Beginning of the Modern Olympic Games – 1896
On this day in 1896, the first modern “Games of the I Olympiad” opened in Athens, Greece.
Ancient Greece was the birthplace of the Olympic Games, which were probably held from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D. In these ancient games, there were running events, a pentathlon (5-sport event, which involved a jumping event, discus throw, javelin throw, a foot race, and wrestling), boxing, wrestling, and equestrian (horse riding) events.
At the first modern Olympics, the events included some of the ancient events, like the marathon and other foot races, discus, shot put, wrestling, plus some other, more modern, events such as fencing, cycling, tennis, shooting, gymnastics, and weightlifting. Rowing and yachting were planned, but it was too windy to actually hold the competitions.
At that first modern Olympics, there wasn't the concept of actual national teams, although the athletes' nationalities and medal counts were published by some sources. The countries represented in 1896 aren't so easy to list, since different sources say different things. Probably athletes from 14 countries took part. This included the United States, Australia, Chile, and many European countries.
One thing that was quite different with that first modern Olympic Games and our current Olympics is the prizes awarded to the winners. As you undoubtedly know, these days first place is awarded a gold medal, second a silver medal, and third a bronze. During the 1896 Olympics, first place winners received a silver medal (pictured here, right), an olive branch and a diploma. Second place athletes received a copper (some say bronze) medal, a branch of laurel, and a diploma. And third place won no medal at all....However, the IOC has retroactively assigned gold, silver and bronze medals to the three best place athletes in each event.
The biggest difference, to my mind, is that women were not allowed to compete in the 1896 Olympics!
Mapping the Olympics
This outline map of Europe shows the modern country boundaries, rather than those of 1896. However, all the European countries that were represented in the 1896 Olympics appear on this map. How many of them can you name?
ANSWERS: 1.HUNGARY – 2.SWEDEN – 3.AUSTRIA – 4.SWITZERLAND – 5.GREAT BRITAIN (UNITED KINGDOM / ENGLAND) – 6.FRANCE – 7.GERMANY – 8.BULGARIA – 9.DENMARK – 10.ITALY – 11.GREECE
The U.S. Surprises the World
The events that we sometimes call “track and field” or “athletics” were dominated in the 1896 Olympics by young men from the United States.
There were 64 athletes in these events, from 10 different nations. But out of 12 events, the U.S. took home 9 first-place wins.
The Greek audience was said to be shocked and even “dismayed” by some of the U.S. wins. One reason people were so surprised is because the Americans hadn't trained much in the events they won. One of the winning athletes from the U.S. pointed out that, in five of the events Americans won, the U.S. athletes had not been able to practice at all since the previous fall.
An even more surprising example is provided by Robert Garrett (shown here, left), a student from Princeton University, was a shot-putter and jumper. He had no access to a discus, but when he decided to compete in the 1896 Olympics, his professor suggested that he enter that contest as well. After doing some research on the ancient sport, Garrett had a blacksmith create a discus to practice with. However, it was way too heavy (almost 30 pounds), and Garrett gave up the idea of competing in that sport. But once Garrett got to the Olympic Games, he discovered that the actual discus was less than 5 pounds, so he decided to enter the contest “for fun.”
Since he had never practiced with the actual discus before, Garrett didn't have nice form like the Greek discus throwers. As a matter of fact, his first two throws were really clumsy, and the audience laughed at his efforts. But his final throw went way beyond the best Greek athlete's mark—and Robert Garrett won an event he had never tried before!
An American audience member named Burton Holmes wrote: "All were stupefied. The Greeks had been defeated at their own classic exercise. They were overwhelmed by the superior skill and daring of the Americans, to whom they ascribed a supernatural invincibility enabling them to dispense with training and to win at games which they had never before seen."
Here is a clip from The First Olympics: Athens 1896. The clip shows (an apparently rather inaccurate version of) Garrett's winning throw.
Do you know what the shot put is?
A very heavy metal ball is pushed, not thrown. Here is a jigsaw of a modern shot-putter.
Hold your own Olympics with a few indoor or outdoor events.
Here are some ideas for events, and here many more ideas.
Check out Greece, site of the Ancient Olympics and the first modern Olympics.
There is plenty to read and do here.
Women competed in the modern Olympics for the first time in 1900.
Those games were held in Paris, France.
Interestingly, women were not allowed to compete in the Ancient Greek Olympics, but a Spartan princess named Kynisca entered and won a chariot race event in 392 B.C., and a woman named Bilistiche won the tethrippon and synoris chariot races in 264 B.C.! Bilistiche was well-known and powerful (although not a princess), so I'm wondering if women who were rich and powerful enough could just make their own rules.
Here's something weird: not only were women barred from participating in the ancient Olympics (except, apparently, for the occasional rich-and-powerful chariot racer!), but married women weren't even allowed to watch!