21st Century Olympics – What’s New?  

21st Century Olympics - What's New?

London will be the fourth Olympic Games this century, after Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. Each of these Olympics has brought new developments in a range of fields, while London has already broken new ground and promises even more.

Sydney 2000

The Sydney Olympics is widely regarded as a landmark Games, one of excellent organisation, exciting atmosphere and high class sporting contest. It arguably put the Olympics back on the path of its true purpose, and was a stark contrast to the organisational and spectator problems of the previous games in Atlanta in 1996 and the political cloud that increasingly dogged the Olympics through the 1970s and 1980s. Sydney was much more like the success of the first post war Olympics in London in 1948, one of genuine celebration and camaraderie, although now firmly in the era of professional sport.

This is probably the biggest contrast between the Olympics of the 21st century and that of previous Games. While many of the new introductions into the Olympics have been a natural progression as other areas of society have evolved, the completion of the transition to professional  from amateur participation can be marked at Sydney 2000, and it is an area where the Olympics has  been directly responsible.

This professional development has been both that of the sport itself and the organisation around it that makes the Games possible. This process has certainly been a progression, and wasn’t  a sudden switch at Sydney, but the contrasts were stark. Australia has always been a highly sport orientated country and, partly due to being awarded the Olympics, through the 1990s was at the heart of many sporting development and the rapid development of modern sport, dominating many both at the Olympics and others such as rugby and cricket. This professional and scientific approach was almost a trademark of the Sydney Games and has been a requirement since.

The development of sports science of the previous two decades had infiltrated many sports in the Olympics prior to Sydney, indeed many Olympic sports were at the forefront of its development. However, it was not the case in all sports and all events, even in some sports where the Olympics is the panicle but mainly in sports that did not see the Olympics as being the main event, such as tennis or football. Events in some of these sports were often seen as a poor relation in contrast to the main events in those sports, but at Sydney the professional standards across the board of the athletes was markedly higher, as were the way all the competitions were run. As the availability of scientific knowledge in relation to sport has massively expanded since, and the investment also, the Olympics of the 21st century is firmly the domain of only high class, modern professional athletes. Even though many of the principles of the amateur games remain, and many athletes at the games do not make their living through their sports, the way they train, prepare and participate is very much highly professional.  

Athens 2004

The Athens Games was significant in producing a change in direction of the Olympics. While it had many problems, such as spectator numbers, organisation and funding issues, the event itself was largely successful and that it took place at the birth place of the Olympics seemed to bring about a re-evaluation of its purpose. Some of the founding principles of the Olympics got rather blurred or even lost during the latter part of the 20th century, even dividing nations and pushing them further apart. While Sydney was highly successful as a sporting and cultural event, and was much more conciliatory and inclusive, after Athens it was seen that the Olympics should be more effectively used to better society in a much broader way. Having the Olympics in Athens at this time was important as there was a lot of focus on the original purpose of the Olympics and its historical significance. The fact that the Olympics was due next to break new ground in China, these issues became even more important as a significant opportunity to have a greater effect on more people and in a greater variety of ways. The focus on what the Olympics can bring in a wider context has been a key development since.

Beijing 2008

Beijing produced an Olympic Games that had never been seen before, and will be difficult to replicate again. The amount of money spent and the number of people involved in the games was unprecedented, with even the entertainers at the opening ceremony spending years doing little else but perfect their performance. A large part of this was down to the choice of  venue, with it being the first in China and an opportunity for the country to show the world its culture and abilities at a critical time in its development as a country amid various transitions as part of a more integrated world.

More importantly was the effect the Olympics had on the country itself. Aside from the challenges to the political situation and the lifting of restrictions on media that were a requirement for holding the games, the Beijing Olympics had a significant effect on the development of the country and its people. These effects were in many cases negative as well as positive, but it showed just how great an influencing force the Olympics can be. This use of the Olympics to bring about lasting change is a key development of the Olympics in the 21st century, and while not a new principle the way in which it is now focused is certainly a new direction.

London 2012

Creating a legacy was a key part of the London bid, and while it was questioned both how genuine and how realistic this aim was, London has driven forward with this aim and worked hard to ensure genuine legacies are created both in Britain and around the world. The importance of a genuine legacy has been a key subject of the Olympics for many years for a variety of reasons, such as the problems with unused stadiums following a games, and also the increasing understanding of an active lifestyle in maintaining good health that the Olympics is ideally suited to promote. With London being the first Games able to truly take advantage of the digital age and communication technologies, the tools are now there to really produce a lasting legacy as many more people can be kept in contact and influenced by the games.

The two pronged legacy aim of at home and abroad looks set to be significantly greater with the London Olympics than at any other. The long term regeneration of the site of the Olympic village in Stratford in east London, the major developments in transport and other infrastructure in London as a whole and the increased participation in sport, exercise and activity more generally by the UK population are key objectives that we cannot assess the success of until after the Games, but currently seem on course. Further afield, the London Olympics has used its host status and its position as a hub of global sporting excellence more generally to reach out to communities around the world, both established and remote, to not only build greater and improved connections between countries and peoples but also to use sport as a development tool in remote or under developed communities that do not currently have the same opportunities. London is therefore an important step in producing a major breakthrough in the legacy aim that is a key part of the new developments of the Olympic movement in the 21st century.

Sports Events

As has been the case with most Olympics, the sports and events within them have developed since the turn of the century, in the most past expanding the number of competitions although some have been dropped or replaced by others. The choice of which sports are competed at the Olympics is down to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), however individual sports generally have control over which events or disciplines will make up their sports competition. For example for London 2012 the cycling events were significantly altered by the International Cycling Union, although final approval for events must be granted by the IOC.

There was a significant jump in events from Atlanta in 1996 to Sydney in 2000, with 271 events increasing to 300 in 28 sports, two more sports than in Atlanta.  This has stayed roughly the amount since, with 300 at Sydney, 301 at Atlanta and 302 at both Beijing and London. However, there have been quite a few changes in these events in some sports, while for London there will be only 26 sports rather than the 28 previously, with baseball and softball having been dropped.

While adjustments in the schedule occur with each Olympics, there has been a shift towards aligning the men’s and women’s events as much as possible. For example, the track cycling for London has moved towards having the same events for both men and women, and women’s pole vault was introduced for the first time to the athletics schedule in Sydney. Although this is not viable for all sports and for all events,  since the turn of the century the Olympics has been moving further in this direction due to a greater parity between men’s and women’s sporting competitions generally.


21st century athletes at the Olympics have a number of differences from those of previous Games. There are the obvious advances in training and preparation as a result of our increased understanding in the sports science field, but there has also been a significant shift in their public status. While there have always been icons of almost every Olympics, from Jesse Owen to Cathy Freeman, the media spotlight today is greater than ever and focuses on many more athletes. This is mainly due to the expansion of the media into more accessible forums, such as the internet, but is also a consequence of professionalism. The level of competition and standards of performance have significantly increased, placing elite athletes on another level rather disassociated with what can be achieved by most people. Because their achievements are much greater, their status has become heightened also.

However, in most cases this has been of great benefit to most athletes rather than a hindrance. While a few attract more attention than they can cope with, it has lead to increased income and funding, while also giving athletes a greater ability to positively affect peoples’ lives. Not only can they act as more influential role models, but with increased status comes increased influence to positively affect causes important to them and society. While Olympic athletes have always been involved in wider causes, the publicity and awareness of what they are doing is much greater, often of great benefit to these causes. This has been recognised and used extensively by the London Olympics, with the use of athletes from both the Olympics and from outside to aid in legacy work. This increased attention and influence is something all 21st century athletes, particularly those at the very top, need to get used to.


Stadiums at the Olympics have to meet different and greater requirements in the 21st century than at previous games. Modern sporting stadiums must meet certain standards of safety as well as spectator visibility, comfort and access. The requirements for broadcasting, hospitality, catering, advertising and many other areas are much developed and have resulted in a whole new approach to modern stadium design.

The artistic architectural integration has also been greatly developed. Innovative designs have integrated structural requirements and artistic creativity to produce some inspiring buildings, such as the birds nest main stadium in Beijing. London 2012 has taken this to new levels, with the mixture of requirements for permanent, temporary and movable stadiums requiring architects to think differently. The Olympic Park will contain a range if different structures not only in design but also materials, with the aquatics centre, velodrome, basketball arena and the Olympic Stadium itself each a spectacular architectural achievement.


The media coverage of the Olympics has been an area of significant development in the 21st century and has been the catalyst for many other recent developments. The digital age has brought much greater access to information, increased discussion and interest, massively expanded coverage and developed much greater quality broadcasting. We are now at the stage where any event, even several events at one time, can be viewed live or as-live by anyone in the world whenever they want. This has made the Olympics truly global, and with the development of social networking people are also becoming increasingly involved in commenting and discussing sporting events. Developments such as twitter have brought athletes direct to their fans and high definition and digital television have greatly increased the quality of broadcast to enhance the viewer’s experience.

These developments have brought the Olympics much closer to many more people, so is not only able to influence them but can also be influenced by them. The potential for the Olympics to meet its original objective of bring humanity closer together because of these developments is perhaps the biggest change of the Olympics in the 21st century. 


R. Harris

Bsc Physical Education, Sports Science and Physics, Loughborough University Founder

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