The first of the modern Olympic games were reborn in April, 1896 in Athens, Greece. It had been 1,500 years since they were banned in 393 AD by a Roman Emperor. Since then, they have occurred every fours years, with a few exceptions, moving to a new host nation each time. We take them for granted now, and look forward to a global competition where athletics supersede politics for two unique weeks. But how did they manage to get restarted over a century ago, when they’d been defunct for more than a millennia? Let’s take a look at 7 curious facts about that first modern Olympics of 1896.
1. It took the perseverance of one single man restart the Olympic Games.
The very first Olympics were held at Olympia in the Greek city-state of Elis in 776 B.C. By the 5th century B.C., contestants came from more than 100 cities from throughout the Greek Empire. The ancient Olympics were held every four years, like ours, during a festival for the Greek god Zeus. Competition was limited to foot races, pentathlon, wrestling, boxing, horse and chariot racing. The Pentathlon consisted of a foot race, the long jump, discus, javelin, and wrestling. With the rise of the Roman Empire, the Olympics were eventually banned in 393 AD by Emperor Theodosius I. He was a Christian and abolished the ‘Greek Games’ to suppress paganism.
It was not until 1892 that a young French baron named Pierre de Coubertin proposed reviving the ancient Olympics. It would be an international athletic competition, occurring every four years like the original. Despite being quite young (he was only 31), he managed to start an international campaign. He first set up an International Olympic Committee (IOC), then proceeded to lobby governments for assistance. His aim was certainly noble:
“To bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility.”Pierre de Coubertin
In 1894, Coubertin’s new IOC held a congress at the Sorbonne University in Paris. They made plans for the inaugural modern Olympic Games and boldly decided to hold it in just two years. AND that Athens, Greece was the symbolic and obvious location for their launch. The 79 delegates from 9 countries unanimously approved his proposal.
One big problem was that Greece was hardly economically stable at the the time, and a lot of preliminary work had to be done. Luckily, it received financial assistance from the Zappas, a pair of Greek philanthropist cousins. Their estates helped finance major projects, including the restoration of the ancient Panathenaic Stadium, which would host the opening ceremonies and track & field events. In Coubertin’s words – “it resembled a deep gash, made by some fabled giant.”
So Athens had a mere two years to get itself ready for a spectacle that would honor the historic event. The building program was both swift and impressive. Painted wood had to replace some of the original marble, but the Panathenaic Stadium was made ready. The citizens of Greece turned out in droves and the mood was full of both celebration and expectation. Public buildings and houses everywhere were draped in blue & white bunting and streamers.
2. Only 14 nations competed in the first modern games.
Despite the best efforts of Baron Coubertin, the 1896 Olympics met with little interest outside Greece. With the exception of Europe, Australia and the US, most nations did not send official Olympic teams. Some countries, like Spain, didn’t send competitors because of the ban on professionals, which prevented their best athletes from competing. The U.S. team consisted of only 14 amateur college athletes (primarily Princeton, Harvard, and the Boston Athletics Assoc.) who would compete in only 3 sports – track & field, swimming, and shooting.
The Games opened on the 75th anniversary of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. At the opening ceremony in Athens, King Georgios I of Greece and the royal family, plus 80,000 spectators packed the ancient, U-shaped stadium. They welcomed 241 athletes from 14 nations to the competition, who would compete in 43 events across 9 sports. These included track-and-field, swimming, gymnastics, cycling, wrestling, weightlifting, fencing, shooting, and tennis.
Courbertin and the IOC were met in center field by the Crown Princes and King Georgios who proudly proclaimed: “I declare the opening of the first international Olympic Games in Athens. Long live the Nation. Long live the Greek people!” The Greek national anthem and a newly composed Olympic hymn were played. There was no Olympic flag yet, nor was there a flame. The famous 5 ring flag was created by Coubertin in 1914 at the start of World War I, and not used until the 1920 Stockholm games. The Olympic flame was not added until the 1928 Games in Amsterdam.
3. All the 1896 competitors were men.
Sadly, Coubertin’s energy and drive were only matched by his unrelenting chauvinism. He declared that the participation of any women would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect.” Fortunately, his attitude didn’t last long. Women were thankfully allowed to compete in the second modern Games of 1900, just 4 years later in Paris.
Baron Coubertin and the IOC took the ancient Olympics as their prototype. Some events were modernized. The athletes would not be required to compete naked. The IOC replaced boxing with fencing, considered to be more civilized. They also replaced chariot racing with the more logical cycling. The youngest athlete was Dimitrios Loundras, a 10 year old Greek boy who participated in the team parallel bars event. His team finished third, putting him in the record books as a medalist. He remains to this day the youngest Olympic competitor ever.
Greece fielded the largest team with 169 athletes. Many of their competitors were local Greeks who decided to sign up at the last minute. One accidental Olympian was Irishman John Boland. He was a spectator who ended up participating in the tennis competition for Great Britain. He had to scrounge up a racket and play in leather-soled shoes, but actually claimed victory in both the singles and doubles tournaments.
4. All the Swimming events were held in the open sea, not swimming pools.
Called “nautical games,” swimming consisted of four events staged in the nearby Bay of Zea. After the renovation of the Panathenaic Stadium, there were few funds left to build pools. Competitors were ferried out on rafts, then raced to shore with a string of floating lane markers. It was April, and the Bay’s up to 12-foot seas and 55-degree water! turned the races into battles of survival. One American bowed out of the 100 meters after doing a test swim the chilly sea. Hungarian winner Alfréd Hajós covered his skin with grease to stave off the cold for the 1,500 meters, later saying: “My will to live, completely overcame my desire to win.” The winner of the 100-meter freestyle was a 16-year-old sailor, Ioannis Malokinis.
Discus wasn’t part of modern track and field in 1896. Before leaving for Athens, American shot-putter Robert Garrett studied images from ancient Greek art and built one from scratch. His prototype was 25 pounds—far heavier than the regulation five pound disc. When Garrett competed in Athens, he failed his first couple throws with the lighter disc, but eventually threw it over 95 feet—beating the Greek favorite, Panagiotis Paraskevopoulos. “It was a great tragedy for the Greeks, but great Comedy for the Americans,” said a US coach. The American collegiate Olympians dominated track and field, claiming 9 of 12 events.
5. The famous Marathon Race was invented for the modern Games.
The marathon was the brilliant brainchild of Michel Breal, a friend of Pierre de Coubertin’s, who was inspired by the legend of the Greek soldier Pheidippides. The soldier ran from the city of Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C. to relay word that the Greeks had beaten the Persians in battle. Their modern race would follow the same symbolic route as Pheidippides, just a bit shorter at over 25 miles. The IOC changed the marathon to todays 26 miles in 1924. Roughly half the runners dropped out from exhaustion. One was disqualified after he hopped on a horse carriage for part of the race!
Most appropriately, a Greek runner won the first modern marathon. The unlikely victor was Spiridon Louis, an obscure peasant villager. He was a 23-year-old water-carrier from Amarousion, who ran the course at a steady pace, even stopping halfway to eat an egg and have a glass of wine! When he finally staggered into the Panathenaic Stadium in first place, he was shocked by the reception. The ecstatic crowd cried, “Hellene! Hellene!” The noise was deafening as the cheers of 60,000 spectators filled the arena.
Greece’s royal princes rushed to run alongside him as he crossed the finish line. Louis was greeted by King Georgios I, himself. A flight of white pigeons was let loose, women waved their handkerchiefs, and the men of his team lifted him up and carried him in triumph. His time was just under 3 hours at 2 hours 58 minutes. The young man, who was unknown to the crowd just a couple of hours ago, had made history and was to soon to be a national hero.
An aristocratic lady unfastened her gold watch, ringed with pearls, and sent it to him as reward. An Athens innkeeper gave him an order good for 365 free meals, and it went on. Louis himself, however, refused all these generous offers. His sense of Greek honor, strong even amongst its peasants, would not allow it. That single act though, embodied the Olympic values that placed glory over reward. Louis was propelled to national stardom, but soon returned to his village and never ran a race again.
For a nation known as one of Europe’s most backward, his victory brought a sense of national unity. As one reporter noted:
“It might very well have been Philippides of old bringing to the anxious inhabitants of Athens the news of their glorious victory against the Persians.”
6. There were no Gold Medals, and winners didn’t receive awards until the Closing Ceremony.
The Olympic tradition of awarding gold, silver and bronze medals to first, second and third places didn’t begin until the 1904 games in St. Louis. Officials instead presented the winners at the 1896 Games with silver medals, a wreath of olive branches from Olympia, and a certificate. Runners-up received bronze medals and laurel branches. Third place finishers were not yet recognized and sadly got nothing.
The 1896 Olympic Games were formally brought to a close in 10 days. Back at the Panathenaic Stadium, a Herald-at-Arms loudly proclaimed the names of all the victors. The King and the royal family presented the awards. The crowd once again hailed the name of the winner of the Marathon, Spiridon Louis and the Greek team ran a celebratory lap around the track. The U.S. Team won the most silver medals, 11, while the host Greek team won the most medals at 47. No world records were set, however, as few of the top international competitors had competed.
What came next? The 1900 Games were held in Coubertin’s hometown of Paris in 1900. The Intl. Olympic Committee added the Tug of War and it remained an unusual competition until 1920. The IOC also added new equestrian and sailing events. There was one lasting legacy of the 1900 Paris Games: women were finally allowed to take part, competing in croquet, equestrian, golf, tennis and sailing.
7. Athens almost became the permanent home of the Olympics.
The first modern Olympic Games were a great success. During a banquet at the end, the Greek king proposed that, like the ancient games, Greece be the permanent home of the Olympics. Founder Pierre de Coubertin would have none of that. He intended and insisted the Olympics be an international competition with the hosting shared by the competing nations. The IOC doubted the weak Greek government could consistently host it every four years. Due to frequent political turmoil in Greece, the idea was eventually abandoned.
Pierre de Coubertin became IOC President after the 1896 Games. He guided subsequent Olympics through difficult years, when it first lacked popular support, and was then overshadowed by World War I. By 1924, when the games returned to Paris, it had 3,000 athletes, including over 100 women, from 44 nations. The first Winter Olympic Games were also held that same year, in Chamonix in the French Alps. After a full and successful career, Coubertin retired from the IOC in 1925 and died of a heart attack in 1937, at the age of 74.
The IOC cancelled the 1940 and 1944 Summer and Winter Olympic Games due to World War II. Ironically, they were scheduled to be held in the winters at Japan and Germany. In 2004, the Summer Olympics proudly returned to Athens, Greece after 108 years. They had lost the bid for the 100th anniversary of the Games in 1996 to Atlanta, USA. More than 11,000 athletes competed from 202 countries, in 28 sports. In addition to their medals, the winners were given a symbolic wreath of olive branches to wear as a crown. And yes, the Olympic Marathon race once again ended at the Panathenaic Stadium. It was a proud and celebratory moment for Greeks and athletes around the world.