Olympics reborn in Athens in 1896 when the IOC rekindled modern games | Sunday Observer

Olympics reborn in Athens in 1896 when the IOC rekindled modern games

7 March, 2021
April 6, 1896: The Opening Ceremony of Athens 1896
April 6, 1896: The Opening Ceremony of Athens 1896

The first of the Olympic Games in the modern history were held in Athens, Greece, from April 6 to 15, 1896. Greece was the birthplace of the Ancient Olympic Games. The Games of 1896 marked the beginning of an extraordinary adventure that has now lasted for 125 long years! The 1896 Summer Olympic Games, officially known as the Games of the I Olympiad is also identified as ‘Athens 1896.’

It was French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin who dreamt up this ambitious sports project. Drawing inspiration from the ancient Olympic Games, he decided to create the modern Olympic Games. Athens had been unanimously chosen to stage the inaugural Olympic Games during a congress organized by Coubertin in Paris on June 23, 1894, during which he founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Athens 1896 was also the site of a number of firsts that still have resonance and importance, after 31 Olympiads. The author deals with some of the historical feats achieved at the 1896 Games and their relevance in 2021. The first modern Olympics programme featured 9 sports encompassing 10 disciplines and 43 events. The main venue was the Panathenaic Stadium, where athletics and wrestling took place.

A total of 241 male athletes from 14 nations took part. The participants were all Europeans, or living in Europe, with the exception of the United States team. Unlike today, the first-place winners received a silver medal, an olive branch and a diploma, while runners-up received a copper medal, a laurel branch, and diploma. Third place winners did not receive a prize. Retroactively, the IOC has converted these to gold and silver, and awarded bronze medals to third placed athletes.

The Opening Ceremony

The opening ceremony was held in the Panathenaic Stadium on April 6, during which most of the competing athletes were aligned on the infield, grouped by nation. It was an Easter Monday and an estimated 80,000 spectators, including King George I of Greece, his wife Olga, and their sons were present.

After a speech by the president of the organizing committee, Crown Prince Constantine, his father officially opened the Games: “I declare the opening of the first international Olympic Games in Athens. Long live the Nation! Long live the Greek people!” Nine bands and 150 choir singers performed an Olympic Hymn, composed by Spyridon Samaras, with words by poet Kostis Palamas. This very hymn was declared as the Olympic Anthem in 1958.

The Athens 1896 Olympics programme were regarded as a great success. The Games had the largest international participation of any sporting event to that date. The Panathenaic Stadium overflowed with the largest crowd ever to watch a sporting event.

The most successful athlete of Athens 1896

Carl Schuhmann of Germany won four Olympic titles in gymnastics and wrestling at the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens, to become the most successful athlete at the inaugural Olympics. He competed in gymnastics, athletics, weightlifting and wrestling, and won four gold medals at the age of 26. The all-rounder competed in long jump, triple jump and shot put, his best finish being fifth. He also took part in weightlifting - the forerunner of the clean and jerk - lifting 90kg to take fourth place.

However, it was in gymnastics, held before tens of thousands of spectators at the Panathinaiko Stadium that Schuhmann displayed his prowess. He helped his country to win the horizontal bar and parallel bar events before going on to win the individual vault competition, topping the podium three times on the same day. Also, Schuhmann succeeded in wrestling, one of the sports that forged a symbolic link between the ancient and modern Games.

He won the men’s Greco-Roman, which was an open competition at the time. On presenting the German with his medal, King George I of Greece told him: “You are now the most popular man in this country.” Schuhmann is one of only three athletes to have competed in four different sports at the same edition of the Games and the most successful member of that trio, a distinction he will quite possibly hold forever.

Nine Sports Featured in Athens 1896

The United States won the most gold medals of 11, while the host nation Greece won the most medals overall of 46 as well as the most of 17 silver and 19 bronze medals, having 155 athletes more than the United States. Ten of the 14 participating nations earned medals, in addition to three medals won by mixed teams, comprising athletes from multiple nations.

The final medal count of the first Olympiad: the United States - A total of 20 with 11 gold, 7 silver and 2 bronze; Greece - A total of 46 with 10 gold, 17 silver and 19 bronze medals; Germany - A total of 13 with 6 gold, 5 silver and 2 bronze medals; France - A total of 11 with 5 gold, 4 silver and 2 bronze medals.

Athletics: The athletics had 64 competitors from 10 nations. On April 6, 1896, the American James Connolly won the Triple Jump to become the first Olympic champion in more than 1,500 years. He also finished second in the High Jump and third in the Long Jump. Ellery Clark of the US won both High Jump and Long Jump.

The major highlight was the Olympic Marathon, held for the first time in an international competition. Spiridon “Spyros” Louis won the event to become the only Greek athletic champion. In the early years, there was no set distance for the marathon, with most races around 40 km or 25 miles in length.

It was standardized to the present 42.195 km or 26 miles and 385 yards in 1921 following the London 1908 Olympic Games. Women first competed in an Olympic marathon at Los Angeles 1984. The American Robert Garrett won the discus and the shot put. Edwin Flack of Australia won both 800m and 1500m.

Thomas Curtis and William Hoyt of the US won 110m Hurdles and Pole Vault respectively. The curves of the Athens 1896 main stadium track were very tight, making fast times in the running events virtually impossible. Thomas Burke of the United States, won 100m in 12.0 and 400m in 54.2. His “crouch start” confused the jury but eventually, he was allowed to start from this position.

Intriguingly, Burke was reportedly the only athlete to start from a crouch position with one knee on the ground. The rest of athletes began from a standing start. It turns out starting from the crouch is best for sprints after all. The starting blocks were first used at London 1948 Summer Olympics.

Cycling: A total of 19 cyclists from 5 nations competed. The Frenchman Paul Masson was the best in track cycling, winning the one lap Track Time Trial, the Sprint and 10 km. In 100 km event, Leon Flameng won after a fall, and after waiting for his Greek opponent to fix a mechanical problem. The Austrian Adolf Schmal won the 12-Hour Race. A Road Race from Athens to Marathon and back (87 km) was the only road event and was won by Aristidis Konstantinidis of Greece.

Fencing: The professionals were authorized to compete in fencing and a total of 15 fencers from four nations competed at the Athens Games. The ‘Foil’ event was won by a Frenchman, Eugene-Henri Gravelotte. The other two events, the ‘Sabre’ and the ‘Masters Foil’, were won by Greek fencers. Leonidas Pyrgos, who won the latter event, became the first Greek Olympic champion in the modern era.

Gymnastics: A total of 71 gymnasts from 9 nations competed at the Athens Games. Germany won five of the eight events, including both team events. In the Team Horizontal Bar event, the German team was unopposed. Three Germans added individual titles: Hermann Weingartner won the Horizontal Bar event, Alfred Flatow won the Parallel Bars; and Carl Schuhmann won the Vault. Louis Zutter, a Swiss gymnast, won the Pommel Horse, while Greeks Ioannis Mitropoulos and Nikolaos Andriakopoulos were victorious in the Rings and Rope Climbing events, respectively.

Germany’s Hermann Weingartner dominated the artistic gymnastics and his tally of six medals - three golds, two silvers one bronze made him the most successful individual athlete of the 1896 Games. In Athens, as well as helping Germany to secure victory in both of the team events, which were contested on the parallel bars and the horizontal bar. He also took first place in the individual horizontal bar, was runner-up in the pommel horse and rings, and finished third in the vault.

After his return to Germany he and most of the other German gymnasts were suspended, as the governing body of German had boycotted the Olympic Games. Weingartner returned to his native Frankfurt and took up managing the open-air swimming pool that had been founded by his father. Tragically, he later drowned while trying to rescue a person who had fallen into the River Oder.

Shooting: The shooting competition attracted 61 competitors from 7 nations. The first event, the 200m Military Rifle, was won by Pantelis Karasevdas of Greece. The second event, 25m Military Pistols, was dominated by two American brothers: Lieutenant John Paine and Sumner Paine. They became the first siblings to finish first and second in the same event.

Uncertain about the weapons or rounds required, the Paines took an arsenal: two Colt army revolvers, two Smith & Wesson Russian revolvers, a Stevens .22 caliber pistol, a Wurfflein, two pocket weapons, and 3,500 rounds of ammunition. Unfortunately their .22 caliber pistols were disqualified; instead the brothers had to use their Colt .45 revolvers.

The Paine brothers were far too good for their opponents. The following day, by prior agreement between the brothers, the first day’s winner sat out. Sumner contested the choice revolver at 30m Free Pistol as the sole representative of the US team, and won by the same score his brother had recorded the previous day.

He became the first relative of an Olympic champion to become Olympic champion himself. Having travelled to Athens with 3,500 rounds, the brothers needed just 96 shots to secure their Olympic titles. The 25m Rapid Fire Pistol event and the 300m Free Rifle, Three Positions event were won by Greek shooters Ioannis Phrangoudis and Georgios Orphanidis respectively.

Swimming: Spectators lined the Bay of Zea to watch the 13 swimmers from 4 nations. The water in the bay was cold, and the competitors suffered during their races. There were three open Freestyle events – 100m, 500m and 1200m, and a special event sailors 100m Freestyle. The 500m Freestyle was won by Austrian swimmer Paul Neumann.

Battling the elements, with 4m waves crashing around him, the 18-year Alfred Hajos served up majestic victories in both 100m and 1,200m Freestyle events to become the youngest champion of the inaugural Olympic Games. He was determined to become a good swimmer at 13 after his father drowned in the River Danube and changed his surname to Hajos which means “sailor.”

While attending a dinner honouring the Olympic champions, the Crown Prince of Greece asked Hajos, who had been dubbed “the Hungarian Dolphin” where he had learned to swim so well. “In the water,” was his laconic response. Hajos later showed him to be an extremely versatile athlete, winning Hungary’s 100m, 400m Hurdles and Discus titles. He also played for the Hungarian national Football team. Later, he was a Football referee and the coach of the national Football team.

By Paris 1924, Hajos was a prominent architect specializing in sport facilities, and he entered the Olympic art competition, which were then a prominent strand and was awarded the highest honour. It made him just one of two ever to have won medals in both the Olympic sport and art. A number of stadiums are named after him in Hungary and he was awarded the Olympic diploma of merit by the IOC in 1953.

Swimming events continued to be held in the open water for at least three more Olympics – in the Seine at Paris 1900, an artificial lake in a park at St. Louis 1904, and in Stockholm Harbour in 1912 before returning to pool. However, open-water swimming would become an Olympic discipline in its own right at Beijing 2008, with the first 10 km marathons. Since then, it has become a regular staple on the Olympic calendar.

Tennis: Although tennis was already a major sport by the end of the 19th century, only 13 tennis players from 6 nations turned up for the Athens 1896. John Pius Boland, won men’s Singles. In the men’s Doubles Boland teamed up with Friedrich Traun, a promising tennis player from Hamburg, as a mixed team and won the gold medal.

Weightlifting: The sport of weightlifting was still young in 1896, and the rules differed from those in use today. Competitions were held outdoors, in the infield of the main stadium, and there were no weight limits. A total of 7 weightlifters from 5 nations competed. The first event was held in a style now known as the “clean and jerk.” Two competitors stood out for the event ‘Two Hand Lift’.

Launceston Elliot of Great Britain and Viggo Jensen of Denmark lifted the same weight; but the jury, with Prince George as the chairman, ruled that Jensen had done so in a better style. The British delegation, unfamiliar with this tie-breaking rule, lodged a protest. The lifters were eventually allowed to make further attempts, but neither lifter improved, and Jensen was declared the champion.

Elliot got his revenge in the ‘One Hand Lift’ event, which was held immediately after the other. Jensen had been slightly injured during his last two-handed attempt, and was no match for Elliot, who won the competition easily.

A curious incident occurred during the weightlifting event: a servant was ordered to remove the weights, which appeared to be a difficult task for him. Prince George came to his assistance; he picked up the weight and threw it a considerable distance with ease, to the delight of the crowd.

Wrestling: No weight classes existed for the wrestling competition, which meant that there would only be one winner among competitors of all sizes. The rules used were similar to modern Greco-Roman wrestling. A total of 5 wrestlers from 4 nations took part. Apart from the two Greek contestants, all the competitors had previously been active in other sports.

Gymnastics champion Carl Schuhmann advanced into the final, where he met Georgios Tsitas. Darkness forced the final match to be suspended after 40 minutes; it was continued the following day, when Schuhmann needed only fifteen minutes to finish the bout.

The Closing Ceremony

On the morning of Sunday April 12, King George the Great organized a banquet for officials and athletes. During his speech, he made clear that, as far as he was concerned, the Olympics should be held in Athens permanently. The official closing ceremony was held the following Wednesday, after being postponed from Tuesday due to rain.

Again the royal family attended the ceremony, which was opened by the national anthem of Greece and an ode composed in ancient Greek by George S. Robertson, a British athlete and scholar. Afterwards, the king awarded prizes to the winners.

Some winners also received additional prizes, such as Spyridon Louis, who received a cup from Michel Breal, a friend of Pierre de Coubertin. Louis then led the medalists on a ‘Lap of Honour’, while the Olympic Hymn was played. The King then formally announced that the first Olympiad was at an end, and the band played the Greek national hymn and the crowd cheered.

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)