Who won the first Olympic medal? And what was the prize before that?

Medals didn’t feature in the ancient Olympics – earlier winners received an olive wreath…

Medal winners on a podium

When the Olympic games were reborn at the first modern Olympics in 1896, first place originally earned silver. The now-familiar gold, silver and bronze line-up first appeared at the St Louis games in 1904.

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As they were retroactively awarded, though, it could be claimed that American James Connelly was first to go gold for winning the triple jump on the first morning of the 1896 Athens Olympics. He went on to place second in the high jump and third in the long jump.

Women didn’t compete in the 1896 games, as their participation had initially been deemed to be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect”. The inaugural female gold medallists came in 1900: English tennis champ Charlotte Cooper for an individual event, and Swiss Hélène de Portalès as part of a team for the 1-2 ton sailing race.

Whereas the successful athletes of today’s Olympics win medals of gold, silver or bronze, and if they’re lucky a lucrative sponsorship deal, the exclusively male competitors in the Ancient Greek Olympics won only an olive tree wreath for themselves and glory for their city or place of origin. Unlike today, when the ideals of ‘taking part’ and personal bests are celebrated, winning was all that mattered in the ancient world, there being no prize for coming second or third.

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This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine