Athens, April 6 - 15, 1896
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1894 he founded the first International Olympic Committee [IOC] which appointed its first president, Demetrius Vikelas, from Greece.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.