As we prepare to be dazzled by the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in a few months, it is an opportune moment to recall the first modern Olympic games of 1896. The first official modern Olympic games, held in Athens, greatly contrast the multi-billion dollar sporting celebration that the Olympics has become. It is difficult to broadly label the Olympic games in Athens as the “first” of its kind. The Greeks had a long tradition of athletic events rooted in ancient mythology including the ancient games at Olympia in 776 BCE, and the famed marathon to Athens by Pheidippides in 490 BCE. That said few places would have been more fitting for the location of the first modern Olympic games than Greece. It would be 108 years until Athens would host the games again in 2004.
The Olympic games began in Athens on April 5, 1896 – Easter day. Given Greece’s use of the Julian calendar at the time (while most other countries used the Gregorian calendar) the date was actually March 24, 1896. The original organizers of the games chose Easter to ensure local interest and to highlight the event during a significant religious holiday. Moreover, April 5th (March 24th) also represented the anniversary of Greek independence. The games would officially commence on April 6th at the Panathenaic Stadium and run for 10 days.
The Panathenaic Stadium is profoundly steeped in history having been built in 330 BCE and renovated by a wealthy benefactor in 1870 in the same white marble that adorns the stadium to this day. For those who are familiar with the location of the stadium in Athens, it is designed as an elongated horseshoe-shaped coliseum with a sharp turn at one end. That sharp turn was so pronounced that track and field runners were required to slow down to even remain in their lanes during events. Regardless of its limitations, 60,000 people assembled at the stadium for the opening ceremonies and the first of several days of athletic events. Almost 300 athletes would partake in the first games representing upwards of 14 countries – some of which arrived by just in time to participate. Hungary was the only country to send a national team. Greek King Georgios I opened the Olympics with the following words, “I declare the opening of the first international Olympic Games in Athens. Long live the Nation. Long live the Greek people.”
The opening ceremonies brought together quite the cultural melange of athletes (all of whom were male) in traditional Greek costume and those in more formal European suits. Women made up a substantial part of the audience but were forbidden to participate in the athletic events as athletes. After the Greek King proclaimed the Olympic games open a traditional hymn, composed by Spyridon Samara, was sung by a 150-strong choir. It is these early traditions that have become such an important of part of many subsequent opening ceremonies around the world. The Olympic’s modest beginnings have certainly taken on a new form (and expense) that would be so foreign to our predecessors in 1896.
For athletes, the awards and prizes for winners of sporting competitions were considerably different to what we know today. There was no such thing as a gold medal for competitors for example. Winners would receive either a diploma/certificate, a medal, or a crown of olive branches. Commemorative medals were provided to athletes and runners-up. Prizes were awarded not after each competition but rather at the closing ceremony at which the Greek King would hand out awards to all the winners. Several nations dominated particular events. The track-and-field competition was dominated by the United States, having won 9 of the 12 events. Hungary won what would have been considered a gold medal in the 100 metre and 1200 metre freestyle swimming events. Greece did exceptionally well in events ranging from cycling to fencing, gymnastics, and shooting.
The Olympic games in Athens came to and end with two major festivities. First, the King of Greece provided for a lavish banquet for the athletes at the royal palace ballroom with national dignitaries in attendance. King Georgios I spoke of having Greece appointed the permanent location for all future Olympic games but, as we know, this did not materialize. Paris would host the next Olympic games. Closing events in Athens were scheduled to be a larger affair but rain put a significant damper on festivities. A final parade took place at the Panathenaic stadium with the sound of the Greek national anthem echoing around the stadium as the athletes assembled.
The Olympic games began at the birthplace of European civilization and was designed to celebrate the power of individual achievement in sport. While we have thankfully become more inclusive in terms of permitting women and specialized paralympic games, the games themselves have become a financial burden on host countries. As with many things in contemporary society we have lost some of the games soul and essence. Sport, competition, and individual human accomplishment must always be celebrated and awarded, but we must not lose sight of change for the mere sake of progress. As we push the limits of humankind farther and farther; and while individuals have pushed their own limits, we find the very essence of the Olympic games as an event has been forever altered. We now must think of issues such as security, sustainability, drug use, and corruption. These issues may not be new from a historical context, but they do chip away at the foundation of the Olympic games. I may sound like a purist at heart, but I hope that at the end of the day we will always return to viewing the Olympics for what it was designed to do: celebrate and honour the amazing capabilities of men and women from around the world.