The First Modern Olympics

Written By Charis Gambon

On 6th  April 1896, the Olympic Games (a long forgotten tradition of the ancient Greek) was reborn in Athens, 1,500 years after the last Olympics. The man behind the revival of the Olympics after such an enormous amount of time was Pierre Baron. He was a French educator and played a central role in the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, He was a founding member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and served as its president from 1896 to 1925.

The first modern Summer Olympics took place between 6-15th April. 14 nations partook in the event with 241 athletes overall competing in 43 different sport events. The first Olympic games had the largest number of international participants of any sporting event held prior. It was a huge success and plans quickly began for the 1900 Olympics. Ever since 1896, every four years the Summer Olympics are held. The sports that were a part of the first Olympic games in the modern era are as follows: Athletics, track cycling, road cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting and Greco-Roman wrestling.  

All athletes that participated in the 1896 Olympics were male.  Additionally, participants were all from European descent, or living in Europe, with the exception of the United States team. Furthermore, over 65% of the competing athletes were Greek.

Winners were given a silver medal, while runners-up received a copper medal. Retroactively, the IOC has converted these medals  to gold and silver and awarded bronze medals to third placed athletes. 10 out of the 14 participating nations earned medals in the first modern Olympic games. The United States won the most gold medals totaling to 11, while host nation Greece won the most medals overall totaling to 46.

The American athlete James Connolly became the first person to become an Olympic champion more than 15,000 years when he placed first in the triple jump. Additionally, James Connolly finished second in the high jump and third in the long jump. .

The highest achievement for the Greek nation was achieved by Spyridon Louis when he was awarded first place in the 40,000m marathon race. This was the event the Greek hosts wanted to win more than any other due to its great historical significance. The most successful competitor was German wrestler and gymnast Carl Schuhmann, who won four sporting events.

An interesting fact about the swimming events is that the events were held in the open sea due to the fact that the organisers refused to spend the necessary money to build a stadium for the event. Nearly 20,000 spectators lined the Bay of Zea off the Piraeus coast to watch the swimming events. The water in the bay was cold, and the competitors suffered during their races. There were three open events in the 1896 Olympics which were: men’s 100-metre freestyle, men’s 500-metre freestyle, and men’s 1200 metre freestyle. Then there was a special swimming event which was only open for competing  to Greek sailors.  Additionally, Alfréd Hajós, who was the first Olympic champion in swimming, was one of only two Olympians to have won medals in both sport and art competitions

One of the shooting events was the military pistols event, which was dominated by two American brothers: John and Sumner Paine. They became the first siblings to finish first and second in the same event. To avoid embarrassing  their hosts Greece, the brothers decided that only one of them would compete in the next pistol event, the free pistol. Sumner Paine won that event, and in doing so  became the first relative of an Olympic champion to become Olympic champion himself.

In the 1896 Olympics no weight classes existed for the wrestling event, as a result 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. Carl Schuhmann and Georgios Tsitas were the two athletes in the final for wrestling, however Darkness forced the final match to be suspended after 40 minutes; the match was continued the following day, Carl Schumann needed only fifteen minutes to finish the event and gain first place.

Carl Schuhmann (left) and Georgios Tsitas shake hands before the final match of the wrestling competition from

An interesting fact about the weightlifting event in the first Olympics is that a servant was ordered to remove the weights, which appeared to be a very difficult task for him. Prince George came to the servant’s assistance, picking up the weight and throwing it a considerable distance with ease, to the delight of the crowd.

Bizarrely, although tennis was already a major sport by the end of the 19th century,  no top players turned up for the first Olympic event in Athens. 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.  Konstantinos with the help of John had been attempting to recruit for the Athens Olympics within Oxford sporting circles.

For the gymnastics events Germany had sent an 11-man team, which placed first in 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 placed first on the horizontal bar event, Alfred Flatow placed first on the parallel bars; and Carl Schuhmann, placed first on the vault. Louis Zutter, a Swiss gymnast, placed first on the pommel horse, while Greeks Ioannis Mitropoulos and Nikolaos Andriakopoulos were victorious in the rings and rope climbing events.

The German individual gymnastics champions: Schuhmann, Flatow, and Weingärtner from

For fencing, four events were scheduled, but the épée event was cancelled for unknown reasons. In the foil event Frenchman, Eugène-Henri Gravelotte placed first. In the other two events, the sabre and the master’s foil, Greek fencers placed first. Leonidas Pyrgos became the first Greek Olympic champion in the modern era for placing first in master’s foil.

Interestingly in the 12 hour cycling event only two competitors completed the event with the Austrian Adolf Schmal placing first for the event.  Additionally, in the 100 kilometres  cycling event, Léon Flameng placed first, after a fall, and after stopping to wait for his Greek opponent Georgios Kolettis to fix a mechanical problem.

The last event was athletics and the day after the official marathon, Stamata Revithi ran the 40-kilometer course in 5 hours 30 minutes finishing outside Panathinaiko Stadium. She was denied entry into the official race as the 1896 Olympics excluded women from competition.

The next Olympics will begin on 23rd July 2021 in the Japanese city of Tokyo which is definitely something we can all look forward to!


Featured image courtesy of Image license can be found here. No changes have been made to this image

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