The first modern Olympics: what happened at the 1896 games?

It took the drive and ambition of one Frenchman to reinstate the Olympics on the sporting calendar. Nige Tassell tells the story of Pierre de Coubertin and the first modern Games, held in Athens in 1896

The first modern Olympics at the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens

The noise would have been deafening, 60,000 cheering voices resonating around a stadium the shape of an elongated horseshoe. It would have been a noise like no living person had heard before. And it was a noise that celebrated the deeds of a lowly water-carrier, a young man unknown to the crowd a couple of hours before.

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It was late on an afternoon in Athens in 1896 and the occasion was the first edition of the modern Olympics. This young man – Spyros Louis – was making history, about to be elevated to the status of national hero. Here at the Panathenaic Stadium, to the rapturous acclaim of the home nation, Louis was completing an extraordinary sporting triumph. Victory in the marathon, in a shade under three hours, was in the bag.

The celebrations extended beyond the stadium into the surrounding hills. As the American reporter Charles Waldstein would soon observe in the pages of The Field, this corner of Athens was “covered with a huma crowd that from a distance looked like bees clustering over a comb… this mass of humanity rising in one greatshout of joy”.

Athens was the obvious location from when to launch the modern games

On crossing the line, Louis was greeted by George I, the King of Greece, standing to applaud. For a nation claimed to be Europe’s most bankrupt, his victory was a focus for national unity. As Waldstein noted, the occasion reached back into Ancient Greek history. “It might almost have been Philippides of old bringing to the anxious inhabitants of Athens the news of their glorious victory, the salvation of their country and home.”

Spyros Louis
From humble origins, Spyros Louis becomes a national hero for winning the marathon. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Who ‘invented’ the modern Olympics?

Waldstein wasn’t the only non-Greek enthralled by proceedings. The man whose vision, energy and powers of persuasion had brought about the return of the Olympics – the diminutive FrenchmanBaron Pierre de Coubertin – was caught up in the excitement too.

He later described how the Athenian audience “rose to its feet like one man, swayed by extraordinary excitement”, before “a flight of white pigeons was let loose, women waved fans and handkerchiefs, and some of the spectators who were nearest to Louis left their seats, and tried to reach him and carry him in triumph”.

This dramatic, irresistible achievement was the culmination of Coubertin’s relentless dreaming. Despite his comparative youth (he was only 33 at the time of these first modern Olympic Games), he’d been campaigning for an international multi-sport event for years. And, as unlikely as it might sound, a major inspiration for such a display of global athleticism could be found in the lush countryside of Shropshire.

Coubertin saw women’s participation as simply “incorrect”

The Wenlock Olympian Games, held in the market town of Much Wenlock, had been established in 1850 by a local doctor named William Penny Brookes, who was attempting to promote moral, physical and intellectual well-being among the community. The events at those first Games included athletics, football, cricket and quoits. Brookes’ creation was well established by the time Coubertin paid him a visit in 1890. Fired up by a sporting festival held specially in his honour, the Frenchman returned to Paris where he set up the International Olympic Committee and proceeded to lobby for assistance to organise a truly international equivalent of what he’d seen in Much Wenlock – to revive the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece. His aim was a noble one: “to bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility”.

In 1894, Coubertin’s committee held a congress at the Sorbonne in Paris, where those who shared his vision helped draw up plans for the inaugural modern Olympics. Initially intended to take place in Paris to coincide with the 1900 World Fair, that six-year gap was considered to be too distant a date to maintain the momentum that the Olympic movement was gathering. Instead, a decision was made to hold the event within two years, and that Athens was the obvious and symbolic location from where to launch the updated version.

The Usain Bolts of their day line up for 1896’s 100m sprint (Photo by Getty Images)
The Usain Bolts of their day line up for 1896’s 100m sprint (Photo by Getty Images)

Greece, far from the most economically stable of European countries, received assistance from the legacies of a pair of philanthropists – Evangelis and Konstantinos Zappas. The cousins had been involved in multi-sport events in their own country earlier in the 19th century and their respective estates helped finance major projects, such as the restoration of the Panathenaic Stadium.

In the two years between the announcementand the start of the Games, Athens worked its collective socks off to get itself ready for thespectacle, to honour the weight of expectation on its shoulders. The building programme was both swift in its execution and impressive in its results. The pavilions and boathouses for the rowing competition were particularly praised, even if the poor weather of early April meant the cancellation of both the rowing and sailing events. Although painted wood had to replace the marble that had been specified in the original plans, the Panathenaic Stadium was just about ready for competition despite, just two years earlier, the site having – in Coubertin’s words – “resembled a deep gash, made by some fabled giant”. The public was tuned in too, the mood both celebratory and expectant, exemplified by Athens’s public buildings being draped in bunting and streamers.

The Games opened on the 75th anniversary of Greek independence. Two hundred and forty-one athletes, from 14 nations, competed across nine sports – athletics, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting and wrestling. Each and every athlete was male, though, with Coubertin’s energy and drive sadly matched by a misplaced chauvinism. Prior to the Games, he declared that the participation of women would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect”. Fortunately, this attitude didn’t prevail. The prohibition would be lifted in time for the second modern Games four years later, held in the Baron’s home city of Paris.

How faithful were the 1896 Games to the original Olympics?

When Baron Pierre de Coubertin and the newly formed International Olympic Committee reinstated the Olympics in 1896, they very much took the ancient Olympics, held between around 776 BC and AD 394, as their template. What is known these days as athletics – running, jumping, throwing – formed the foundation of the modern Olympics, with certain disciplines, such as the marathon and the discus, a fixture of the Games from both antiquity and the 21st century.

Competitors from 14 countries converged on Athens in April 1896 to take part in 43 events (compared to more than 300 at Rio 2016) including weightlifting, wrestling, gymnastics, swimming, tennis, shooting, track and field, and a marathon along the legendary route taken by Pheidippides. The ancient sports formed the template, but in 1896, some events were given a modern re-rub. Boxing, popular during the ancient Olympics, was replaced by the more noble pursuit of fencing, while chariot-racing – not the hottest of pastimes in the closing years of the 19th century – saw its place taken by the more appropriate sport of cycling (both track and road racing).

Some changes were more fundamental than these. The ancient Olympics were largely Greek only affairs (although there were exceptions to this, especially in the Roman era when future Emperor Tiberius was victorious in the four-horse chariot race). Coubertin, on the other hand, very much saw the modern Games as providing the opportunity for international competition.

Born out of this, the baron was also keen for the Olympics to travel, for the hosting of the Games to be shared around competing nations every four years. Greece, handed the symbolic hosting of the 1896 event, wanted the Games to be permanently based in Athens, but the Frenchman’s internationalist resolve won out. It may not have been coincidence that the second city to welcome the modern Games was Coubertin’s own home of Paris.

Britain’s “awkward squad”

Britain wasn’t exactly in a rush to commune with Coubertin’s feast of sport. In the words of Olympic historian David Randall, British sporting administrators were fully paid-up members of “the European awkward squad”, conspicuously inert when it came to ramping up enthusiasm for the Olympics’ modern rebirth. Not only were there no attempts to create a national team, but also any recruitment drive to sign up individual athletes was invisible. Non-existent, in fact.

The Americans had looked to the established athletes of Ivy League universities to fill the berths on the boat to Greece. Britain had a ready-made equivalent – the sport-friendly colleges of Oxford and Cambridge – but these weren’t plundered for talent. “No approaches were made,” explains Randall, “and of the few Oxford men who did compete in Athens, one saw a note on a college noticeboard, one had Greek friends who told him of the Games, and another saw a small advertisement in the shop window of travel agent Thomas Cook.”

Fewer than ten Brits made the trip to Athens, and of those that did, commitment could be found, on occasion, to be wanting. Thomas Curtis, an American high-hurdler, later recalled how one beaten British athlete “stopped neither to linger nor to say farewell, but went from the stadium to the station and took the first train out of Athens”.

In sharp contrast, every American, whether athlete or spectator, threw themselves into proceedings with gusto. The warship San Francisco was in port, allowing its crew to become enthusiastic supporters of US competitors across the track-and-field disciplines. Members of the Boston Athletic Association were also in good number, lending loud vocal encouragement whenever one of their athletes came out to compete. “B.A.A! Rah! Rah! Rah!”

A panoramic view of the 1896 Olympic Games
A panoramic view of the 1896 Olympic Games held in a crowd-filled stadium in Athens, Greece. (Image by Getty Images)

Although these first modern Games weren’t organised along the lines of national teams, the Americans nonetheless took more individual victories than any other nation, although Greek athletes won the most medals. Rather than the gold medals with which the Games would subsequently be associated, winners were presented with silver medals, an olive branch and a diploma.

Along with their sporting prowess, the hosts were commended for the way they had received all competitors, irrespective of where they were from. Writing a month after the Games ended, Charles Waldstein was quick to praise, breathlessly reporting of “the generous joy and enthusiasm which moved the Greeks and all the visitors at each victory, to whatever nation it might have fallen”.

The greatest reception, understandably, was for the heroics of Louis, the marathon runner. Coubertin’s recollection of what happened in the minutes following the young Greek’s monumental victory is acute and vivid. “A lady who stood next to me unfastened her watch, a gold one with pearls, and sent it to him; an innkeeper presented him with an order good for three hundred and sixty-five free meals; and a wealthy citizen had to be dissuaded from signing a cheque for ten thousand francs to his credit. Louis himself, however, when he was told of this generous offer, refused it. The sense of honour, which is very strong in the Greek peasant, thus saved the nonprofessional spirit from a very great danger.”

In that one act of polite refusal, Louis had crystallised the amateur values that placedglory over reward, principles that would define the Olympic movement for many decades to come. Indeed, Waldstein was another who cautioned against the possibly poisonous effects of professionalism on the young champion. “He is as yet quite simple and unspoilt, and we must hope that his success will not turn his head.”

Alongside preserving the purity of sporting endeavour, Coubertin saw enough in these first Games to be optimistic about the spirit of internationalism he saw as essential to the event’s future success. “On the world at large the Olympic Games have, of course, exerted no influence as yet, but I am profoundly convinced that they will do so.” And he was aiming beyond sport. “Should the institution prosper – as I am persuaded, all civilised nations aiding, that it will – it may be a potent, if indirect, factor in securing universal peace.

The crazy sports of 1900: What happened at the second modern Olympics in Paris?

Held in Paris in 1900, the second incarnation of the modern Games pushed the definition of sport into new areas. With the Games part of the World’s Fair, many new events were introduced, plenty of which were, frankly, bizarre. Until 1924, host nations were allowed to determine which sports could be included – and the French got very creative.

Tug of war, which made its debut at Paris and was a fixture of the Games until 1920, seems quite tame in comparison to what else was on the bill of fare. There was the swimming obstacle race, where competitors had to plunge into the River Seine, climb up and down a pole before clambering over and under a flotilla of boats. Another ill-fated event was the standing triple jump made its one and only appearance in the athletics stadium in 1900.

Animals were also involved in two of the newly introduced events. Perhaps unsurprisingly, live pigeon shooting never appeared again after Paris, where 300 birds were killed, 21 of them shot down by the winner, Léon de Lunden of Belgium.

And then there were a pair of new equestrian events – the horse high jump and the horse long jump. Belgium again won the latter event, although the winning leap of just over six metres was actually shorter than the human long jump record.

While many of these disciplines would never appear again, there was one lasting, highly significant legacy of the 1900 Games: women were allowed to take part, competing in croquet, equestrian, golf, tennis and sailing.

Nige Tassell is a freelance journalist specialising in history. The 2020 Olympics were delayed due to the coronavirus and are current due to take place 23 July to 8 August 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. You can follow the action and the latest news at BBC Sport

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This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed