Many people may not know this, but the Olympics as we know them today began in the spring of 1896. We’ve all heard of the ancient Greeks having an Olympiad to have some “friendly” competition between other Greek city-states, but those died out hundreds of years before the modern Olympics began.
A Frenchman named Pierre de Coubertin (pictured) came up with the idea of reviving the Olympics. There had been other attempts to restart the Games in the years leading up to 1896, but de Coubertin was the first man to come up with a premise that was attractive to many nations. Ultimately, with the exceptions of 1916, 1940, and 1944, all of which were canceled because of war, the Olympics became a highly anticipated event every four years.
The first games started humbly in Athens on April 6, 1896, and featured fourteen nations competing in 43 events across nine sports. The United States won the most gold medals (11), but Greece took home (or rather, kept?) 43 total medals, making Greece the overall most decorated nation at the Games. Interestingly, the modern system of gold, silver, and bronze medals was not really in place; the winner of each event was given a medal made of silver. However, historians have generally retroactively considered the athletes that finished in first, second, and third to have won the gold, silver, and bronze, respectively. The modern medal system was implemented in 1906, ironically at an event that the International Olympic Committee refuses to recognize as a true Olympics.
The first Olympiad featured 43 events from eleven sports: Athletics (track and field); cycling; gymnastics; fencing; sailing and rowing; shooting; swimming; tennis; weightlifting; and wrestling. The athletes would, of course, get clobbered by today’s athletes because of developments in both athletic skills and an understanding of human physiology. That said, the OG Olympians got to go their pommel horse routines on a pommel that was actually made to look like a horse!
The United States swept the podium in the men’s long jump and men’s high jump. The Greeks swept the podium in the men’s 200 meter military rifle event, and the men’s sailor’s 200 meter freestyle swim, though to be fair this even was only open to members of the Greek Royal Navy, so it would have been much stranger had the Greeks not swept that podium.
Unlike immediate successor events, the First Games did not include any arts. Some subsequent Olympics featured medals for painting, sculpture, and even city planning, but those were not added until after 1896.
The First Olympics were considered massively successful, and have led to the great tradition of having international Games every four years. It is a point of patriotic pride to watch the men and women from one’s home country go out and compete against the best the world has to offer. I sincerely missed the Games last year. I understand why they didn’t happen, and I’m incredibly excited to watch them this summer instead, but I missed it. But at least for today we can celebrate the 125-year anniversary of the closing of the first modern Games.
Until the summer, I’ll be practicing my “USA! USA! USA!” chants and stocking up on star spangled clothing. For now I’ll just sit back, relax, and watch people born in the 2000s be more athletic than I could ever have even dreamed of being.