Despite Covid, Tokyo hosts the delayed summer Olympics of 2020 this month representing the ultimate challenge to the world’s top athletes. Organisers estimate some 11,000 athletes, from 205 countries will compete in 330 events in 28 sports in front of TV audiences numbering billions. Today’s intense interest, however, contrasts markedly with the more haphazard nature of the very first modern Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896.
Reproduction of the cover of the 1896 Olympics Official Report (Olympic Studies Centre)
Then, 300 competitors, all men and mostly local, took part in 43 events in athletics, cycling, swimming, wrestling, weightlifting, fencing, gymnastics, shooting and lawn tennis.
These sports, with the exception of shooting and tennis, would have been broadly familiar to any ancient Greek. However, some of the events, one armed weightlifting for example, appear slightly odd to us today.
The indifference shown by the established sporting authorities to what they all then regarded as a passing fad meant that the non-Greek competitors tended to be sportsmen of the amateur and gentlemanly kind rather than necessarily the world’s best.
Take the tennis, for example, a sport pretty unfamiliar in Greece at the time. The singles was won by an Irish undergraduate, named John Boland. Boland was spending the Easter holidays in Athens with a friend and had no intention of competing. However his friend, one of the local organisers, persuaded him to enter the tournament at the last minute. A recreational player, with little experience of competition, Boland ended up winning all his matches.
He then repeated the feat in the doubles forming a scratch partnership with German player, Fritz Traun. Their success no doubt helped assuage Traun’s disappointment at having previously lost both in the singles and also in the 100 metres sprint.
Unlike future winners of Olympic tennis, Boland did not enjoy a stellar career in the game. In fact there is no record of him ever winning anything again. He did, however, go on to serve as an MP for 18years.
Carl Schuhmann was the most successful athlete at the games, winning both the individual vault and contributing to the Germans’ success in both team gymnastic events.
Bizarrely, Schuhmann then fought his way to the final of the wrestling where he faced local man, Georgios Tsitas. The contest turned into a two-day affair. Darkness forced an end to proceedings on the first day with Schuhmann winning his 4th medal on resumption the next morning.
Carl Schuhmann and Georgios Tsitas at the 1896 Wrestling final (ac-wuestenrot.de)
To huge national acclaim the marathon, which actually started in Marathon, was won by an Athenian mineral water salesman Spyridon Louis. Hailed as a national hero, his colourful later life included serving jail time for falsifying papers.
Rather than spending millions on purpose built stadia, as is the norm today, the Greeks used what they had available. The swimming events took place in the sea off Piraeus, 2 out of the 3 open events being won by a Hungarian Alfred Hajos. Entry to a fourth event was peculiarly restricted to members of the Greek Navy. The Panathenaic Stadium hosted 4 sports, and the formal ceremonial. It was a refurbished facility excavated out of solid marble on the site of a stadium that hosted the ancient games dating back to 144CE. The track, a narrow horseshoe shape, caused some runners problems when cornering. It’s still possible to channel one’s inner Olympian today and run round that same track provided you pay the stadium tour entrance fee of 5 euros.
The Panathenaic Stadium Athens (Greeka.com)
Oddly no Gold medals where awarded. Gold, silver and bronze medals didn’t appear until St Louis in 1904. The first winners each received a silver medal and a laurel branch, runners up a copper medal. There was nothing for coming 3rd.
Retrospectively, however, the IOC upgraded gold, silver and bronze to the top 3 in all the Athens events.
From this fairly modest start and despite the initial lack of international enthusiasm the Games developed into the multi-million dollar extravaganza we are now enjoying.
By John Baillie