Every four years the Olympic games bring together athletes from all corners of the world to compete in the planet’s biggest international multi-sports tournament. This year’s Summer Olympic games are scheduled to kick off in August in Beijing. The next Winter Olympics will be held in Vancouver, Canada, in 2010. Currently 203 countries participate in the Olympics, more than the 193 countries belonging to the United Nations.

The Olympic program consists of 35 sports categories, 53 specific sport “disciplines” and more than 400 events. The Summer Olympics includes 28 sports with 38 disciplines including athletics (track and field), cycling, fencing, gymnastics, weightlifting, shooting, swimming, tennis and wrestling. The winter games features seven sports with 15 disciplines including cross-country skiing, figure skating, ice hockey, ski jumping and speed skating.

The original Olympic games were first recorded in 776 BC in Olympia, Greece, and were celebrated until AD 393. According to one legend, the Greek god Heracles was the creator of the games and built the Olympic stadium and surrounding buildings as an honor to his father Zeus. The legend has it that he walked in a straight line for 400 strides and called this distance a “stadion,” which later became a measure of the modern Olympic stadium.

In 1833 Greek poet and newspaper editor Panagiotis Soutsos, in his poem “Dialogue of the Dead,” spurred interest in reviving the Olympic games in 1833. Greek businessman and philanthropist Evangelos Zappas sponsored the first modern games in 1859 and paid for refurbishment of the Panathinaiko Stadium for the games in Greece in 1870 and 1875. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was founded in 1894 on the initiative of a French nobleman, Pierre Frédy, Baron de Coubertin. The first of the IOC’s Olympic games were the 1896 summer games. Coubertin sought a way to bring nations closer together and to have the youth of the world compete in sports, rather than fight in war.

Coubertin’s ideals are illustrated by the Olympic creed: “The most important thing in the Olympic games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

Three Olympiads had to pass without the games due to World War I in 1916 and the summer and winter games of 1940 and 1944 due to World War II. Many countries have also boycotted the Olympic games. In 1980 and 1984 both the U.S. and the Soviet Union boycotted the Olympics that were held in each other’s countries.

The Olympic rings are the most widely used symbol of the global event. The five intertwined rings represent the unity of the five inhabited continents and the colors, white, red, blue, green, yellow and black, were chosen because each nation has at least one of these colors in its national flag.

Before each Olympic Games the Olympic Flame is lit in Olympia, Greece, and brought to the host city by runners carrying the torch in relay. In the stadium, it is passed from athlete to athlete until it reaches the last carrier, often a well-known athlete from the host nation, who lights the fire in the stadium’s cauldron.

This year the devastating May 12 earthquake struck as the Olympic torch relay was passing through China on its way to Beijing. The Chinese government paused the torch relay for three days to honor the memory of those who lost their lives in the quake. A national mourning including three minutes of silence was observed throughout China on May 19.

The IOC sent a letter of condolence to China’s President Hu Jintao and announced that it would donate $1 million to aid relief and recovery efforts. “I feel deeply for those affected and join in solidarity with the people of China,” said IOC President Jacques Rogge. “We send our deepest condolences to the victims and their families.”