20 photos from the first modern Olympic Games in 1896

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July 21, 2021
Albert Meyer/Heritage Images // Getty Images

20 photos from the first modern Olympic Games in 1896

Ancient Greeks began the tradition of celebrating athletic prowess and prestige in their Olympic Games, held every four years in honor of the mythological god Zeus. In 1896, the millennia-old tradition was revived into the modern Olympics. The first Games in the summer of 1896 included competitors from Europe and the United States and were held in Athens in tribute to the Games’ origins. In subsequent years, the Olympics came to include athletes from nearly every country on Earth and, just like in ancient Greece, involve fierce competition and drama on and off the field.

To celebrate the history of international sports cooperation, Stacker takes a look back at that groundbreaking event in Athens, when the modern Olympics were born in 1896. Keep reading to learn more about the athletes, spectators, and sports at that iconic event.

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French Founder Pierre de Coubertin

Impressively mustachioed Baron Pierre Coubertin founded the modern Olympic Games after years of advocating and organizing in France and across Europe. He was instrumental in organizing the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which was the body that established the revived Olympic Games.

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First International Olympic Committee

Pictured here are the members of the first International Olympic Committee (IOC). While Pierre de Coubertin was instrumental in organizing the body, Demetrios Vikelas served as its first president. Of Greek origin, Vikelas spent time in London and Paris, making him uniquely qualified to revive the Games in Athens. The IOC is still the governing body of the modern Olympics.

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A crowd of 80,000 fills the Panathenaic Stadium

The Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, Greece, was built in 330 B.C. and used for ancient games. After centuries of neglect, the crumbling structure was excavated and restored in the 19th century for the Zappas Olympics, a Greek revival of the Olympic Games that served as a building block for the the multi-country Games in 1896. The Stadium was fully restored and held the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1896 games, in addition to serving as the venue for several competitions.
 

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Participants from 14 nations

Pictured here are the athletes, standing in rows on the field, surrounded by crowds filling the Panathenaic Stadium. The 14 nations were all European, with the exception of the United States. A guiding philosophy of the original games was that competitors could not be professional athletes, which limited interest and resulted in most countries not bothering to send competitors.

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Albert Meyer/Bulgarian State Archives // Wikimedia Commons

American James Connolly wins the first event for Team USA

American James Connolly became the first modern Olympic champion in over 1,500 years when he won the triple jump on April 6, 1896. He later tied for second place in the high jump and took third in the long jump. At the time, he was a student at Harvard.

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100-meter race: A historic start

Pictured here, sprinters prepare for the 100-meter race. It was won by Thomas Burke, representing the United States, on April 6, 1896. He was the only runner to use a crouch position to start—now the standard.

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Four athletes from Princeton

Princeton students Albert Tyler, Francis Lane, Robert Garrett Jr., and Herbert B. Jamison traveled to Athens to compete in the first modern Olympics. Garret won in discus throwing, and Tyler finished second place in pole vaulting.

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USA wins the discus event

Establishing the first modern Olympic Games was difficult, and attracting amateur athletes from outside of Europe who had to pay their own way to Athens was one of the biggest hurdles organizers faced. Princeton’s team was helped by student-athlete Robert Garrett Jr.’s family, who helped finance the trip. Garrett went on to win the top prize in the discus competition.

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Germany wins gymnastic events

Carl Schuhmann sits on the shoulders of Alfred Flatow and Hermann Weingartner, who represented Germany in the first Games. Schuhmann was one of the most successful athletes in the competition, winning four gold medals and competing across gymnastics, wrestling, and weightlifting.

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France dominates cycling

Leon Flameng (left) and Paul Masson set the standard of French cycling by winning gold across the first cycling events. Flameng won the 100-kilometer race, while Masson won the sprint, 2,000 meters, and 10,000 meters cycling events.

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Olympics host the first competitive marathon

In this photo, Greek shepherd Spyridon Louis, winner of the 40-kilometer marathon, is joined by King George I of Greece on the last lap of his run. King George I opened the first Games, and after their success petitioned for all future games to be held in Athens. However, the next round was already scheduled to be held in Paris to coincide with the 1900 World’s Fair. Athens didn't host the Games again until 2004.

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Bulgarian Archives State Agency // Wikimedia Commons

Rowing called off due to bad weather

German rowers Alfred Jäger and Berthold Küttner traveled to Athens for the 1896 Olympics only for their event to be canceled. Stormy weather made the water choppy and conditions dangerous, and the first proper rowing competition wouldn’t be held until four years later, at the 1900 Paris Olympics.

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Swimming champion Alfréd Hajós

Pictured here is Alfréd Hajós of Hungary, the first Olympic champion in swimming. The 1896 swimming competitions took place in the open waters of the Bay of Zee, and for the long-distance races, swimmers were taken to sea via boat and dropped off in the water, swimming back to shore. Hajós said of the dangerous conditions and cold water of the race, “My will to live completely overcame my desire to win.”

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Albert Meyer/Bulgarian State Archives // Wikimedia Commons

Fencing in the first Olympics

The final fencing match in the 1896 Olympics was held on April 9, 1896. Greek and French athletes dominated in fencing, which traces its roots from combat and duels in the middle ages to use in the military and, eventually, as a recognized sport.

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Tennis final with spectator-turned-competitor John Boland

Shown here is the tennis men's doubles final. The pair on the right includes Irishman John Boland, who traveled to Athens to watch the Games as a spectator but joined the tennis competition after a friend signed him up. He won in both doubles and singles despite wearing leather-soled shoes with heels.

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Albert Meyer // Wikimedia Commons

Friedrich Traun

Friedrich Traun was a German track and field runner who traveled to Athens to compete in the 100 meter and 800 meter race, but failed to qualify for both. Also a tennis player, he tried next to enter the tennis competition, but also failed to win in the qualifying rounds, being beaten by John Boland, the spectator-turned-competitor. However, Boland asked Traun to be his partner in doubles, and they went on to win that event in the Games.

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Albert Meyer/Benaki Museum // Wikimedia Commons

12-hour cycling race

Cyclists at the start of the 333 meter 12-hour track race on April 13, 1896. Only two of the cyclists—Adolf Schmal of Austria and Frederick Keeping of Great Britain—completed the race, with Schmal winning. He also competed in fencing but, after winning two rounds, the competition was restarted when King George I of Greece and his family entered so they could view the competition in its entirety.

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Winners receive silver medals

The actual medals given to winners in the 1896 Games were different from what we’re familiar with today: First prize was given a silver medal (and an olive branch), and second prize a bronze (and a laurel branch). The medals depict Zeus and Nike. The gold, silver, and bronze medals were introduced in the 1904 Olympics.

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Albert Meyer/Benaki Museum // Wikimedia Commons

Greece’s Spyro Louis becomes a national hero

Given that Greece is the birthplace of the Olympics and the first modern Games were held in Athens, Greeks longed to see their countrymen win the competitions. They were disappointed that the track and field, and especially the discus—a sport traced to Greek antiquity—were won by foreign athletes. However, Spyro Louis gave them a historic victory by winning the world’s first marathon race. The race was based on the legend of Pheidippides, who ran 40 kilometers from Marathon to Athens to report a military victory, then died. Luckily, none of the racers to retrace his steps suffered his fate and the marathon went on to become the benchmark of long-distance racing.

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Portrait of a winner’s picnic

Madame Bakhmeteff, wife of the Russian minister in Athens, threw a picnic party for a group of medal winners. Among the group are marathon winner Spyro Louis and 800-meter and the 1,500-meter running events winner Edwin 'Teddy' Flack.

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