The games of 1896 in Athens

In April 1896, after a lot of organisational and financial difficulties, the first modern Olympic games were held in Athens. To modern standards these games were very small-scale: 241 athletes took part, all male, from 14 countries. In the restored stadion of Herodes Atticus, where in Antiquity the Panathenaic games were held, there was place for about 60,000 spectators. To the standards of the late nineteenth century, the games were a great success. The Greeks even wanted to keep the games in Athens forever. De Coubertin did not, however, agree with this plan, because the Greek finances were insufficient.

The games began with the Olympic hymn (music by Spyros Samaras, lyrics by Kostis Palamas), which is still sung today. The athletic contests were dominated by the Americans, mostly students from prestigious universities like Princeton. The Germans dominated the gymnastics. The Greeks, initially disappointed because victories stayed away, had their moment of glory on the 10th of April when Louis Spiridon won the marathon. The Greek king and crown prince escorted the national hero personally to the dressing rooms.

There were also contests in fencing, lifting weights, wrestling, cycling, rifle and pistol shooting and tennis. That last event was won by a British tourist who was in Athens only by accident.

© KU Leuven, 2012