The Olympic Games have an extensive history, but the modern epoch of this worldwide sporting event is marked as having been initiated in 1890 (Roche 92-93) and it is this period that this history of the modern Olympic Games begins. Just a few years earlier, the French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, a sports fan and enthusiast of Hellenic history, had learned of archaeologists’ discovery of the ancient games site at Olympia and, by all accounts, became obsessed with the idea of reviving the Olympics (Roche 92). During the same period, Dr. William Penny Brookes, described by historians as a “leading British sports culture enthusiast,” was also pursuing his dream of reviving the Olympics, and had, by 1890, staged several small-scale international sporting expositions, as had de Coubertin (Roche 92). Just before the turn of the century, the spirit of sport was at its height, as was the international community’s interest in short-term collaborative events that brought countries and their citizens together to share and show off their achievements; these events were referred to as “expos” (Roche 93). Given these conditions, the moment was perfect for the resuscitation of the modern Olympic Games, which were viewed by the public at large as “unique… utterly confound[ing] the familiar classifications…of cultural performance” (MacAloon, as cited by Roche 93).
Ever since the early years of the new Games, the spirit of the Olympic Games has captured the interest and appreciation of people all around the world, even those who do not consider themselves sports enthusiasts. In fact, the Olympics are bigger than sports and represent something much more profound than the impressive display of athleticism. As Bale and Krogh Christensen observed, “The Olympics has been read as the global event where, by using the global currency of sports, lasting friendships are forged” (1). The Olympic Games, these authors concluded, represent “sport’s high altar” (Bale & Krogh Christensen 1). In fact, the modern Olympic Games have often been viewed as the global community’s high altar. Despite occasional scandals and tragedies that have marked the Games over the years, the Olympics “contain much about the construction of, and connections between, the cultural, the political and the economic in modern societies and in the contemporary world order” (Roche xi). The Olympic Games also represent hope and promise, however naive. If countries can come together across differences to compete, optimists believe, perhaps they can come together to create a more peaceful and cooperative world.
From the beginning of the modern Olympics, the role that promotion played in the preparation for and actual staging of the Games was critical. In the earliest days of the new Games, organizers needed to seek platforms for publicizing the Olympics and setting them apart from all of the other expos that competed for the public’s attention. This was particularly the case because the Games of the early 1900s needed to be attended by a live audience in order to generate revenue that would cover the costs of staging the event (Roche 10). During those earliest years of the revived Olympic Games, the promotion tended to be intense yet somewhat limited to the country and even the specific region where the Games were being hosted. Due to the fact that transportation systems between countries were still not particularly well-developed, and were definitely not accessible to individuals outside of the wealthier classes, the host country and city could not reasonably expect that it would attract paying spectators, especially spectators from abroad. While traveling to the host country and city to participate as a spectator in the Olympic Games is now a popular activity and has even spawned its own subsector of the tourist industry, this was simply not the case at the turn of the century (Bale & Krogh Christensen 78; 138; Roche 126).
In the early 1900s, television had not yet been invented, and radio broadcasts, while popular, did not have quite the same reach or impact as live attendance did and as television eventually would, especially from the perspective of advertisers and sponsors (Roche 10). At this particular juncture in Olympic history, the primary media instrument used for diffusion of information about the Games was print media, newspapers in particular (Roche 10). Articles recounting the competitions that had already occurred were published, and were accompanied and enlivened by photographs, which played an important role in stimulating the public’s interest in the Games and communicating the spirit of the Olympics. This notion of spirit is critical to the role that advertising has played in the Games since the mid-twentieth century, an issue that will be examined in greater detail later (Bale & Krogh Christensen 89). It was not until the post-war period, however, that the television would become an important part of the Olympic Games. In some people’s minds, the role that television would play would become so important that it would reshape everything about the Olympics– their organization, their delivery, and the public’s enjoyment of the Games (Roche 147).
Over time, as technology evolved and, in particular, as the television became a fixture in many homes, especially in developed countries, one of the critical changes that occurred in the promotion, marketing, and sponsorship of the Olympic Games was the manner in which the relationship between the Games and advertisers evolved. Olympic organizers quickly recognized the power that televised mass media could offer them with respect to the promotion of the Games via broadcasting (Roche 10). First, television could potentially reach a larger and more diverse audience than newspapers and other print media, such as magazines and circular announcements. Second, it could convey moving images; while this observation seems obvious, it is both powerful and significant, for the Olympics were all about motion and movement, and the television captured the physicality of the Games in a way that a still photograph never could.