The most popular Olympic sports

The summer Olympics only happens once every 4 years and when it does, the whole planet pays attention.  It is the pinnacle of sport where the best in the world compete over 28 sports with 38 different disciplines, for the ultimate prizes in sport – Gold, Silver and Bronze.

The history of the Olympic Games

The summer and winter games are each held every four years and up until 1992, they were both held in the same year.  Since then, they have been separated by a two year gap.

The original Olympic Games were first recorded in 776 BC in Olympia, Greece, and were celebrated until AD 393.  The Olympic Games were revived in 1859 in whats known as the first modern international Olympic Games in 1859. 

The International Olympic Committee was founded in 1894 and the first IOC Olympic Games were the 1896 Summer Olympics, held in Athens, Greece.

Until 1992, the Summer and Winter Olympics were both held in the same year.  Since then, they have been separated by a two year gap.  The Current Olympic program consists of 35 different sports, 53 disciplines and more than 400 events. The Summer Olympics includes 28 sports with 38 disciplines and the Winter Olympics includes 7 sports with 15 disciplines.

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The most popular olympic sports

Over the years there have been some very minor and even weird sports at the Olympics.  Rope climbing was in the Olympic programme in the early years, as was live pigeon shooting!  Tug of war was an olympic sport up until 1920.

But we’re here to discuss the most popular Olympic sports, the sports that keep 100’s of millions of us glued to the TV during every Olympic Games.


Gymnast Rys McClenaghan

A world championship in gymnastics never really makes television headlines or breaks box office records, but when it comes to the Olympics, this sport reigns supreme.  Gymnastics has been an Olympic sport since the first modern Summer Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens.

It’s an incredible sport to watch and can be physically brutal, it’s of the most skilful sports of all.  Gymnastics has been an integral part since the first modern Games of Athens, 1896.

Olympic gymnastics involves three disciplines – Artistic, Rhythmic and Trampoline.  It has been the most-watched Olympic sport since 1996.  But table tennis is catching up fast!

Table Tennis

This may not be a massively popular sport globally but it’s massive in China, and table tennis was the most watched sport in China at the 2021 games.  The success of the Japanese team drew a whole new legion of fans to table tennis, also making it one of the most watched sport in Japan.

Over the years table tennis was never one of the most watched olympic sports, but it is now!

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Track and Field

Up next is athletics.  Track and field events can trace its roots to the ancient Greek-Olympics and with 44 events in total (segregated into three parts of track, field and road event), athletics is the most contested of all Olympic sports and is the biggest sport in terms of both competitors and events.

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Track and field events cumulate to the ultimate showdown in sport –  The 100m, 200m and 100m relay final.  These are the single most watched events with the 100m being number 1.      Everyone on the planet wants to watch the fastest men and women blaze down the track to try win gold.


Much like gymnastics, swimming world championships can get eclipsed by other more mainstreams sports, but not at the Olympic games.   Swimming has the second most events after track and field, the sport has kept it’s popularity partly due to some legends of the pool.  Swimming superstars like Michael Phelps (the most decorated Olympian in history), Ian Thorpe, Mark Spitz  and more recently Katie Ledecky have cemented swimming popularity over the years.

Country rivalry is a real mix for excitement too, the USA and Australia have traditional had the best swimmers in the world.  The USA has won the most medals in the swimming competitions since 1896, followed by Australia.

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Another hugely popular crowd favourite is Olympic weightlifting.  Each weightlifter gets three attempts, and the combined total of the highest two successful lifts determines the overall result within a bodyweight category, each winner gets the title of strongest athlete in their bodyweight category.

Every four years millions tune in to watch the clean and jerk, snatch, deadlift etc.   Record are always been broken and incredible feats of strength are witnessed.


Football is the most popular sport in the world, and so will always have a massive audience.  And it’s popularity as an Olympic sport is no different.  Soccer wasn’t an early years Olympic sport but since being added to the programme and with women’s soccer added in 1996, it’s been a big success.

The massive superstar involved in soccer ( just think Messi or Ronaldo) mean that the global audience of this sport are constantly tuned into Olympic football.


Basketball has been a sport for men consistently since 1936 and women’s basketball made its debut in the Summer Olympics in 1976.  Basketball is another sport loaded with superstars, particularly the NBA players.

The United States is by far the most successful country in Olympic basketball, with USA men’s teams having won 16 of 19 tournaments in which they participated, including seven consecutive titles from 1936 through 1968.   Given the NBA and Euro Leagues popularity it’s easy see why basketball is such a big hit every year

3X3 basketball made it’s debut at the 2020/21 Tokyo Olympics.

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Rugby 7’s

It’s not easy to get accurate data on the most watched Olympic sports as a lot of the information rends to be per country.   For example Olympic basketball ranks very highly in the USA and some European countries, but would rank low in term of viewership in many other countries.

Rugby Sevens was added back to the Olympic programme in for Rio 2016 and it has been a massive hit, stadiums were sold out and millions around the world watched the competition play out.

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Tennis has become a much bigger deal at the Olympics in recent years as all the tennis superstars get involved in competing for their country.  Serena Williams and the big 3 in tennis – Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, all draw massive audiences everywhere they go and the summer Olympics is no different.

The ultimate prize in tennis is to win a golden slam – All 4 grands slams and Olympic gold.


Golf made a welcome return to the Olympics at Rio 2016 after a 112 year break and is very quickly rising in popularity.  Like most of the above sports, golf has a lot of massive names in the game and like the Ryder Cup, fan love to watch country rivalry.

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