Olympic Archives

Athens 1896 – The inaugural modern-day Olympic Games

Following on from The ancient Olympics and the revival of the modern-day Games, Melosport’s ‘Countdown to London 2012’ coverage continues today with the inaugural modern-day Olympic Games held in Athens 1896.


On 5th April 1896 King George I, stood at the foot of the Acropolis and addressed the crowd: ‘I hereby proclaim the opening of the first International Olympic Games at Athens.’ Pierre de Coubertin’s dream had become a reality. Greece was hosting the first modern-day Olympics which also coincided with the 75th anniversary of Greek independence from Turkish rule.

Due to economic instability and conflicts in Greece at the turn of the 20th century, de Coubertin penciled in 1900 as the first year of the Olympics, to be held in his beloved Paris. Knowing that Greece was in danger of not being able to fulfill its hosting commitments, wealthy Greek architect, George Averoff, donated one million drachma to fund the transformation of the Panathenean Stadium, originally constructed in 330 BC, into a 60,000 capacity marble stadium. Averoff’s actions enabled the Greek government to fund developments for a shooting venue and a pier for the swimming events.

Although Olympia was the historical home of the games, it was secluded and under developed – hence Athens was chosen as the preferred location. The schedule for the Athens Games included track and field, fencing, weightlifting, rifle and pistol shooting, tennis, cycling, swimming, gymnastics, and wrestling. 14 nations and approximately 175 competitors participated with most of the athletes being Greek. Female athletes were not permitted to compete in the Games.

Some of the competitors were tourists who just so happened to be in Greece at the time and decided to enter themselves in the Games. Outside of Greece, the largest competitors were French, German and from USA. There were no national teams as such but there were athletic and gymnastic associations from France, Germany, USA and Great Britain at the Games.

The first official modern-day Olympic Champion was a Harvard University student named James Connolly who won the triple jump on Day One of the Games with a recorded distance of 13.71 metres. Track and field events were largely dominated by the US, who won nine out of the 12 events. Carl Schuhmann of Germany was the most successful Olympian of 1896 as he won four events across wrestling and gymnastics. Overall, the US won the most ‘gold medals’ by triumphing in 11 events compared to Greece’s ten. The Greeks though won the overall ‘places of honour’ (podium positions – 1st to 3rd) with 47 top three finishes compared to USA’s 19, who finished in second place.

Day 11 was a particular highlight of the Games as the first modern-day marathon was held. The race was setup in honour of the soldier Pheidippides. Pheidippides was sent to Sparta to ask for help when the Persians attacked the Greek village Marathon in 490 BC. According to legend, he ran 150 miles in two days. After the Persian army were defeated, Pheidippides then ran from Marathon to Athens (approximately 26 miles) to announce Greece’s victory over Persia, “Nenikékamen” (‘We have won’) before collapsing and dying from exhaustion.

Greek runner, Spiridon Louis (a shepherd), won the marathon watched by 100,000 spectators in just under three hours. The home crowd were delighted with their new hero, who went on to become the Greek flag bearer at future Olympics.

Athens 1896 was considered by many to be a great success, mainly due to the passion shown by the spectators. Buoyed by this achievement, King George decided that Athens should become the permanent hosts but the IOC held firm and stuck to their plans that the Olympics should be hosted globally. Four years on and the Games would be held in de Coubertin’s homeland.


Coming soon on Melosport – The progression of the early Olympic Games (Paris 1900 to Stockholm 1912).

Categories: Olympic Archives

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