1896 Athens, Greece

The 1896 Summer Olympics, officially known as theGames of the I Olympiad, was a multi-sport event celebrated in Athens, Greece, from 6 to 15 April 1896. It was the first international Olympic Games held in the Modern era. Because Ancient Greece was the birthplace of the Olympic Games, Athens was perceived to be an appropriate choice to stage the inaugural modern Games. It was unanimously chosen as the host city during a congress organized by Pierre de Coubertin, a French pedagogue and historian, in Paris, on June 23, 1894. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was also instituted during this congress.

Despite many obstacles and setbacks, the 1896 Olympics were regarded as a great success. The Games had the largest international participation of any sporting event to that date. The Panathinaiko Stadium, the only Olympic stadium used in the 19th century, overflowed with the largest crowd ever to watch a sporting event. The highlight for the Greeks was the marathon victory by their compatriot Spyridon Louis. The most successful competitor was German wrestler and gymnast Carl Schuhmann, who won four events.

After the Games, Rhys Coubertin and the IOC were petitioned by several prominent figures including Greece’s King George and some of the American competitors in Athens, to hold all the following Games in Athens. However, the 1900 Summer Olympics were already planned for Paris and, except for the Intercalated Games of 1906, the Olympics did not return to Greece until the 2004 Summer Olympics, some 108 years later.

Revival of the Olympic Games

During the 18th century, several small-scale sports festivals across Europe were named after theAncient Olympic Games. The 1870 Olympics at the Panathenaic stadium, which had been refurbished for the occasion, had an audience of 30,000 people. Coubertin adopted Dr William Penny Brooke’s idea to establish a multi-national and multi-sport event—the ancient games were in a sense international, because various Greek city-states and colonies were represented, but only free male athletes of Greek origin were allowed to participate.

In 1890, Coubertin wrote an article in La Revue Athletique, which espoused the importance of Much Wenlock—a rural market town in the English county of Shropshire. It was here that, in October 1850, the local physician William Penny Brookes had founded the Wenlock Olympian Games, a festival of sports and recreations that included athletics and team sports, such as cricket, football and quoits. Coubertin also took inspiration from the earlier Greek games organized under the name of Olympics by businessman and philanthropist Evangelis Zappas in 1859, 1870 and 1875.

The 1896 Athens Games was funded by the legacies of Evangelis Zappas and his cousin Konstantinos Zappas and by George Averoff who had been specifically requested by the Greek government, through crown prince Constantine, to sponsor the second refurbishment of the Panathinaiko Stadium. This the Greek government did despite the fact that the cost of refurbishing the stadium in marble had already been funded in full by Evangelis Zappas forty years earlier.

On 18 June 1894, Coubertin organized a congress at theSorbonne, in Paris, to present his plans to representatives of sports societies from 11 countries. Following his proposal’s acceptance by the congress, a date for the first modern Olympic Games needed to be chosen. Coubertin suggested that the Games be held concurrently with the 1900 Universal Expositionof Paris. Concerned that a six-year waiting period might lessen public interest, congress members opted instead to hold the inaugural Games in 1896.

With a date established, members of the congress turned their attention to the selection of a host city. It remains a mystery how Athens was finally chosen to host the inaugural Games. In the following years both Coubertin and Demetrius Vikelas would offer recollections of the selection process that contradicted the official minutes of the congress. Most accounts hold that several congressmen first proposed London as the location, but Coubertin dissented.

After a brief discussion with Vikelas, who represented Greece, Coubertin suggested Athens. Vikelas made the Athens proposal official on June 23, and since Greece had been the original home of the Olympics, the congress unanimously approved the decision. Vikelas was then elected the first president of the newly established International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Organisation of the First Olympics

News that the Olympic Games would return to Greece was received favourably by the Greek public, media, and royal family. According to Coubertin, “the Crown Prince Constantine learned with great pleasure that the Games will be inaugurated in Athens.” Coubertin went on to confirm that, “the King and the Crown Prince will confer their patronage on the holding of these games.” Constantine later conferred more than that; he eagerly assumed the presidency of the 1896 organising committee.

However, the country had financial troubles and was in political turmoil. The job of prime minister alternated between Charilaos Trikoupis and Theodoros Deligiannis frequently during the last years of the 19th century. Because of this financial and political instability, both prime minister Trikoupis and Stephanos Dragoumis, the president of the Zappas Olympic Committee, which had attempted to organise a series of national Olympiads, believed that Greece could not host the event.

In late 1894, the organising committee under Stephanos Skouloudis presented a report that the cost of the Games would be three times higher than originally estimated by Coubertin. They concluded the Games could not be held, and offered their resignation. The total cost of the Games was 3,740,000 gold drachmas.

With the prospect of reviving the Olympic games very much in doubt, Coubertin and Vikelas commenced a campaign to keep the Olympic movement alive. Their efforts culminated on January 7, 1895 when Vikelas announced that crown prince Constantine would assume the presidency of the organising committee. His first responsibility was to raise the funds necessary to host the Games. He relied on the patriotism of the Greek people to motivate them to provide the required finances. Constantine’s enthusiasm sparked a wave of contributions from the Greek public.

This grassroots effort raised 330,000 drachmas. A special set of postage stamps were commissioned; the sale of which raised 400,000 drachmas. Ticket sales added an additional 200,000 drachmas. At the request of Constantine, businessman George Averoff agreed to pay for the restoration of the Panathinaiko Stadium. Averoff would donate 920,000 drachmas to this project. As a tribute to his generosity, a statue of Averoff was constructed and unveiled on April 5, 1896 outside the stadium. It stands there to this day.

Some of the athletes would take part in the Games because they happened to be in Athens at the time the Games were held, either on holiday or for work (e.g., some of the British competitors worked for the British embassy). A designated Olympic Village for the athletes did not appear until the 1932 Summer Olympics. Consequently the athletes had to provide their own lodging.
The first regulation voted on by the new IOC in 1894 was to allow only amateur athletes to participate in the Olympic Games.

The various contests were thus held under amateur regulations with the exception of fencing matches. The rules and regulations were not uniform, so the Organising Committee had to choose among the codes of the various national athletic associations. The jury, the referees and the game director bore the same names as in antiquity (Ephor, Helanodic and Alitarc). Prince George acted as final referee; according to Coubertin, “his presence gave weight and authority to the decisions of the ephors.”

The Opening Ceremony and Olympic Events

On April 6 (March 25 according to the Julian calendar then in use in Greece), the games of the First Olympiad were officially opened; it was Easter Monday for both the Western and Eastern Christian Churches and the anniversary of Greece’s independence. The Panathinaiko Stadium was filled with an estimated 80,000 spectators, including King George I of Greece, his wife Olga, and their sons. Most of the competing athletes were aligned on the infield, grouped by nation.

Afterwards, nine bands and 150 choir singers performed an Olympic Hymn, composed by Spyridon Samaras, with words by poet Kostis Palamas. Thereafter, a variety of musical offerings provided the backgrounds to the Opening Ceremonies until 1960, since which time the Samaras/Palamas composition has become the official Olympic Anthem (decision taken by the IOC Session in 1958).

Other elements of current Olympic opening ceremonies were initiated later: the Olympic flame was first lit in 1928, the first athletes’ oath was sworn at the 1920 Summer Olympics, and the first officials’ oath was taken at the 1972 Olympic Games.

At the 1894 Sorbonne congress, a large roster of sports were suggested for the program in Athens. The first official announcements regarding the sporting events to be held featured sports such as football and cricket, but these plans were never finalized, and these sports did not make the final list for the Games. Rowing and yachting were scheduled, but had to be canceled due to poor weather on the planned day of competition.

The athletics events had the most international field of any of the sports. The major highlight was the marathon, held for the first time in international competition. Spyridon Louis, a previously unrecognized water carrier, won the event to become the only Greek athletics champion and a national hero. Although Greece had been favored to win the discus and the shot put, the best Greek athletes finished just behind the American Robert Garrett in both events.

No world records were set, as few top international competitors had elected to compete. In addition, the curves of the track were very tight, making fast times in the running events virtually impossible. Despite this, Thomas Burke, of the United States, won the 100 meter race in 12.0 seconds and the 400 meter race in 54.2 seconds. Burke was the only one who used the “crouch start” (putting his knee on soil), confusing the jury. Eventually, he was allowed to start from this “uncomfortable position”.

The rules of the International Cycling Association were used for the cycling competitions. The track cycling events were held at the newly built Neo Phaliron Velodrome. Only one road event was held, a race from Athens to Marathon and back (87 kilometers).

In the track events, the best cyclist was Frenchman Paul Masson, who won the one lap time trial, the sprint event, and the 10,000 meters. In the 100 kilometers event, Masson entered as a pacemaker for his compatriot Léon Flameng. Flameng won the event, after a fall, and after stopping to wait for his Greek opponent Georgios Kolettis to fix a mechanical problem. The Austrian fencer Adolf Schmal won the 12-hour race, which was completed by only two cyclists, while the road race event was won by Aristidis Konstantinidis.

The fencing events were held in the Zappeion, which, built with money Evangelis Zappas had given to revive the ancient Olympic Games, had never seen any athletic contests before. Unlike other sports (in which only amateurs were allowed to take part at the Olympics), professionals were allowed to compete in fencing, though in a separate event. These professionals were considered gentlemen athletes, just as the amateurs.

Four events were scheduled, but the épée event was cancelled for unknown reasons. The foil event was won by a Frenchman, Eugène-Henri Gravelotte, who beat his countryman, Henri Callot, in the final. The other two events, the sabre and the masters foil, were won by Greek fencers. Leonidas Pyrgos, who won the latter event, became the first Greek Olympic champion in the modern era.

The gymnastics competition was carried out on the infield of the Panathinaiko Stadium. Germany had sent an 11-man team, which won five of the eight events, including both team events. In the team event on the horizontal bar, the German team was unopposed. Three Germans added individual titles: Hermann Weingärtner won the horizontal bar event, Alfred Flatow won the parallel bars; and Carl Schuhmann, who also competed successfully in wrestling, won the vault. Louis Zutter, a Swiss gymnast, won the pommel horse, while Greeks Ioannis Mitropoulos and Nikolaos Andriakopouloswere victorious in the rings and rope climbing events, respectively.

Held at a range at Kallithea, the shooting competition consisted of five events—two using a rifle and three with the pistol. The first event, the military rifle, was won by Pantelis Karasevdas, the only competitor to hit the target with all of his shots. The second event, for military pistols, was dominated by two American brothers: John and Sumner Paine became the first siblings to finish first and second in the same event. In order to avoid embarrassing their hosts, the brothers decided that only one of them would compete in the next pistol event, the free pistol. Sumner Paine won that event, thereby becoming the first relative of an Olympic champion to become Olympic champion himself.

The Paine brothers did not compete in the 25 meter pistol event, as the event judges determined that their weapons were not of the required caliber. In their absence, Ioannis Phrangoudis won. The final event, the free rifle, began on the same day. However, the event could not be completed due to darkness and was finalized the next morning, when Georgios Orphanidis was crowned the champion.

The swimming competition was held in the open sea because the organizers had refused to spend the money necessary for a specially constructed stadium. Nearly 20,000 spectators lined the Bay of Zea off the Piraeus coast to watch the events. The water in the bay was cold, and the competitors suffered during their races. There were three open events (men’s 100 metre freestyle,men’s 500 metre freestyle, and men’s 1200 metre freestyle), in addition to a special event open only to Greek sailors, all of which were held on the same day (April 11).

For Alfréd Hajós of Hungary, this meant he could only compete in two of the events, as they were held too close together, which made it impossible for him to adequately recuperate. Nevertheless, he won the two events in which he swam, the 100 and 1200 meter freestyle. Hajós later became one of only two Olympians to win a medal in both the athletic and artistic competitions, when he won a silver medal for architecture in 1924. The 500 meter freestyle was won by Austrian swimmer Paul Neumann, who defeated his opponents by more than a minute and a half.

Although tennis was already a major sport by the end of the 19th century, none of the top players turned up for the tournament in Athens. The competition was held at the courts of the Athens Lawn Tennis Club, and the infield of the velodrome used for the cycling events. John Pius Boland, who won the event, had been entered in the competition by a fellow-student of his at Oxford; the Greek, Konstantinos Manos.

As a member of the Athens Lawn Tennis sub-committee, Manos had been trying, with the assistance of Boland, to recruit competitors for the Athens Games from among the sporting circles of Oxford University. In the first round, Boland defeated Friedrich Traun, a promising tennis player from Hamburg, who had been eliminated in the 100 meter sprint competition. Boland and Traun decided to team up for the doubles event, in which they reached the final and defeated their Greek and Egyptian opponents after losing the first set.

The sport of weightlifting was still young in 1896, and the rules differed from those in use today. Competitions were held outdoors, in the infield of themain stadium, and there were no weight limits. The first event was held in a style now known as the “clean and jerk”. Two competitors stood out: Scotsman Launceston Elliot and Viggo Jensen of Denmark. Both of them lifted the same weight; but the jury, with Prince George as the chairman, ruled that Jensen had done so in a better style. The British delegation, unfamiliar with this tie-breaking rule, lodged a protest. The lifters were eventually allowed to make further attempts, but neither lifter improved, and Jensen was declared the champion.

Elliot got his revenge in the one hand lift event, which was held immediately after the two-handed one. Jensen had been slightly injured during his last two-handed attempt, and was no match for Elliot, who won the competition easily. The Greek audience was charmed by the Scottish victor, whom they considered very attractive. A curious incident occurred during the weightlifting event: a servant was ordered to remove the weights, which appeared to be a difficult task for him. Prince George came to his assistance; he picked up the weight and threw it a considerable distance with ease, to the delight of the crowd.

No weight classes existed for the wrestling competition, held in the Panathinaiko Stadium, which meant that there would only be one winner among competitors of all sizes. The rules used were similar to modern Greco-Roman wrestling, although there was no time limit, and not all leg holds were forbidden (in contrast to current rules).

Apart from the two Greek contestants, all the competitors had previously been active in other sports. Weightlifting champion Launceston Elliot faced gymnastics champion Carl Schuhmann. The latter won and advanced into the final, where he met Georgios Tsitas, who had previously defeatedStephanos Christopoulos. Darkness forced the final match to be suspended after 40 minutes; it was continued the following day, when Schuhmann needed only a quarter of an hour to finish the bout.

The Closing of the First Olympics

On the morning of Sunday April 12, King George organized a banquet for officials and athletes (even though some competitions had not yet been held). During his speech, he made clear that, as far as he was concerned, the Olympics should be held in Athens permanently. The official closing ceremony was held the following Wednesday, after being postponed from Tuesday due to rain. Again the royal family attended the ceremony, which was opened by the national anthem of Greece and an ode composed in ancient Greek by George S. Robertson, a British athlete and scholar.

Afterwards, the king awarded prizes to the winners. Unlike today, the first place winners received silver medals, an olive branch and a diploma. Athletes who placed second received copper medals, a branch of laurel and a diploma. Third place winners did not receive a medal. Some winners also received additional prizes, such as Spyridon Louis, who received a cup from Michel Bréal, a friend of Coubertin, who had conceived the marathon event. Louis then led the medalists on a lap of honor around the stadium, while the Olympic Hymn was played again. The King then formally announced that the first Olympiad was at an end, and left the Stadium, while the band played the Greek national hymn and the crowd cheered.

Like the Greek king, many others supported the idea of holding the next Games in Athens; most of the American competitors signed a letter to the Crown Prince expressing this wish. Coubertin, however, was heavily opposed to this idea, as he envisioned international rotation as one of the cornerstones of the modern Olympics. According to his wish, the next Games were held in Paris, although they would be somewhat over-shadowed by the concurrently heldUniversal Exposition.
The concept of national teams was not a major part of the Olympic movement until the Intercalated Games 10 years later, though many sources list the nationality of competitors in 1896 and give medal counts. There are significant conflicts with regard to which nations competed. The International Olympic Committee gives a figure of 14, but does not list them.