The first ancient Olympic Games can be traced back to Olympia in 776 BC. The games were a bloodbath, and featured a number of incredible athletic feats that would continue on for millennia to come.
The first modern Olympics took place in 1896 in Athens and featured 43 events in nine sports, with 14 nations represented by 241 athletes. Greece won the most medals overall in 46, while the United States took home 11 golds, which was the most of the tournament. Unlike today’s games, there weren’t necessarily gold, silver and bronze medals for first, second and third. Instead, winners were provided with a silver medal, an olive branch and a diploma, while runners-up received a copper medal, a laurel branch, and diploma, with nothing being awarded to third. There were no women involved, and there wouldn’t be until the next tournament in 1900 which was held in Paris. With the Tokyo games due to be played a year late this summer, here’s a look at the first ever modern iteration.
Bringing back the Olympics
The 1896 Athens Games, which were endorsed by King George, were funded by Evangelis Zappas and his cousin Konstantinos Zappas, with input by George Averoff. The Greek government had specifically asked George Averoff to sponsor the second refurbishment of the Panathenaic Stadium. Evangelis Zappas had already refurbished the stadium in marble just 40 years earlier, but the Greek government felt it needed further work. On June 18, 1894, Pierre de Coubertin, who had initially come up with the idea after reading some English literature, organised a congress in Paris to present his plans to representatives of sports societies from 11 countries. Following his proposal's acceptance by the congress, a date for the first modern Olympic Games was set for April 6, 1896.
The games ran for nine days until the closing on April 15, and saw athletes from Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Chile, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and the US compete. Belgium and Russia had entered the names of competitors, but these people withdrew as the tournament drew closer. There is dispute over which nations exactly competed, since national teams wouldn’t become a popular concept for at least another decade.
There were 43 events in the sports of athletics (track and field), cycling, swimming, gymnastics, weightlifting, wrestling, fencing, shooting, and tennis. Football and cricket were initially discussed, but were not involved when the games ended up being announced. There were also plans to run a schedule of Rowing and yachting events, but due to poor weather on the planned day of competition, they were cancelled.
The Olympic medal count
From the 14 participating nations, ten earned what would now be considered medals, while another three were won by teams made up of athletes from multiple nations which were called ‘mixed teams’. After the fact, the IOC has assigned gold, silver and bronze medals retroactively to the three best placed athletes in each event so as to maintain traditions that have since developed. The US took home 11 gold medals, which was the most of the inaugural modern games. Host nation Greece won the most overall medals with 46, as well as the most silvers with 17 and bronzes with 19. There were four events where the podium was swept, Greece and the US got both.
The opening and closing ceremonies
The Games of the First Olympiad were officially opened by King George on April 6, which was the anniversary of Greece’s independence. A crowd of approximately 80,000 spectators piled into the Panathenaic Stadium where the athletes congregated on the field before a speech from the Crown Prince Constantine, which was followed by a large musical performance.
The official closing ceremony was held on Wednesday April 15 after being postponed from Tuesday due to rain, where the king presented competitors with their prizes.
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