A Look Back on the First Modern Olympics

The Olympic Games have come a long way from its roots in Ancient Greece. Case in point: during the first Olympics in Athens, 100 oxen were slaughtered in honour of Zeus. Nowadays, livestock are generally safe from harm at the Games, and the only butchering occurs on some of the judge’s scorecards.

Still, while our Games bear little resemblance to those that took place in 776 BC, they also differ greatly from the first instalment of the modern-era Olympics, which opened on this day in Athens in 1896.

Interestingly enough, organizers of the revival of the Olympic Games in the late 19th century – a group headed by modern Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France – considered London, England, the site of the 2012 Games, for the honour of being the inaugural host city.

Athens was eventually chosen as the host, as a nod to the Ancient Greek origins of the Olympics, but the proceedings were still quite different than today’s.

To start, the 2012 Summer Games will play host to 205 nations. Only 14 took part in 1896 and, depending on who you believe, that number can fall to as low as 10.

Alphabetically, those nations included Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Chile, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States.

The Chilean runner who the country claimed participated cannot be found in any official records, and the Greek team included Cypriots, Egyptians and athletes from Smyrna, but in general the official participating countries stand as the above. Canada didn’t participate in the Olympics until the following Games in 1900.

Aside from the countries that took part, another major difference lies in the medals presented to the winners. In 1896, first-place winners received silver medals, while second place received bronze ones. All other participants received commemorative medals. The first-place winners also received diplomas and an olive branch crown – nice, but a far cry from the Nike endorsement deals a gold medalist might expect today.

And if you happened to be a female athlete during the first modern Games, you were welcome to sit in the stands and refrain from participating. Only men competed, with female athletes first taking part in the 1900 Games – and only then in croquet, golf, lawn tennis and sailing.

As for who fared the best at the 1896 Games, the host country of Greece topped the medal count, with 46.

Of course, after the success of the 1896 Olympics, Greek officials wanted to host the event exclusively in Athens every four years. The only problem was the following Games were already set for Paris in 1900.

“After Paris, how long could it take for the Olympic Games to return to Greece?” Greek officials must have thought.

The answer: more than century, in fact, when the Summer Games took place in Athens in 2004.

-Mike Crisolago