Athens was selected to host the first modern Olympic Games at the first session of the International Olympic Committee in June, 1894. French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin was the persistent force behind gathering 79 delegates from 12 countries for the re-establishment of the Olympic Games. He was the first president of the IOC.
Two years later, on 6 April, 1896, in the country of the ancient Games, the Olympics began a new era. King George of Greece officially opened the Athens Games in front of a crowd of 60,000 at the foot of the Acropolis. It marked not only the revival of a millennium of sporting tradition, but it was also the 75th anniversary of Greek independence from Turkish rule.
A total of 241 male competitors from 14 nations competed in 43 events across the sports of aquatics (swimming), athletics, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, tennis, weightlifting and wrestling. The largest teams were from Greece, Germany, France and Great Britain. There were no women participants – women would first compete at the Games in Paris in 1900.
In 1896, winners received olive branch crowns, diplomas, and silver medals rather than today’s gold medals. American James Connolly won the triple jump with a distance of 13.71m to become the first Olympic champion in more than 1500 years. Connolly also won silver in the high jump and bronze in the long jump.
The Greeks found their own Olympic hero in 24-year-old shepherd Spyridon Louis in the marathon. To the delight of the thousands of spectators lining the streets Louis took the lead with four kilometres to run. He entered the famous Panathinaiko Stadium* (also known as the Panathenean Stadium) seven minutes before his competitors. He raced to the line to be crowned the first Olympic marathon champion. Louis was then given the honour of leading the winner’s procession at the Closing Ceremony.
The US led the medal table with 11 gold medals, with host nation Greece second with 10 gold. The Greeks won a total of 46 medals – more than they would win in the 108 years before they next hosted the Games in 2004.
Also known as the Panathenean Stadium, the historic arena had a history dating back 2300 years. However, it had laid buried for centuries until 1870, when King George ordered it excavated. Little happened on the site until Greek architect Georgis Averoff offered to pay the million drachmas needed to cover all costs associated with the rebuilding.
Panathinaiko Stadium was again restored for the Athens Games in 2004, where it hosted all four archery events and the finish of the men’s and women’s marathons. It proved one of the showcase venues of the Games.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin
Baron Pierre de Coubertin is credited with being the founder of the modern Olympics. The Frenchman was the first IOC President, serving from 1896 to 1925. He was an educational theorist convinced of the importance of sport for the development of the individual. He believed that the qualities of initiative, teamwork, sportsmanship and fair play should be encouraged in young people who participated in sports and competitive games.
In 1892, de Coubertin, at the age of 29, began to rally support for the revival of the Olympics. He felt that a great deal could be gained by bringing together the youth of the world in friendly competition. He also believed that the Modern Olympic Games could become a period of harmony in which all differences of status, religion, politics and race would be forgotten.