Maddie Bowman celebrates winning the gold medal in the reestyle skiing ladies' ski halfpipe inals with David Wise at the Olympics Games Sochi 2014 on Feb. 20, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
When the modern Olympic Games opened in 1896, events were contested across 10 sports — from track and field to wrestling.
While tug of war and the obstacle swim are no longer part of the Olympic program, the International Olympic Committee has, over the ensuing Olympiads, endeavored to keep the Olympic Games truly modern. A slew of sports such as basketball, canoe/kayak and judo were added in the early and mid-20th century. And in 1924 the Olympic Winter Games debuted, with daredevil sports like bobsled and ski jumping, then alpine skiing in 1936—despite the protests of the Scandinavian countries, which wanted to keep sport “pure.”
Heading into the 21st century, the Games have kept up with the times. The IOC added popular sports and disciplines like beach volleyball, triathlon and BMX (in 1996, 2000 and 2008, respectively). But gender equality was lacking. And the youthful vibe of urban sports was missing.
Until the 2010s.
At the 127th IOC Session in December 2014, the IOC established Olympic Agenda 2020, a strategic roadmap with recommendations of how to keep the Games relevant. Among the recommendations: fostering gender equality, encouraging mixed-gender team events and providing a framework to bring more urban sports to the Games.
“We want to take sport to the youth,” said IOC President Thomas Bach in 2016 during the 129th IOC Session in Rio, where climbing, skateboarding and surfing were added to the 2020 Olympic program. “With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.”
Here’s a look at how the Games have changed in the past decade—from the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010 through the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Youth/Urban SportsDaron Rahlves competes in a men's ski cross qualification race at the Olympics Games Vancouver 2010 on Feb. 21, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada.
At the dawn of the 2010s, one new sport discipline debuted on the 2010 Olympic program: skicross for men and women.
This event, similar to snowboardcross (which was added in 2006)—except on skis, came to the Olympic program straight from the X Games. It brought the excitement of head-to-head ski racing and was the first freeski event included in the Games. Daron Rahlves and Casey Puckett, who had both competed in alpine skiing at several Games already, competed for the U.S. in skicross in 2010. But since then the sport has attracted dedicated freeskiers.
Action sports really took off four years later at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, with slopestyle skiing and snowboarding debuting, and halfpipe skiing joining its snowboarding cousin that had been in since 1998. Sage Kotsenburg won the first gold medal for Team USA in slopestyle snowboarding’s Olympic debut in Sochi. His huge airs—where he flipped and twisted multiple times, grabbing his board in a never-before-attempted trick—captured the crowd and made the event an instant success. A day later, Team USA’s Jamie Anderson dominated the women’s event.
Of the four slopestyle events at the Sochi Games, the U.S. won half of the available medals. And the U.S. men’s slopestyle skiing podium sweep—with Joss Christensen taking gold, Gus Kenworthy silver and Nick Goepper bronze—was only the third time for U.S. men in winter Olympic history.
Later in the Sochi Games, in halfpipe skiing’s Olympic debut, Americans David Wise and Maddie Bowman swept the gold medals. It seemed fitting that Americans dominated an event developed on American snow.
Since then, other countries have caught up. At the PyeongChang 2018 Games, snowboarders Red Gerard and Anderson still swept gold in slopestyle, and Goepper won his second Olympic medal in slopestyle skiing (silver). But U.S. athletes only took a quarter of the total slopestyle medals — down from a half four years earlier.
But the U.S. has maintained leadership in the growing list of action sports on the Olympic program. Big air snowboarding debuted at the 2018 Games—with the slopestyle athletes competing in that event as well—and two U.S. athletes made the podium. Anderson and Kyle Mack both won silver medals.
Urban sports will make a big splash in the Summer Games at Tokyo 2020. The IOC added climbing, skateboarding and surfing to the program, along with a freestyle park event in BMX and 3x3 basketball.
The Youth Olympic Games have played an important role in bringing these new, urban sports to the Olympic program. In 2010, the first summer edition of the Youth Games was held in Singapore, with the winter edition held in Innsbruck, Austria, in 2012. The every-two-year event brings together 15- to 18-year-olds from around the world to compete, as well as learn about other cultures and the Olympic values. The Youth Olympic Games are the largest sporting event in the world outside the traditional Olympic Games and have served as a testing ground for new events. In 2010, 3x3 basketball was first contested, and in 2018, climbing. These events are new on the 2020 Olympic program. Breaking—or break dancing—also debuted at the 2018 Youth Games and could be seen at the Olympic Games Paris 2024.
Traditional Sports ReturnMatt Kuchar plays his shot from the eighth tee during the final round of men's golf at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The 2010s also saw the return of old Olympic sports to the program. At the 2016 Olympic Games, golf returned after a 112-year hiatus—with American Matt Kuchar claiming the bronze medal in the men’s competition.
Rugby also returned in 2016, but rather than the fifteens played at the 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games, the sport came back as rugby sevens. The U.S. men finished ninth, the women fifth at the 2016 Games. But success in tournaments since the Rio Games show that both teams will be medal contenders in Tokyo.
Baseball and softball are also back on the Olympic program in 2020; both were dropped after the Beijing 2008 Games.
Karate will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo.
Gender Equality(L-R) Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings celebrate during the medal ceremony for women's beach volleyball at the Olympic Games London 2012 on Aug. 8, 2012 in London.
The U.S. dominated the medal count at the past two Summer Games, and it was the women on the team who won more than half the medals.
At the London 2012 Games—where the U.S. Olympic Team had more women than men for the first time in Olympic history—American women claimed 58 of the 104 medals (59 including Lisa Raymond, part of the bronze-medal-winning mixed doubles tennis team, with Mike Bryan).
While Michael Phelps added to his prodigious medal count in London, becoming the winningest Olympian ever, it was several U.S. women’s teams that stole the show. The U.S. beat the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup champion Japan for the gold in soccer, the women’s water polo team won its first Olympic gold, the Fierce Five won the country’s second-ever women’s gymnastics team gold, Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor claimed their third consecutive gold medal in beach volleyball, to name a few.
Of the 121 American medalists in Rio, women represented just over half (61, 63 counting the two women on the team jumping and team dressage squads, which won silver and bronze, respectively).
In the quest for gender equity on the Olympic program, women’s boxing was added to the Olympic program in London 2012, with Claressa Shields taking gold in the middleweight class. And in winter sports, female ski jumpers made their long-awaited debut at the Sochi 2014 Games.
The only remaining Olympic disciplines without women’s events are Nordic combined and Greco-Roman wrestling.
The IOC achieved full gender equality for the first time at an Olympic event with the Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018. The Dakar 2022 Youth Games—the first Olympic event to be held in Africa—will have full equality across each sport and event for the first time.
The IOC has added more women’s events to the Olympic program for 2020 in order to work toward that at the Olympic Games. Boxing has dropped two men’s weight classes and added two for women. Rowing added the women’s four in favor of the men’s lightweight four. In swimming, women will now compete in the 1,500-meter freestyle—a marquee event for five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky. For parity, the IOC added the 800 free for men.
To further the gender parity, the IOC added mixed gender team events across seven Olympic sports for 2020: archery, judo, shooting, swimming, triathlon, table tennis, and track and field. Along with the mixed gender events already held in badminton, equestrian sailing, and tennis, athletes will have the opportunity to compete in 18 total mixed gender team events in Tokyo.
At the Winter Games, a mixed gender biathlon relay, luge relay and figure skating team event were added in 2014, and mixed doubles curling and a mixed gender alpine team event were added in 2018. The Beijing 2022 Games will see mixed gender events in aerials skiing, ski jumping, short track speedskating and snowboardcross—plus the addition of women’s monobob, and additional chance for them to medal in bobsled.
The mixed gender team events will favor countries with depth in those sports. In Tokyo 2020, U.S. teams are favored to win medals in many of them, including mixed team recurve archery, at least one of shooting’s mixed team events, swimming’s 4x100-meter mixed medley, track’s mixed 4x400 and triathlon’s mixed relay. In swimming, the U.S. has finished first or second in every world championship mixed medley relay since the race was first held in 2015. In triathlon, the U.S. mixed gender team made the world championships podium from 2016-2018.
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.