Rule 45 of the Olympic Charter concerns the “Program of the Olympic Games.” This rule does not specify many details, declaring that (45.1) the program is established by the IOC for each edition of the Games; (45.2) the program is divided into sports and events (previously disciplines were also mentionedd); and (45.3) the IOC reviews the Program after each edition, and only sports which follow the Olympic Charter are WADA-compliant may be elected. There are also several bye-laws to the rule.
The Olympic Charter does not specifically define the term sport, and Olympic sports are defined only as being governed by the International Federations (IFs) referred to in the bye-laws to rule 45. These bye-laws previously defined, for both the Summer and the Winter Olympics, a set of “core sports.” Now that the Program is closely reviewed after each edition of the Olympic Games or Olympic Winter Games, the current version of the Olympic Charter only lists the IFs that have sports on the most recent Olympic Programs.
A few of these Olympic sports are actually viewed by many as several different sports, such as aquatics and skating. In IOC terminology, such sports are subdivided into disciplines, defined as “a branch of a sport comprising one or several events.”
Rule 45 also defines an event as “a competition in a sport resulting in a ranking and giving rise to the award of medals and diplomas.”
Past versions of the Olympic Charter, defined rules for the inclusion of sports, disciplines and events. For example, motorized sports were not admissible, and events needed to have been included at at least two World Championships. Presently, no such rules exist. Instead, the IOC Program Commission analyzes the Olympic sports after every Olympics, based on a set of evaluation criteria composed in 2004. These 33 criteria are grouped in seven areas: history and tradition, universality, popularity, image and environment, athlete health, IF development and cost. These evaluation reports are used by the IOC session to vote on addition of new sports, and by the IOC Executive Board to decide on new disciplines and events. Present Olympic sports are also evaluated using the same criteria, to review their suitability.
According to the Charter, new events may be included no later than three years before the Games. In practice, these rules are often violated, using by-law 45.3.4, which allows the IOC to bypass the rules for adding a sport or event under exceptional circumstances. This short-cut for new sports and events has been used several times, such as with the inclusion of skeleton for the 2002 Winter Olympics, which was approved only in October 1999.
The influence of the IOC on the Olympic Program has changed considerably since 1896. The 1894 Sorbonne Congress had devised a list of Olympic sports and events, but this was not fully followed by the Athens organizers; for example the sport of ice skating was impossible to organize in 19th century Greece. In following editions, the number of sports and events fluctuated wildly, with determination of the Program virtually at the discretion of the OCOGs, with some input from the IFs, if they even existed at all. Several of the IFs were only formed in response to problems governing their sports at the Olympics, notably the track & field athletics federation, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF).
But the IOC knew that the idea of no organization or design behind the program was not acceptable. The 7th Olympic Congress was held in Lausanne from 2-7 June 1921. Its subject was “The Modification of the Olympic Program and Conditions of Participation.” It was the first major attempt by the IOC to formalize the Olympic Program, but it would not be the last. However, the Congress did not fully achieve its aims, because the IFs would not relinquish their control over the program of their sports. Norbert Müller notes in his book One Hundred Years of Olympic Congresses 1894-1994:
The Congress could not bring about a more concise Program of competition. The federations present referred to their right to determine the Program of competition themselves. The IOC had to realize that it had underestimated the self-confidence of the federations and the result[ant] resistance against cancellations.
Still, one of the demands passed by the IOC was that Olympic sports needed to have an IF. This led to the formation of several IFs, such as for (field) hockey, which had been banned from the 1924 Games due to the lack of an IF. Over the years, the influence of the IOC on the Olympic Program gradually increased to the current level, while the roles of the IFs and the OCOGs have become marginal.
In addition to the question of admitting new sports and events, the Olympic Program Commission must address the problem of “gigantism” of the Olympic Games. The size of the Olympic Games has increased dramatically since 1896. In Athens, 43 events were contested, with just 246 athletes competing. In the first post war Games at London, 59 nations sent 4,099 competitors to the Olympics, competing in 153 events. And at the most recent Summer Games in Lodon, 302 events were contested by 10,500 athletes from 205 countries. With this increase in size comes commensurate increase in cost. The cost increases at more than a linear rate relative to the athletes, because of the increased security, the increased complexity of the competitions and venues, and the growing number of spectators and media. With these increased costs, ways must be found to pay for the Olympic Games, and some of these options, notably increasing marketing and commercialization, are not really palatable to the Olympic Movement.
The main option would seem to be to limit the number of events. For example, one may wonder if there need to be 17 swimming events for men and for women, or if boxing needs so many different weight classes? The IOC has tried to follow this path, initially suggesting cap the number of Olympic events at 280, later at 300. But neither of these goals was achieved, as it turned out to be hard to replace events. In fact, if Olympic events are removed at all, they are usually replaced by another event in that same sport. The Program Commission has also advocated the removal of sports (e.g., modern pentathlon) and disciplines (e.g. Greco-Roman wrestling), but these did not meet with approval of the IOC session in 2005. At the Session in Singapore, baseball and softball became the first sports since skeleton (abolished after the 1948 Winter Games) to be removed from the Olympic Program. However, in 2009 the IOC session recommended two new sports to be added for the 2016 Games: golf and rugby sevens, thereby increasing the number of events again.
Since reducing the number of events on the Olympic Program has not worked out, the IOC has now set its sights on limiting the number of competitors and officials. In the bye-law to rule 45 of the Olympic Charter, in an earlier edition, it istated that
In the absence of a decision to the contrary taken by the IOC Executive Board and written into the Host City Contract, the number of athletes competing in the Games of the Olympiad shall be limited to ten thousand five hundred (10,500) and the numbers of officials to five thousand (5,000).
The target number of 10,500 is fairly ambitious, as this number has been surpassed at the most recent Olympics. However, the number of athletes is restricted more and more. Each of the sports on the Olympic Program is alotted a maximum number of athletes – the exact number is determined in cooperation with the IF – and for several sports, especially those recently added, this number is fairly low. For example, only 32 trampolining competitors (16 men, 16 women) have been allowed to compete in 2008 and 2012. In addition, the number of sports where any country can enter a competitor, regardless of meeting qualifying limits, has been reduced to two. Only in athletics and swimming can any nation enter competitors, and even then this is restricted to 1 man and 1 woman (unless qualifying norms are met). In other sports, wild card spots are available to ensure an international field, but the number of spots is limited.
It remains to be seen if the IOC can retain the current size of the Olympics without removing sports. The Olympic Program features several sports that are relatively obscure (e.g., modern pentathlon, archery) or that fail to attract the best athletes in the world (e.g., football, boxing), while many sports, often more popular internationally, are lining up for a place at the Olympics. One thing seems certain though - the Olympic Program will be different at every future Olympic Games.