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Bluffer's Guide to the Olympics

Ancient Olympics

Amaze your friends and earn the unflinching respect of your children with our Bluffer's Guide to the Olympics.

It's not easy reducing centuries of the world's biggest sporting tradition to a manageable chunk, but we've done the hard work so you don't have to.

Discover how it all began, have pithy talking points ready for the ad breaks and gen up on which sportswomen to watch.


Olympics Games: The Prequel

Somewhere back in the swirly mists of time (776BC, give or take), in a galaxy far far away ancient Olympia, the Greeks invented The Games.

They began as a day of sporting prowess designed to 1) honour Zeus, King of the Gods, and 2) allow Greek city-states to lord it over their neighbours without bloodshed. Winning athletes were crowned with a wreath of laurel leaves - not a shabby accolade in the early days when the only event was a short sprint from one end of the stadium to the other, but possibly a tad underwhelming a century later if you'd barely survived the pankration, an anything-goes boxing bout.

The Olympics rebooted

In AD393, spoilsport Theodosius I (a Christian) - put an end to The Games because of its pagan origins. It took nearly 1,500 years before Pierre de Coubertin asked: "What's wrong with a pagan athletics tourament?" (our paraphrase). He grumbled incessantly until it was eventually revived in 1896.

Women at the Olympics

Back in the day (see above) the only event open to women was the four-horse chariot race, and then only as chariot owners. Beyond this the only women encouraged to practise sport were those of SPARTA, (you have to yell it in a Scottish accent à la Gerald Butler), where it was believed that strong mothers would produce good Spartan soldiers.

When Pierre de Coubertin staged the first modern Olympics in 1896, while he was a-OK with the pagan malarky, he drew the moral line at female athletes calling their participation: "Impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect." Oo-er!

Despite his intransigance, just four years later women competed at the 1900 Paris Games in lawn tennis and golf. In 1928, women's athletics and gymnastics debuted. However, so many participants collapsed at the end of the 800m race that the event was banned until 1960.

Since then, women have steadily fought their way into every event. When female boxers compete at London 2012 they will have breached the last all-male summer sport. Also, both Qatar and Saudi Arabia will be including women in their Olympic delegations for the first time this year.

Women to watch

Jessica EnnisForeign competitors entering the UK will be greeted by a 173ft painting of heptathlon hopeful Jessica Ennis. The 26 year old has already been World Champion twice, after winning medals in Berlin in 2009 and Doha in 2010, however, this will be her first Olympics.



Rebecca Adlington was an unknown before 2008, but after winning two gold medals in the middle-distance events in Beijing she's become a household name - and the one to beat. Look out for her in the 400m and 800m freestyle swimming.




British sprinter Christine Ohuruogu scored gold in the 400m in 2008. Though she's suffered a series of injuries since then, an impressive performance at the World Indoor Championships in March indicates she's back on form.


Victoria Pendleton peddled her way to gold in the women's individual sprint at Beijing and intends to retire after London 2012, before that the world cycling champion plans to annihilate the competition, particularly Australian rival Ann Meares.



Boffins' corner: what to say when watching the Games

1. During the opening of London 2012 do say: "Having Danny Boyle direct the opening ceremony sort of reminds me of the 1960 Games when Walt Disney did the opening and closing ceremonies. Here, check out my Mickey Mouse collector's figurine."

2. When there's a lull in sporting activity, someone's bound to comment on Team GB's true-blue sartorial look. That's your cue to casually remark: "Stella McCartney got a lot of flak for sidelining red in her design, but with Ralph Lauren dressing the Americans in white and Armani doing a monochrome look for the Italians, I think the days of swaddling athletes in their national flag are over."

3. Everybody thinks they're a Michael Phelps expert and it can be tricky to find a new angle. When he appears on the screen try this: "That dude won so many medals in Beijing (eight golds) that if he'd been a country he'd have ranked fourth in gold medals." Then give a knowing nod and wander off. Preferably back to the Pimms.

4. If When the heavens open, reassure any fretful friends that LOCOG (the London organising committee) has promised rain will not stop play; events like BMX and tennis might be delayed by extremely heavy precipitation, but nothing short of lightning will delay the rest.

5. The podium ceremonies offer the ideal opportunity to shoehorn in some metallurgical knowledge. When a winning athlete holds up their gold medal for a photo op say: "I hope she's not planning to bite that medal, it's only coated in 6g of gold."  



Last updated: over 3 years ago