The Olympic Games showcase the world’s best athletes competing in various sports. While the Olympics originally started in ancient Greece with fewer than 10 sports, today’s Summer and Winter Olympics feature over 30 different disciplines.
Of the many sports contested, some stand out as perennial fan and audience favorites. Here are the 10 most popular Olympic sports:
- Track and field, swimming, and gymnastics are historically the most watched Summer Olympics events.
- Figure skating, downhill skiing, and snowboarding draw big audiences for the Winter Games.
- Sports like basketball, volleyball, and soccer have grown in popularity over recent decades.
- Factors like star athletes, national pride, easy spectating, and mass appeal contribute to a sport’s Olympic prominence.
The Top 10 Most Popular Olympic Sports
1. Track and Field
Track and field is the single most watched sport at the Summer Olympics. In 2016, it accounted for almost 30% of viewership on NBC’s primetime broadcast. The sport’s variety of running, jumping, and throwing events appeals to a wide audience. Iconic track and field events like the 100m dash and long jump draw huge audiences. Global stars like Usain Bolt capture the world’s attention.
Swimming is consistently one of the most watched Summer Olympic sports. Viewers are drawn to the high stakes races and star swimmers like Michael Phelps breaking world records. The 2008 Olympics saw a spike in swimming viewership thanks to the Phelps vs. Spitz rivalry unfolding in real time. Both individual and relay races attract audiences.
Artistic gymnastics is a beloved Summer Olympics event, especially for the women’s competition. “The Magnificent Seven” US team winning gold in 1996 remains iconic. Audiences love the gravity-defying skills on floor, beam, bars and vault paired with creative choreography. Past stars like Nadia Comaneci and Simone Biles drive interest.
4. Figure Skating
Figure skating is by far the most viewed Winter Olympics event. The beauty and artistry draws casual watchers, while the technical skills appeal to hardcore fans. Figure skating also benefits from having famous names like Michelle Kwan, Yuzuru Hanyu, and Yuna Kim. People look forward to seeing spins, jumps, lifts, and captivating performances on Olympic ice.
5. Alpine Skiing
Downhill skiing races are a top draw at the Winter Olympics, especially the men’s downhill event. Top speeds of 90+ mph on dangerous courses thrill audiences. The sport is also easy to understand – the fastest down the mountain wins gold. Stars like Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin drive viewer interest in Alpine skiing.
Since making its Olympic debut in 1998, snowboarding has steadily grown into a fan favorite Winter Games sport. The halfpipe and slopestyle events showcase creative tricks and jaw-dropping athleticism. Stars like Shaun White, Chloe Kim, and Red Gerard make the sport exciting to watch. Snowboarding brings a youthful vibe that attracts younger audiences.
Men’s basketball was added in 1936 and draws strong Olympic viewership, especially when NBA stars participate. The original 1992 USA “Dream Team” captivated the world. Olympic basketball lacks the fame of the NBA, but it still excites audiences. The USA vs. whoever rivalry and beloved NBA icons like the best betting websites lure viewers.
Both indoor and beach volleyball have gained big Olympic followings. Indoor volleyball debuted at the 1964 Games, with beach following in 1996. The back and forth action, diving saves, powerful spikes and bikini-clad players make beach volleyball a fan favorite. Brazil and USA matches generate hype. Volleyball offers constant action that keeps spectators engaged.
Olympic soccer has skyrocketed in popularity and viewership, especially the women’s tournament. The 1996 US women’s team won gold before a record 76,489 fans. Big names like Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Megan Rapinoe attract viewer attention. The growth of soccer worldwide expands interest. It lacks the prestige of the World Cup, but Olympic soccer still enthralls fans.
Ice hockey has been an Olympic medal event since 1920. The fast pace, physical play, and rivalries like Canada vs. USA get audiences invested. NHL players were allowed to compete starting in 1998, which bolstered hockey’s popularity. While Canada dominates in medals, hockey powerhouses Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic, and USA make the tournament exciting to watch.
The Olympics always offer surprises, upsets, and stars breaking out across every sport. But the above 10 have proven to engage audiences year after year at both the Summer and Winter Games. Their iconic moments, famous athletes, and sheer spectator appeal make them the most popular Olympic sports for the best betting fans.