It's the taking part that counts

Competitors and events in the Games

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At the 1908 London Games, 2,184 competitors took part in 110 events in 21 sports. It is expected that London 2012 will host 10,500 competitors, and 302 events in 26 sports.

In the intervening years, many sports have been added and discontinued, but athletics, swimming, fencing, and gymnastics have always featured in the summer Games.

A sport can be included if the IOC decides that it is played extensively around the world. On this criterion, many more sports could be included, but the IOC resolved in the early 2000s that no more than 28 sports should be played. The rise in the number of events within each sport is due partly to the addition of new weight classes (in weightlifting and boxing) and new distances (in athletics): London 1908 did not feature 5,000m or 10,000m runs, but it did include, for the first and only time, a ‘medley relay’ in which the first two runners ran 200m,the third 400m and the fourth 800m (the US team were triumphant).

But above all, the number of events has increased because sports have been gradually opened to women athletes. The addition of women’s boxing to the 2012 Games schedule means that there are now no sports that do not include events for women, though there are some women-only events, such as synchronised swimming. Only in equestrian disciplines, some sailing events, and mixed doubles tennis and badminton will men and women compete directly against one another.

Until 1924, when the IOC took control of the programme, the Games organisers were permitted to decide which sports and events were on the schedule. This led to many sports being contested for only a few Olympiads, including lacrosse, cricket and croquet. From 1900 to 1920 the tug-of-war was part of the track and field athletics programme. British teams were successful in this sport, and in 1908 Britain took all 3 places on the podium, with the City of London police team taking the gold.

The British had less success as hosts and players of rugby union in 1908. After Scotland and Ireland refused the invitation to participate, and the French withdrew, only two teams were left: Britain, represented not by a national team but by Cornwall, and Australasia. The Olympic report was stoical about the result of a game played in a thick London fog at a deserted White City Stadium: “as was natural, the Cornishmen were defeated... by 32 points to 3”.

Olympic growth
The chart shows the total number of athletes and events at each Olympic Games. Women athletes are represented in grey.

The chart shows the total number of athletes and events at each Olympic Games

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