Where Did All These Olympic Sports Come From?

Atlas Lens dives into the geographic origins of each sport featured in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and why certain countries claim far more than others.

Photo by Agberto Guimaraes

The 2016 Rio Olympic Games boasted an incredible 39 sports with over three-hundred events. Every four years, these numbers grow with new additions, including sports like climbing, already announced for inclusion in the Summer 2020 Games in Tokyo.

Sports play such a vital role in almost every culture on Earth and have since the dawn of civilization. From the famous (and brutal) Mayan “ballgames” to chariot races of Ancient Greece and Rome, sports have always represented one of the most fundamental expressions of a people’s identity.

Since the Olympics is a foundational global athletic event, we wanted to know: How well represented are the many diverse cultures of the world? Where did these Olympics sports come from and how are they chosen? The answer may be surprising to some, but to a geographer, it’s far from shocking.


Image by Braden Anderson and Andy Thies

As we can see from the map, Europe has an overwhelming influence over the origins of sports included in the Olympics. An incredible eighteen sports included in this years Olympics have European origins. That’s nearly half. Furthermore, nine are derived from the United Kingdom (including Scotland, England, and Wales) alone.

So why Europe? In addition to conceiving the very idea of the Olympics and essentially dominating much of its early years (only two non-European countries competed in the first games: USA and Chile), Europe (and other Western countries) has had a knack for disseminating its culture throughout the world.

The days of European colonization set a precedent for the western culture emanation we see today throughout the world. At first, this related to western governmental ideologies, technological advancement, and pop culture. It also meant cricket becoming the number one sport in India and football (soccer) being pretty much everywhere.

To be included in the Olympics, a sport must meet a number of criteria including global appeal, feasible operating costs, and ease of broadcast. It’s therefore not surprising that the vast majority of Olympic sports were conceived within countries with the cultural power to spread them beyond their borders. It’s not that Olympic sports selection are necessarily bias in favor of Euro-sports; those sports are simply played more on a global scale.

However, the latter half of the modern Olympics’ history has seen a sort of cultural diversification of sports. This can be seen with the inclusion of Judo (1964) and Taekwondo (2000) from Japan and Korea respectively. Into the future though, sports will likely continue a trend away from association with national identities, especially only those in which they originated. However, the historical legacy will last forever.

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