WARNING: This article contains minor spoilers for Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok, in theaters now.
In Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok, Chris Hemsworth's thunder god is stranded on the far-flung planet Sakaar, where he's forced to participate in gladiator combat as dictated by the the world's ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who refers to these battles as his "Contest of Champions." In director Taika Waititi's sequel, the Contest of Champions is more of a traditional gladiator contest, but in the context of the Marvel comic book universe, it's something much larger. Here, we detail the history of the Contest of Champions in Marvel Comics.
Amusingly enough, it all began with the 1980 Summer Olympics. You see, Marvel Comics created a special Treasury Edition in which Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk fought some bad guys at the 1980 Winter Olympic, held in Lake Placid, New York (now best known for the so-called "Miracle on Ice," in which the U.S. hockey team pulled an upset over the Soviet Union in a medal match and won the gold). That book ended with a mention of an upcoming story tied to the Summer Olympics.
Marvel decided to create a special-event comic that would pit superheroes against each other in a tie-in with the Summer Olympics. The special would have introduced a bunch of new international superheroes, because of the global aspect of the Olympics. A young John Romita Jr. was set to draw the book, which was to be written by Bill Mantlo, Steven Grant and Mark Gruenwald (who had collaborated on the previous Winter Olympics comic). However, as part of the protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. President Jimmy Carter decided the country would boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. That made the nearly complete special edition unusable.
Or so Marvel thought!
Two years later, however,Marvel came up with an idea to re-purpose those pages for what would become the publisher's first-ever miniseries. Dubbed Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions, it featured a story rewritten by Mantlo to remove the Olympics references, and Bob Layton did an amazing job re-drawing the artwork to make characters match whatever changes had been made to their costumes in those two years (and, in the case of the no longer-superpowered Ms. Marvel, replacing her with She-Hulk).
Now the concept is that the Grandmaster had cut a deal with a mysterious being to make a group of superheroes fight against each other for pieces of the "Golden Globe of Life." Whoever collected the most pieces would win. Here is the Grandmaster choosing sides with the mysterious opposing entity: