The 1896 Summer Olympics, formally called the Games of the I Olympiad, were the first modern Summer Olympic Games and the first Games since Roman emperor Theodosius I banned the Ancient Olympic Games in AD 393 as part of the Christian campaign against paganism. They were held between 6 April and 15 April 1896.
An 1894 congress organized by Pierre de Coubertin in Paris established the International Olympic Committee and appointed the Greek capital of Athens as the host city. The Greeks had little experience with organizing sports events, and initially had financial troubles as well, but managed to have everything ready in time.
Although the number of participating athletes was low by current standards, it had the largest international participation for any sports event to that date. In spite of the absence of many of the time's top athletes, the Games were a success with the Greek public. The athletic highlight for the Greeks was the marathon victory by their compatriot Spiridon Louis. The most successful competitor in terms of victories was German wrestler and gymnast Carl Schuhmann.
After the Games, De Coubertin and the IOC were petitioned by, among others, Greece's King George and some of the American competitors in Athens to hold all following Games in Athens. However, the 1900 Summer Olympics were already planned for Paris and, barring the so-called Intercalated Games of 1906, the Olympics did not return to Greece until the 2004 Summer Olympics.
Election as host city
During the 19th century, several minor sports festivals named after the Ancient Olympic Games were held in a few European countries. Pierre de Coubertin also had the idea to revive the Olympics, but as an international and multi-sport event. He presented his ideas at a 1894 congress held in the Sorbonne, Paris, with delegates from sports societies of 11 countries present.
After it had been decided to revive the Olympics, a host city for these first Olympics had to be selected. De Coubertin's idea was to hold these concurrently with the Universal Exposition of 1900 in Paris. Concerned that a six-year waiting period might lessen the interest in the Olympics, the congress decided to hold the first Olympics in 1896. Several congress members suggested London as the location, but after a brief talk with Greek delegate Demetrius Vikelas De Coubertin put Athens forward as a possibility. Greece being the original home of the Olympics, the congress unanimously approved the proposal. Vikelas was elected as the first president of the newly established International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The true origin of the modern Olympics was acknowledged by De Coubertin as being in Much Wenlock, a rural market town in the English county of Shropshire. It was here that in 1850 the local doctor, William Penny Brooks, founded the Much Wenlock Olympics. The first games were held in October 1850. It was a mixture of events, including athletics and games such as cricket, football, quoits, and others.
The restoration of the Panathenaic Stadium, originally built in the fourth century BC, was funded by Georgios Averoff. The stadium was used again for the 2004 Summer Olympics.
The news that the Olympic Games would return to Greece was received favourably by the Greek public and media. However, the country was in financial troubles and was politically unstable, the job of prime minister alternating between Charilaos Trikoupis and Theodoros Deligiannis at a high frequency. In late 1894 the organizing committee, headed by Etienne Skouloudis, presented a report that the cost of the Games would be three times higher than originally estimated by De Coubertin. They concluded the Games could not be held, and offered their resignation.
Greek crown prince Constantine, a supporter of the Games, decided to set up a new committee, with himself as the president. His enthusiasm sparked a wave of contributions from the Greek public, raising 330,000 drachmas. A special set of postage stamps raised a further 400,000, and ticket sales added 200,000 drachmas. At the request of Constantine, wealthy businessman George Averoff agreed to pay for the restoration of the Panathinaiko Stadium, which would eventually cost 920,000 drachmas. As a tribute to his generosity, a statue of Averoff was constructed and unveiled on 5 April outside of the stadium, where it still stands.
Organized sports were relatively new to Greece, and as such the organizing committee had little experience in staging sports events. Their duties in this aspect were largely taken over by De Coubertin, who had to both elect the rules to follow and to invite athletes. Some of the athletes would take part in the Games because they happened to be in Athens at the time the Games were held, either on vacation or for work (e.g., some of the British competitors worked for the British embassy). There was no designated Olympic Village for the athletes like there is nowadays; the athletes stayed in hotels or with friends.
The opening ceremony in the Panathenaic Stadium
On 6 April, the Games of the First Olympiad were officially opened. It was Easter Monday for the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches, and was also the anniversary of the outbreak of the war for Greek independence.
The Panathenaic stadium was filled, with an estimated 80,000 spectators including King George I of Greece, his wife Olga, and their sons. Most of the competing athletes were aligned on the infield, grouped by nation. 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."
Afterwards, 9 bands and 150 choir singers performed the Olympic Hymn, composed by Spyros Samaras, with words by poet Kostis Palamas. The hymn was well received, and the crowd desired an encore.
The current Olympic opening ceremonies contain elements of this brief opening ceremony. The head of state of the organizing nation still officially opens the Games, and the Olympic Hymn (official since 1958) is still played. Other elements, such as the parade of nations, the lighting of the Olympic Flame and the Olympic Oath were initiated later.
Some of the Athletes from the United States
Greek Athletes 1896, Spiros Louis with a Greek outfit
Sport by sport overview
At the 1894 Sorbonne congress, a large roster of sports had been mentioned for the programme in Athens. The first edition of the official announcement featured sports such as football and cricket, but these plans were never carried out. Rowing was scheduled, but had to be cancelled due to strong winds on the planned day of competition. Yachting was cancelled too, because "we had no proper boats for this, nor did any foreign ones appear for the contest" (Official Report).
Main article: Athletics at the 1896 Summer Olympics
The athletics events (commonly known today as "track and field" in the United States), which were held in the Panathenaic Stadium, had the most international field of any of the sports. The American team of 10, which featured only one national champion, was dominant, taking 9 of the 12 titles. The major highlight of the athletics programme, however, was the marathon held for the first time in international competition. Spiridon Louis, a previously unrenowned water carrier, won the event to become the only Greek athletics champion and a national hero. No world records were set, as few international top competitors had turned up. In addition, the curves of the track were very tight, making fast times in the running events virtually impossible.
Main article: Cycling at the 1896 Summer Olympics
The track cycling events were held at the newly built Neo Phaliron Velodrome. Only one road event was held, a race from Athens to Marathon and back (87 kilometres).
Frenchman Paul Masson was the best cyclist on the track, winning the one lap time trial, the sprint event, and the 10,000 metres. In the 100 kilometres event, Masson entered as a pacemaker for his compatriot Léon Flameng. Flameng won the event, after a fall, and after stopping to wait for his Greek opponent Kolettis to fix a mechanical problem. The Austrian fencer Adolf Schmal won the 12 hours race, which was completed by only two cyclists, while the road race event was won by Aristidis Konstantinidis.
Main article: Fencing at the 1896 Summer Olympics
Fencer Leonidas Pyrgos became the first Greek modern Olympic champion by winning the masters foil competition.
The fencing events were held in the Zappeion, named after Evangelos Zappas, who had organized Greek Olympic Games in the mid-19th century. Unlike other sports, professionals were allowed to compete in fencing. Unlike other professionals, these so-called fencing masters were considered gentlemen athletes, just as the amateurs.
Four events were scheduled, but the epee event was cancelled for reasons unknown. The foil event was won by a Frenchman, Eugène-Henri Gravelotte, while the other two events, the sabre and the foil for masters, were won by Greek fencers. Leonidas Pyrgos, who won the latter event, became the first Greek to become Olympic champion in the modern era.
Main article: Gymnastics at the 1896 Summer Olympics
The German individual gymnastics champions: Schuhmann, Flatow, and Weingärtner
The gymnastics exercises were carried out on the infield of the Panathenaic Stadium. Germany had sent an 11-man team, which dominated and won 5 of the 8 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, who also took two seconds and a third place, won the horizontal bar event, while Alfred Flatow won the parallel bars. Carl Schuhmann, who also competed successfully in wrestling, won the vault.
The remaining events were won by Louis Zutter, a Swiss gymnast who won the pommel horse, while Greeks Ioannis Mitropoulos and Nikolaos Andriakopoulos were victorious in the rings and rope climbing events, respectively.
Main article: Shooting at the 1896 Summer Olympics
Held at a shooting range at Kallithea, there were five shooting events—two rifle events and three pistol shooting competitions.
The first event, for military rifles over 200 metres, was won by Pantelis Karasevdas, the only competitor to hit the target with all of his shots. The second event, for military pistols, was dominated by two brothers, Americans John and Sumner Paine. In order to avoid embarrassing their hosts, the brothers decided that only one of them would compete in the next pistol event, the free pistol. Sumner Paine dominated that event alone, thereby becoming the first relative of an Olympic champion to become Olympic champion himself.
The Paine brothers did not compete in the 25 metre pistol event, as their weapons were judged to be not of the required calibre. In their absence, Joannis Phrangoudis won. Frangoudis also placed second in the final event, the free rifle, held on the same day. However, the event could not be completed due to darkness, and was completed on the next morning, when Georgios Orphanidis was celebrated as the champion.
Main article: Swimming at the 1896 Summer Olympics
Alfréd Hajós, the first Olympic champion in swimming, is one of only two Olympians to have won medals in both sport and art competitions, Photograph by A. Meyer, Athens, Benaki Museum.
Unlike today, the 1896 swimming competitions were held at open sea. Nearly 20,000 spectators were noted to have watched the event, in the Bay of Zea, off the Piraeus coast.
All four events were held on the same day (11 April). For Alfréd Hajós of Hungary, this meant he could only compete in two of the events, as they were held shortly after one another, giving him little time to recuperate. Nevertheless, he won the two events in which he swam, the 100 metres and the 1200 metres freestyle. Hajós later became one of only two Olympians to win a medal in both athletic and artistic competitions when he won a silver medal for architecture in 1924.
The third event, the 500 metres freestyle, was won by Austrian swimmer Paul Neumann, beating his opponents by more than one-and-a-half minutes. In addition, a swimming event especially for Greek sailors was held.
Main article: Tennis at the 1896 Summer Olympics
Although tennis was already a major sport by the end of the 19th century, none of the top players turned up for the tournament in Athens, which was held at the courts of the Athens Lawn Tennis Club, and the infield of the velodrome.
Irishman John Pius Boland, who was in Athens on holiday, had been entered in the competition by a Greek friend, and won relatively easy. In the first round, he defeated Friedrich Traun, a German who had been eliminated in the 800 m competition. They decided to team up for the doubles event, in which they reached the final and defeated their Greek and Egyptian opponents after losing the first set.
Main article: Weightlifting at the 1896 Summer Olympics
Launceston Elliot, winner of the one-armed weightlifting event, was popular with the Greek audience, who found him very handsome.
The sport of weightlifting was still very young in 1896, and the rules different from those in use today. Competitions were held outdoors, in the infield of the main stadium, and there were no weight limits.
The first event was the two-handed event, held in a style now known as "clean and jerk". Two competitors stood out: Launceston Elliot of Britain and Viggo Jensen of Denmark. Both of them 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 make further attempts, but neither lifter improved, and Jensen was declared the champion.
Elliot got his revenge in the single handed "snatch" event, which was held immediately after the two-handed one. Jensen had been slightly injured in his last two-handed attempt, and was no match for Elliot, who won the competition easily ahead of Jensen. The Greek audience was very charmed by the British victor, whom they considered very attractive. Allegedly, he even received a marriage proposal from a "highly placed lady" in the audience.
Main article: Wrestling at the 1896 Summer Olympics
Schuhmann (left) and Georgios Tsitas shake hands before the final match of the wrestling competition.
No weight classes existed for the wrestling competition, held in the Panathenaic Stadium which meant that 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 (in contrast to current rules).
Apart from the two Greek contestants, all competitors had previously been active in other sports. Weightlifting champion Launceston Elliot faced gymnastics champion Carl Schuhmann from Germany. The latter won easily and advanced into the final, where he met Georgios Tsitas. Their final match had to be abandoned after 40 minutes of wrestling when darkness fell in and was continued the following day, when the German finished the bout within a quarter of an hour.
On the morning of Sunday 12 April, King George organized a banquet for officials and athletes (even though some competitions were not to be held). During his speech, he made clear that, as far as he was concerned, the Olympic should be held in Athens permanently.
The official closing ceremony was held the following Wednesday, 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 and cited by George S. Robertson, a British athlete and scholar.
Afterwards, the king awarded prizes to the winners. Unlike today, the winners received silver medals and the second-placed athletes bronze medals. Some winners also received additional prizes, such as Spyridon Louis, who received a cup from Michel Bréal, a friend of De Coubertin who had conceived the marathon event. Louis then led the medallists on a lap of honour through the stadium, while the Olympic Hymn was played again. The King then formally closed the Games, saying "I declare the First International Olympic Games terminated."
Like the Greek king, many others supported the idea of holding the next Games in Athens as well; most of the American competitors signed a letter to the Crown Prince expressing this wish. De Coubertin, however, was heavily opposed to this idea, as he envisioned international rotation as one of the cornerstones of the modern Olympics. According to his wish, the next Games were held in Paris, although they would be subdued by the concurrently held Universal Exposition.
The concept of national teams was not a major part of the Olympic movement until the Intercalated Games ten years later, though many sources list the nationality of competitors in 1896 and give medal counts.
Most sources list 13 competing nations as follows:
Entered nations that did not compete
Three nations had entered the names of competitors, but all of the men from those nations withdrew before the competitions.
Currently, many media sources publish medal counts for the Olympic Games. This was not the case in 1896, but many sources have tallied the 1896 medals to be able to compare the 1896 edition with later Games. These statistics should be used with care, however.
It should be noted, first, that no gold medals were awarded at all, and the third place finishers did not receive any prize in Athens. Secondly, national teams as we know now hardly existed. Greece and Hungary had held selection matches, but most other athletes represented their clubs or themselves. Furthermore, not all of the countries listed below did actually exist as of 1896. For example, Australia was not yet independent of the UK, and Hungary and Austria were formally joined together as one nation. Nevertheless, most sources have the countries as listed below. (Host country in bold.)
Numbers in parentheses indicate the results if nations are credited with medals won as part of mixed teams.
This number is an indication. National teams hardly existed at the time, and most athletes represented themselves or their clubs. In addition, countries were not always as well-defined as they are today. The number of countries here reflects the number used by most modern sources.
This number of competitors is an estimate, taken from Mallon & Widlund (see #References).
Greece still used the Julian Calendar at the time. According to that calendar, the Games were opened on 25 March and closed on 3 April.
These medals were won by a team with members from two different nations. This was allowed in 1896, but this is no longer the case today.
In the first modern Olympics of 1896, women were not allowed to compete, but there was an unofficial competitor in the marathon, a poor Greek woman who became known as 'Melpomene'. Melpomene's real name was Stamati Revithi. She was not allowed to compete in the mens race, but ran by herself the next day. The final lap was completed outside the stadium as she was refused entry to the stadium. After her marathon run, athletics officials couldn't remember her name so they labelled her 'Melpomene', who is the Greek muse of Tragedy. Looking at Stamata Revithi, they could see only tragedy, not her extraordinary feat. 
Greenberg, Stan (1996). The Guinness Book of Olympic Facts and Feats. Enfield: Guinness. ISBN 0-85112-639-1.
Kluge, Volker (1997). Olympische Sommerspiele: die Chronik I. Berlin: Sportverlag. ISBN 3-328-00715-6.
Lennartz, Karl (ed.) (1996). Die olympischen Spiele 1896 in Athen: Erläuterungen zum Neudruck des Offiziellen Berichtes. Kassel: Agon. .
Wallechinsky, David (2000). The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics. Woodstock: Overlook Press. ISBN 1-58567-033-2.
Summer Olympic Games
1896 | 1900 | 1904 | 1906¹ | 1908 | 1912 | (1916)² | 1920 | 1924 | 1928 | 1932 | 1936 | (1940)² | (1944)² | 1948 | 1952 | 1956 | 1960 | 1964 | 1968 | 1972 | 1976 | 1980 | 1984 | 1988 | 1992 | 1996 | 2000 | 2004 | 2008 | 2012 | 2016 | 2020
Winter Olympic Games
1924 | 1928 | 1932 | 1936 | (1940)² | (1944)² | 1948 | 1952 | 1956 | 1960 | 1964 | 1968 | 1972 | 1976 | 1980 | 1984 | 1988 | 1992 | 1994 | 1998 | 2002 | 2006 | 2010 | 2014 | 2018
¹Not currently recognised as official by the IOC. ²Cancelled due to war.
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