The Birth of the Modern Olympic Games

Athens, April 6 - 15, 1896

By Google Arts & Culture

Prize-winners at the Olympic Games (1908/1908) by Benjamin StoneLibrary of Birmingham

The story of the ancient games in the modern world

2016 marked the 120th anniversary of the first international Olympic games. Held on April 6-15, 1896 in Athens, Greece - birthplace of the ancient Olympiad - the inauguration of the modern games was a great milestone in international sports culture and cooperation.

The modern Olympic games were based on the ancient Greek Olympiad which is documented as far back as 776 BCE. For 1000 years, the ancient games were held at Olympia in honor of Zeus, the king of the gods in Greek mythology.

The organizers, athletes, and spectators of the 1896 Athens games would certainly be astonished by the development of the Olympic movement since that time.

In the 2012 London Summer Games alone, 10,768 athletes (5,992 men, 4,776 women) from 204 countries participated. A total of 302 events were held in 26 sports.

2012 london olympic taekwondo female -57kg semifinal2 by 국기원Kukkiwon


Prize-winners at the Olympic Games (1908/1908) by Benjamin StoneLibrary of Birmingham

Compared to the 2012 games, the 1896 games were certainly smaller in scale, but no less significant. 241 male athletes representing their respective countries gathered to compete in 43 events in 9 sports: Track & Field events, Cycling, Fencing, Golf, Shooting, Swimming, Tennis, Weightlifting, and Wrestling.

In an age before air travel, 241 athletes made their way to Greece by land and sea from 14 countries: Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Chile, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States of America.

Athletes from the Irish-American Athletic Club, 1896.

An ancient venue for new games

With the exception of the Marathon, the ceremonies and sporting events took place in Athens' Panathinaiko Stadium (or Panathenaic Stadium) before a crowd of 80,000 spectators.

Spo. Athl. Olympics 1896LIFE Photo Collection

Panathenaic Stadium filled to capacity at the Athens 1896 Games

View of the Panathenaic Stadium at Twilight

Races were held on the track, but its sharp curves kept runners from achieving record-breaking times.

Also called the Kallimármaro (Καλλιμάρμαρο), meaning "beautifully marbled”, the Panathinaiko was built in 329 BCE from Pentelic marble, famous for its brilliant golden hue, from quarries at the Pentelikon mountains northeast of Athens. The stadium was built on the site of an older wooden structure.

View of the stands constructed of golden-hued marble.  

Marble stairway at the Panathenaic Stadium

More than 2,000 years later, the wealthy Greek benefactor Evangelos Zappas, paid for the stadium’s excavation and restoration for the purpose of holding a national Olympic games from 1859 to 1888. These games set an important precedent for the inaugural Olympics of 1896 and further improvements to the stadium.

The remarkable site was captured in 3D-like images viewed through a stereoscope. This photographic technology - along with international journalists' photos and illustrations - helped to bring the first modern games to a wider global audience.

The Stadium (1897) by Underwood & UnderwoodBenaki Museum of Greek Civilization

Pair of stereoscopic photographs - an early form of "3D imagery" - of the Panathenaic Stadium from 1897. 

Stereoscope (1895) by James M. DavisOriginal Source:

Stereoscope, 1895 (collection: Frederick Douglass Historic Site, US National Park Service)

Visionaries behind the Olympic movement

Many people shared the vision of reviving the Olympiad in the modern age. As early as 1850, British physician Dr. William Penny Brookes staged the Wenlock Olympian Games - a local games held in the tiny English town Much Wenlock.

View of the town of Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England - home of the Wenlock Olympic Games

These games, in turn, influenced a young French aristocrat, athlete and educator named Pierre de Coubertin (1863 - 1937). Coubertin was interested in the success of Victorian England’s sports culture, convinced that competitive athletics developed moral and social values such as camaraderie, a sense of fair play, and national pride, while also fostering a sense of brotherhood and peaceful competition among nations.

LIFE Photo Collection

Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin, circa 1930s

In 1894 he founded the first International Olympic Committee [IOC] which appointed its first president, Demetrius Vikelas, from Greece.

The members of the First International Olympic Committee (1896) by Meyer AlbertBenaki Museum of Greek Civilization

Members of the First International Olympic Committee. The first IOC President Demetrius Vikelas is seated at the center, to his right sits Olympic founder Pierre De Coubertin.

The organizing body unanimously decided to hold the inaugural games in Greece, Vikelas’ home country and the birthplace of the Olympics. The ancient games are documented as far back as 776 BCE.

Coubertin envisioned that the host city would rotate every four years in order to internationalize the games further. After the first modern Olympics in 1896, the games returned to Athens only on their 100th anniversary in 2004.

Symbols and ceremony

Throughout his life, Coubertin devoted himself to laying the foundations of the modern games. His vision is evident in nearly every aspect of the modern Olympiad: from the formalities of the opening and closing ceremonies, to the rules and regulations of competition, to the design of the Olympic symbol and medals.

Coubertin Sets the Stage in Athens

The inauguration of the first international games took place in the Panathenaic Stadium in the heart of Athens on April 5, 1896. King George I of Greece (1863-1913) presided over the opening and closing ceremonies before 80,000 spectators.

Spo. Athl. Olympics 1896LIFE Photo Collection

The first opening ceremony of the modern games took place in Athens on April 5, 1896.

He also awarded the winner of the game's final event - the Marathon. In a poignant twist of fate for the host nation, the victor of this ancient foot race was a Greek man named Spiridon "Spyros" Louis. Working as a water carrier in the countryside, Louis didn’t come to the games as a professional athlete. But he left a national hero and historic figure!

Olympic Games, 1896; Spyros Louis being photographed along with other Olympic victors during the medals and diplomas ceremony (1896) by Meyer AlbertBenaki Museum of Greek Civilization

Athens 1896 closing ceremonies. Winner Spyridon "Spiros" Louis after receiving his olive branch, medal and diploma for winning the Marathon. 

Spo. Athl. Olympics 1896LIFE Photo Collection

André Castaigne's illustration of the crowd as marathon winner Spirydon Louis arrives in the stadium.

The first medalist of the modern games was the American athlete James Connolly, who won the triple jump on the first day of the Games, reaching 13.71 meters. He led the U.S. team to 11 first-place medals in total, the highest among the 14 participating nations.

Greece won the most medals overall (46). Yet, gymnastics was almost completely dominated by the Germans who took home 8 of 11 medals.

Olympic Games, 1896; the athlete Herman Weingartner, third in the rings (1896) by Meyer AlbertBenaki Museum of Greek Civilization

German gymnast Herman Weingartner performing the Iron Cross maneuver on the rings, Athens, 1896.

Olympic Games, 1896; the athlete Herman Weingartner, horizontal bar champion (1896) by Meyer AlbertBenaki Museum of Greek Civilization

Weingartner competing in the gymnastics bar event, Athens, 1896. He took first place in the event.

In the 1896 and 1900 games, only first-place and second-place winners were awarded medals. The events took place in the stadium’s open-air infield under the intense Athen’s sun. The first-place winner received a silver medal, an olive branch, and a diploma from King George of Greece.

Today, each host country designs its own medals. The medals for the Summer Games, however, must include a representation of Nike, with the Panathenaic Stadium on the back of the medal.

THAÏS HENRÍQUEZ (2012-09-17) by Ángel Medina G.Agencia EFE

Spanish Olympian Thaïs Henríquez holding her bronze medal from the London 2012 Summer Games. The medal bears the image of Nike (goddess of victory) shown against Athen’s ancient Panathenaic Stadium.

The Goddess Nike flies before the Panathenaic Stadium on the Medal from the London 2012 Summer Games 

Olympic Games, 1896; the athlete Herman Weingartner, horizontal bar champion (1896) by Meyer AlbertBenaki Museum of Greek Civilization

The five famous rings

Today, most people would have little trouble identifying an image of five interlocking, colored rings against a white background. Each ring represents one of the five continents, and the colors blue, yellow, green, red, black and white (of the background) form the color combination of every national flag.

Olympic Flag (1913)Benaki Museum of Greek Civilization

The Olympic Flag, designed in 1912 by Pierre de Coubertin

The Olympic rings are amongst the most instantly recognizable and enduring symbols in the world. Yet, they did not appear until 16 years after the Athens games when Pierre de Coubertin sketched the motif in the header of a letter to a member of the IOC in 1912. He later asked the Parisian department store Bon Marché to sew the first Olympic flag, which has flown ever since.

A long race to equality

In the ancient Olympiad, participation was restricted to free, male citizens of Greece. This meant that slaves, foreign residents, and women were excluded from competition. Like the ancient games, the 1896 Athens games were not open to women athletes.

At the Paris 1900 games, however, women joined the competition, but only two events were open to them: tennis and golf. Charlotte Cooper, a Australian tennis player, won the first two women's gold medals of the modern Games with victories in the ladies’ singles and the mixed doubles.

Charlotte Cooper, First Olympic Gold MedalistThe Olympic Museum

Australian tennis champion Charlotte Cooper at work on the court at the Paris 1900 games.

In 1912, Ladies swimming competitions were added to the program. Throughout the 20th century, the IOC added more women’s events, and in 1991 declared that any new sports must include events for both sexes.

Women's Freestyle Swimming Champions, Olympic Summer Games, Stockholm 1912 (1912) by UnknownThe Olympic Museum

Women’s 100 meter medalists, Stockholm Games 1912. From left to right: Fanny Durack (1st place, AUS),  Wilhelmina Wylie (2nd place, AUS), and Jennie Fletcher (3rd place, GBR)

Olympics by George SilkLIFE Photo Collection

Legendary American sprinter Wilma Rudolph making history on the track. She was the first American to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games, Rome, 1960.

The addition of women’s boxing to the 2012 London Summer Games brought about parity in the Olympic program for the first time in the history.

Women's Boxing Final Match, London 2012 Summer Games (2012-08-09)The Olympic Museum

Women's Boxing at the London 2012 Summer Games

The Paralympic Games

In 1948, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann organized an event for injured British World War II veterans. Named the 'International Wheelchair Games' these competitions coincided with the London Olympiad of that year.

The 'Wheelchair Games' were held again in 1952, but this time the event included competitors from other nations, thus making it the first international competition of its kind.

These first events were known as the 'Stoke Mandeville Games' and would evolve into what we now know as the 'Paralympic Games'. The first open Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960. Since then they have run in conjunction with the Summer Olympiad.

While athletes with disabilities have always played an integral role in the Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games offers athletes a unique opportunity to shine.

Canadian Flag - 2006 Paralympic Winter Games - Sledge Hockey Gold Medal (2006) by Source : Canadian Paraympic Committee / Comité paralympique canadienCanadian Heritage

Olympian Billy Bridges celebrates the gold medal performance of Team Canada in Sledge Hockey at the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games, Turin, Italy.

The Olympics have traveled a great distance from their ancient religious and athletic origins. The games have transformed from an amateur sporting activity in rural England, to an international event dreamt up by Pierre de Coubertin, and are now a global celebration of peaceful competition, diversity and perseverance.

And the games continue to evolve. The latest stop on this epic journey was Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in August 2016 - the perfect way to mark the historic anniversary of the modern Olympic Games.

By Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection

View of Rio de Janiero, Brazil  - the host city for the 2016 Summer Games, August 5 - 21. 

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