The 1896 Athens Olympics were a great experiment, closer in size
to a county fair than to the spectacle that will be the focus of
the world this summer. Resurrecting the ancient Greek athletic
festival had been the dream of a young Frenchman, Baron Pierre de
Coubertin, who believed in the unifying power of sport. In 1894
an athletic congress he organized voted to give Athens the first
modern Games (the ancient ones, begun in 776 B.C., had been
banned by a Roman emperor in 393 A.D.), but the news received
little coverage. Few people had ever heard of the Olympics.
Holland refused to send a team because its rigid notion of
amateurism would have required each athlete to pay all his own
expenses. The mighty New York Athletic Club had no interest in
participating, either. But in the end 81 athletes from 13
countries joined the 230 Greek competitors at the Games, which
took place April 6-15.
The U.S. team was put together by de Coubertin's friend William
Sloane, a Princeton history professor. Sloane recruited four
Princeton track and field athletes, then turned to one of his
former research assistants, John Graham, coach of the Boston
Athletic Association. Graham filled out the team with seven BAA
competitors plus a 27-year-old Harvard student, James Connolly.
When a Harvard dean refused to give Connolly a leave of absence,
he dropped out. He did not darken the gates of Harvard Yard again
until 52 years later, when, having become a famous author of sea
tales, he returned for his class reunion and was awarded a
varsity letter sweater.
Of the 13 U.S. athletes only sprinter Thomas Burke was a national
champion. A few were able to pay their own way to Athens, but
many needed financial aid. A fund-raiser three days before the
team was to depart brought in enough money to buy steamship
berths for all but two of the impecunious squad members. Then
Professor Sloane and his wife, who'd saved for a year to buy
passage to Greece, offered up their tickets. In appreciation
Graham, the U.S. coach, sent Sloane a telegram every day to keep
him abreast of the team's fortunes.
The U.S. team traveled for 16 1/2 days, arriving in Athens the
night before the opening ceremonies. The Olympic stadium--the
same one that will be used for archery and the finish of the
marathon this summer--was built on the ruins of the stadium of
Herodes Atticus, which dated back to 330 B.C. The marble arena
seated as many as 70,000 people, and tickets were auctioned off
in the streets. The surrounding hillsides were covered with
spectators as Greece's King George declared, "I hereby proclaim
the opening of the first International Olympic Games in Athens."
The U.S. dominated track and field, winning nine of 12 events.
Connolly became the first Olympic champion in more than 1,500
years by winning the triple jump. Interestingly, he wasn't
awarded a gold medal. De Coubertin had wanted gold, silver and
bronze medals to be given to the top three finishers, but he was
overruled by Greece's Crown Prince Constantine. Gold coins were
commonly used as currency the world over, and Constantine feared
that gold medals would make it seem as if the athletes were being
paid. So each event winner in 1896 received a silver medal and an
olive branch. Second-place finishers got bronze medals and laurel
branches. No third-place prize was awarded.
The cinder track was so narrow that it was nicknamed the Cigar.
The turns were so tight and the surface so slippery--not enough
clay was mixed with the cinders--that the 200-meter distance
wasn't raced for fear of falls. Burke won both the 100- and
400-meter races, overcoming the disadvantage of having to run
clockwise around the track, which was the norm in Europe at the
time. He started with both hands on the cinders in what is now
the standard on-your-mark position. It might have been the first
time the Europeans saw it.
The Greeks expected to win the discus, a "revival event" from the
ancient Games that wasn't contested anywhere else in the world in
1896. But Princetonian Robert Garrett, a shot-putter, had found
the dimensions of the ancient Greek discus in a textbook and had
a friend fashion a metal replica. He practiced at home, with poor
results. Once in Greece, however, he borrowed a real discus, made
of wood with a brass core and iron rim, and found it much
lighter. He caused a sensation by heaving it 7 1/4 inches past the
best effort of the Greek champion. Garrett also won the shot put
and finished second in both the high jump and the broad jump,
becoming the top U.S. medal winner of the Games.
Swimming events were held in the Bay of Zea, on the Saronic Gulf.
Alfred Hajos, a Hungarian who won the 100-meter freestyle,
recalled years later that his biggest problem was not beating his
opponents but surviving the 12-foot waves and water so cold that
when Gardiner Williams of the U.S. dived in for the start, he
gasped, "I'm freezing!" and returned to the pier.
The first modern Olympics were friendly and informal. In the
100-kilometer cycling race, France's Leon Flameng stopped and
waited midrace while Georgios Kolettis of Greece, the only other
competitor, had his bike repaired. Flameng still won by 11 laps.
The tennis was won by John Pius Boland, an Irish tourist who
heard there was a tournament, bought a racket and competed for
The most popular event was the marathon, newly created to honor
Phidippides, the messenger who, legend has it, ran to Athens from
the Battle of Marathon to announce the Greek victory over the
Persians in 490 B.C. Twenty-five men entered the race, which
began at a bridge outside the village of Marathon. The distance
to the finish in the Athens stadium was about 2.2 miles shorter
than the 26 miles, 385 yards that a modern marathon measures.
Couriers on horseback and bicycles raced ahead to the stadium to
deliver news of the race. Two miles short of the finish, the
leader was Edwin Flack, the Australian who'd triumphed in the 800
and 1,500 meters. But Flack, who'd never run farther than 10
miles, staggered and was soon overtaken by Spiridon Louis, a
shepherd who was serving in the Greek army.
When the courier galloped in and shouted that a Greek was
leading, the stadium erupted. Louis had fasted the day before the
race, and two nights earlier he'd spent the night on his knees,
praying before a religious painting. As he entered the stadium,
Prince Constantine and his brother George climbed down from the
royal box to accompany him to the finish line, protecting him
from the surging crowd. Louis became a national hero, and his
name entered the Greek language. Egine Louis--literally, "became
Louis"--means "ran quickly."