poems and construction of statues. Many winners are documented in ancient Greek myths and legends, stories still being told to this day.

The Olympic Games reached their peak in Ancient Greece during the 5th and 6th centuries BC. The rise in power of the Romans and their influence upon Ancient Greece eventually resulted in the end of the event in around 400AD.

Various attempts were made to revive the games during the early 1700’s and 1800’s in France and England but were only on a small, local scale. In 1890 the ‘International Olympic Association’ or IOC was founded and provided a framework for all Olympic Games, known as the ‘International Olympic Charter’.

clip_image004The first Olympic games as we know them today were held in Athens in 1896 as a tribute to their origin. The games brought together 14 nations and 241 athletes to compete in 43 events. The games were held in the newly refurbished ‘Penathenaic Stadium’, funded by the Greek government and a wealthy individual investor George Averoff.

Understandably the Greeks wanted the Olympics to remain in Athens on a permanent basis. The IOC didn’t feel that this was in the spirit of the games so decided to rotate the venue internationally. The second Olympic Games were in Paris in 1900 before rotating on a 4 year basis.

The Olympics then underwent another revival in 1912 before becoming the modern Olympics as we know them today. This revival was thanks to Pierre de Coubertin who worked hard to gain interest in the Olympics and ensure it was a level playing field to serve as a proving ground for athletes. He also created the iconic mark of the Olympics- the Olympic rings, something that has been seen on all Olympic logos ever since. When Coubertin announced the new Olympics and new logo in 1912 he said:

clip_image006The emblem chosen to illustrate and represent the world Congress of 1914: five intertwined rings in different colors – blue, yellow, black, green, and red – are placed on the white field of the paper. These five rings represent the five parts of the world which now are won over to Olympism and willing to accept healthy competition.

The first Olympics to be held under Coubertin’s constitution were in 1920 in Belgium, delayed by the outbreak of World War 1.


The first modern Olympics were much changed from their original conception in ancient Greece, and the Olympics as we know them today have also changed considerably since the first modern Olympics. There has been a core of five sports that have remained in every summer Olympics programme since their conception, namely; athletics, cycling, fencing, gymnastics and swimming. The number of sports involved has seen a steady increase and in 2000 the IOC decided to impose a cap of 28 sports in the summer Olympics. The first modern Olympics had 22 sports, in comparison to the original 9 in the 1896 games in Athens. The London 2012 Olympics has 26 sports and the 2016 Olympics to be held in Rio sees the addition of rugby 7s and golf. A complete timeline of the changes in Olympic sports can be seen here.

The number of countries taking part in the Olympics has seen a considerable increase over the years. The 1896 Olympics attendance wasn’t well documented, and records show competitors from 11-16 different countries. The 1920 Olympics in Paris saw a slight increase of 24 countries represented. The greatest increase was seen in the 1924 summer Olympics held in Paris with 44 countries being represented. The last games before the outbreak of the Second World War saw 49 countries represented with a twelve year break before the next Olympics, held in 1948. These games, held in London saw an increase to 59 countries, including 14 making their Olympic debut. Numbers gradually increased by around 20 countries a year, excluding the boycott of some events around the 1970s and 1980s. The last Olympic Games held in 2008 in Beijing saw 204 countries represented. The official statistics for the 2012 Olympics are as follows.

From the 27th July 2012 204 countries will send more than 10,000 athletes to compete in 300 events

(BBC, 2012)

Figures for the numbers of people watching the Olympics are very hard to obtain, while ticket sales can be recorded, it’s hard to obtain a measure of how many people watch the Olympics via television or the many public viewing areas and screens.

Rough visitor numbers, measured by ticket sales and numbers at official viewing areas can be found for the last 3 Olympics and are shown below, along with predictions for 2012.


As you’d expect, the statistics show a reasonably consistent number of visitors in 2000 and 2004, with a considerable increase in 2008 and a further slight increase predicted for 2012. Whilst the visitor numbers are likely to be affected by the location of the games (for travel reasons), these numbers show a considerable increase in interest over the last 12 years. A number of conclusions could be drawn from this, with a possible one being that people are becoming more interested in sports, the athletes and the Olympic games themselves.

In 2011, Kantar OnlineBus surveyed 1134 people aged 16-64 across Great Britain to gauge public perception about the forthcoming 2012 Olympics and their interest.


Without any other results to compare to it’s hard to comment, but the results show a 58% interest level, suggesting that the public are quite interested by the games. If this data were extrapolated to cover the whole of Great Britain it would equate to roughly 38 million people having some form of interest in the games!


There’s a lot of bad press out there about the cost of the Olympics and as a write there are numerous reports coming out that suggest figures for how many billions of pounds the Olympics are going to cost Britain.

Current figures show that costs are currently at around £12 billion and could reach as much as £24 billion according to a Sky Sports investigation. Presently the Olympics public sector funding package only covers up to £9.3 billion, with the rest of the capital being sourced from other funds.


There’s no doubt though that the Olympics will mean a lot of additional visitors to Britain. The government clearly acknowledge this as they are taking measures to ensure there are sufficient staff at airline customs desks for example.

Take the coastal town of Weymouth for example, hosts of the Olympic sailing events. This summer will see visitors, athletes and support teams from around the world descending on Weymouth, all needing somewhere to stay and somewhere to eat (although some will be provided by the athletes village). Lots of local businesses will benefit from this increase in visitor numbers, right from restaurants to B&B’s, gift shops to ice creameries and transport operators to the donkeys on the beach!

The Olympic torch route also follows a similar trend, attracting people out onto the streets and into parks to celebrate the passing of the torch. Many of these people will be drawn to local restaurants, pubs and shops, improving the economy of the towns involved. The building of the infrastructure for the Olympics has generated around 30,000 jobs which wouldn’t otherwise have been available. With these workers paying tax on their earnings, it further increases the government’s revenues. All of this increase in business and jobs results in an improved economy and an increase in taxes payable to the government. With this in mind, Britain should benefit financially from the increase in visitors.

Putting it all together

Putting it all together poses some interesting questions which must first be answered before we answer the question, how important is the Olympics?

So, why do we need it in London? Why can’t it just stay in one place like the Greeks wanted? These athletes train and compete all year right…..so why do we need it at all? Going back to history, the ancient Greeks justified the need as it was a religious celebration and a way of timekeeping. We now have far more advanced methods of timekeeping and religion doesn’t pay a great part in the games so why the need? One thing that hasn’t changed since ancient times is that athletes want recognition for their achievements and to leave a legacy. That’s fine, but is that worth the additional circa £15 billion that must be found to support the Olympics?

Maybe I’m biased, but my answer is undoubtedly- Yes! Perhaps I’ll try and give some justification for my answer…….

There’s no denying the fact that the Olympics costs a great deal to host, with an estimated overspend of around £15 billion. There’s also massive pressure put on civil servants in the form of customs officials and emergency services, this comes with an increases cost due to the extra numbers of staff required. As highlighted above, the extra people coming to Britain won’t directly contribute to the government’s coffers, but are likely to considerably improve local economies by spending money in local businesses. The taxes generates from this increase in revenue are all likely to improve Britain’s economy. I doubt that this increase in revenue will meet all the necessary costs and will improve the economy by a great amount, but as the effects are likely to be long term they are incredibly hard to measure. For example, visitors to the Olympic Games may opt to stay in Britain for an extended holiday or may decide to return in the future. Factors such as these all go to help the British economy but are virtually impossible to measure.

The sheer variety in cultural differences between the 203 visiting countries is also likely to have a lasting effect and may well bring us a new and undiscovered sports, recipes or dances that have been hidden gems for generations. With this in mind the question about moving the location of the Olympics becomes simple to answer. Put simply- to let as many countries as possible share the cultural, economic and world recognition that the Olympics may provide.

Briefly putting the social and economic factors to one side, from a sports aspect, what are the benefits?

clip_image021Well, the Olympics are undoubtedly a fantastic international proving ground for athletes. It gives them the opportunity to compete against athletes of a similar level on an international stage. This gives them the opportunity to compare themselves against each other and to determine how good they are internationally. This is only achievable through the sheer scale of the Olympics and the number of countries and sports involved.

As athletes continually strive to do better, events such as these are vital as they serve as a proving ground for the athletes and a chance to try and beat personal or world records. Factors such as these are vital to the athletes as records and results from events all play a part in future selection processes and sponsorship deals.

It’s possibly a clichéd phrase but the Olympics are truly a ‘stadium of dreams’, it’s a place where athletes and aspiring youngsters alike have the chance to see their idols perform and gives them something to aspire to.

The ‘Olympic Effect’ and the ‘Inspire a Generation’ slogan is something that’s been reported a lot in the press lately. Aided immensely by campaigns run by Sport England, statistics clearly show that in the lead up to the Olympics there has been an increased interest in sport and an increase in the number of people participating in sports on a leisure basis. The amount of youngsters interested in sport has also increased and seeing all the publicity about the Olympics has given many future Olympic hopefuls a spark in life and provided them with something to aspire to. The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part!

Cycling is a prime example of one such sport seeing growth in 2012 as cycle sales have hit a record high, catching many retailers and manufacturers unaware. This has left many retailers without stocks and has forced manufacturers to rush through production of their 2013 models.


One of the major arguments used by the government to justify the hosting of the Olympics was the legacy that the Olympics would leave as many of the buildings that form the Olympic village will be converted into permanent sports facilities and accommodation. The continued provision of sports facilities will hopefully assist people who have been inspired into sports in 2012 to continue with their new found interest.

The building of these facilities has already created many jobs, all helping the failing economy. But there’s also a legacy of jobs that will be left by the buildings which will remain. Speaking in 2010, Gordon Brown said.

There will be 50,000 jobs permanently created as a result of the facilities the site will make possible for the future.

clip_image025Such jobs will be spread across the sports, management and facilities sector to provide high quality coaching, training and maintenance of the venues and their facilities.

By partnering with schemes such as UK Sport Innovation, the Olympics have seen great collaborations between coaches and sports engineers like myself. Such schemes are designed to improve the sports coaching and performance process for the athletes and coaches involved. This may be redesigning a bit of equipment to make it perform better or be more comfortable, designing data collection equipment to understand more about a sporting technique or redesigning a piece of equipment to make it safer and prevent injury.

I hope the discussions above have made you think just that little bit more about the Olympics, the associated impact and whether you think it’s important or not. Personally, I think the Olympics are still just as important today as it was back in the 5th and 6th centuries. Yes it will undoubtedly cost London money, but it’s the factors that cannot be measured which matter the most.

If nothing else, it makes good television after all! I know that for one I’ll be firmly glued to the television this summer.

Sean Clarkson

About yachtingnut

Sean started his engineering career at the tender age of 4, continually ‘wiring’ up his parents’ house with string, wool and plastic socket protectors designed to stop him from being interested in electrics! The fact that he never managed to decapitate his mum and dad remains a mystery, but with this early interest Sean’s future career was sealed. Also apparent from an early age was Sean’s addiction to water, whether it be on top of it, under it or floating on it. After pursuing many water related sports including kayaking, scuba diving and sailing it was Sean’s first water sport he settled on- Sailing, something which he also started at a very young age. Sean competes regularly in many local and national yacht racing championships throughout England are Ireland with varying degrees of success, always attributed to the poor weather…..or so he says! Sean also has interests in other sports including; cycling, badminton, archery and golf. After graduating from Sheffield Hallam University with a BEng (Hons) degree in Electronic Engineering Sean then went onto complete an MSc in Electronics & IT also at Sheffield Hallam University. With such a strong interest in engineering and sport his next move of joining the Centre for Sports Engineering Research as a PhD researcher was only a natural progression. Sean’s main research area is developing 3D camera systems to analyse the way in which the body moves during motion (producing pretty pictures). From his electronics background Sean is also interested in developing instrumentation and feedback systems to measure the movement of athletes and the equipment they use. Sean has a strong interest in the application of consumer hardware such as the Xbox Kinect and Nintendo Wii remote to sports and has developed lots of fancy pieces of software to show off what they can do.

4 Responses

  1. Professor edward M Winter

    Sean presents a good overview of the economic and social reasons that make the Olympic Games so important.

    Yes, they are big, yes they are expensive (although compared with what?) and yes, there will probably be unsavoury aspects – although the media have been hard-pushed to find anything major, so far.

    The Olympic Games are unique in that they bring together nations of the earth to celebrate athletic achievements of humankind. It is easy to be cynical, but that was the principal force that energised de Coubertin and indeed, drove the ancient Greeks.

    This founding principle should be preserved and nurtured.

    While the success of athletes is important, that success is transient and will be surpassed by others.

    The higher values are the ones we should respect and uphold.

  2. Brandon

    I agree that the Olympics are important, I have always joked that the only time I am ever patriotic is during the Olympics. However, there are some silly events in the Olympics that definitely don’t get my red, white, and blue blood pumping with enthusiasm. Ping-pong and shuffleboard immediately come to my mind when I think of the events that need to go! But even with a couple of dumb games (I refuse to call ping-pong a sport) throughout, the Olympics are still a great time that reminds me to be proud of my country.

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