“ With deep feeling towards Baron de Coubertin's courteous petition, I send him and the members of the Congress, with my sincere thanks, my best wishes for the revival of the Olympic Games. ”
—King George of Greece (June 21, 1894)
The 1896 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the I Olympiad, was a multi-sport event celebrated in Athens, Greece, from April 6 to 15, 1896. It was the first international Olympic Games held in the Modern era. Because Ancient Greece was the birthplace of the Olympic Games, Athens was perceived to be an appropriate choice to stage the inaugural modern Games. It was unanimously chosen as the host city during a congress organized by Pierre de Coubertin, a French pedagogue and historian, in Paris, on June 23, 1894. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was also instituted during this congress.
Despite many obstacles and setbacks, the 1896 Olympics were regarded as a great success. The Games had the largest international participation of any sporting event to that date. The Panathinaiko Stadium, the only Olympic stadium used in the 19th century, overflowed with the largest crowd ever to watch a sporting event.The highlight for the Greeks was the marathon victory by their compatriot Spyridon Louis. The most successful competitor was German wrestler and gymnast Carl Schuhmann, who won four events.
After the Games, Rhys Coubertin and the IOC were petitioned by several prominent figures including Greece's King George and some of the American competitors in Athens, to hold all the following Games in Athens. However, the 1900 Summer Olympics were already planned for Paris and, except for the Intercalated Games of 1906, the Olympics did not return to Greece until the 2004 Summer Olympics, some 108 years later.
The stories surrounding the events and personalities of these Games were chronicled in the 1984 NBC miniseries, The First Olympics: Athens, 1896 – starring David Ogden Stiers as William Milligan Sloane and Louis Jourdan as Pierre de Coubertin.
Reviving the Games
During the 18th century, several small-scale sports festivals across Europe were named after the Ancient Olympic Games. The 1870 Olympics at the Panathenaic stadium, which had been refurbished for the occasion, had an audience of 30,000 people. Coubertin adopted Dr William Penny Brooke's idea to establish a multi-national and multi-sport event—the ancient games were in a sense international, because various Greek city-states and colonies were represented, but only free male athletes of Greek origin were allowed to participate. In 1890, Coubertin wrote an article in La Revue Athletique, which espoused the importance of Much Wenlock—a rural market town in the English county of Shropshire. It was here that, in October 1850, the local physician William Penny Brookes had founded the Wenlock Olympian Games, a festival of sports and recreations that included athletics and team sports, such as cricket, football and quoits. Coubertin also took inspiration from the earlier Greek games organized under the name of Olympics by businessman and philanthropist Evangelis Zappas in 1859, 1870 and 1875. The 1896 Athens Games was funded by the legacies of Evangelis Zappas and his cousin Konstantinos Zappas and by George Averoff who had been specifically requested by the Greek government, through crown prince Constantine, to sponsor the second refurbishment of the Panathinaiko Stadium. This the Greek government did despite the fact that the cost of refurbishing the stadium in marble had already been funded in full by Evangelis Zappas forty years earlier.
On June 18, 1894, Coubertin organized a congress at the Sorbonne, in Paris, to present his plans to representatives of sports societies from 11 countries. Following his proposal's acceptance by the congress, a date for the first modern Olympic Games needed to be chosen. Coubertin suggested that the Games be held concurrently with the 1900 Universal Exposition of Paris. Concerned that a six-year waiting period might lessen public interest, congress members opted instead to hold the inaugural Games in 1896. With a date established, members of the congress turned their attention to the selection of a host city. It remains a mystery how Athens was finally chosen to host the inaugural Games. In the following years both Coubertin and Demetrius Vikelas would offer recollections of the selection process that contradicted the official minutes of the congress. Most accounts hold that several congressmen first proposed London as the location, but Coubertin dissented. After a brief discussion with Vikelas, who represented Greece, Coubertin suggested Athens. Vikelas made the Athens proposal official on June 23, and since Greece had been the original home of the Olympics, the congress unanimously approved the decision. Vikelas was then elected the first president of the newly established International Olympic Committee (IOC).
News that the Olympic Games would return to Greece was well received by the Greek public, media, and royal family. According to Coubertin, "the Crown Prince Constantine learned with great pleasure that the Games will be inaugurated in Athens." Coubertin went on to confirm that, "the King and the Crown Prince will confer their patronage on the holding of these games." Constantine later conferred more than that; he eagerly assumed the presidency of the 1896 organising committee.
However, the country had financial troubles and was in political turmoil. The job of prime minister alternated between Charilaos Trikoupis and Theodoros Deligiannis frequently during the last years of the 19th century. Because of this financial and political instability, both prime minister Trikoupis and Stephanos Dragoumis, the president of the Zappas Olympic Committee, which had attempted to organise a series of national Olympiads, believed that Greece could not host the event. In late 1894, the organising committee under Stephanos Skouloudis presented a report that the cost of the Games would be three times higher than originally estimated by Coubertin. They concluded the Games could not be held, and offered their resignation. The total cost of the Games was 3,740,000 gold drachmas.
With the prospect of reviving the Olympic games very much in doubt, Coubertin and Vikelas commenced a campaign to keep the Olympic movement alive. Their efforts culminated on January 7, 1895 when Vikelas announced that crown prince Constantine would assume the presidency of the organising committee. His first responsibility was to raise the funds necessary to host the Games. He relied on the patriotism of the Greek people to motivate them to provide the required finances. Constantine's enthusiasm sparked a wave of contributions from the Greek public. This grassroots effort raised 330,000 drachmas. A special set of postage stamps were commissioned; the sale of which raised 400,000 drachmas. Ticket sales added an additional 200,000 drachmas. At the request of Constantine, businessman George Averoff agreed to pay for the restoration of the Panathinaiko Stadium. Averoff would donate 920,000 drachmas to this project. As a tribute to his generosity, a statue of Averoff was constructed and unveiled on April 5, 1896 outside the stadium. It stands there to this day.
Some of the athletes would take part in the Games because they happened to be in Athens at the time the Games were held, either on holiday or for work (e.g., some of the British competitors worked for the British embassy). A designated Olympic Village for the athletes did not appear until the 1932 Summer Olympics. Consequently the athletes had to provide their own lodging.
The first regulation voted on by the new IOC in 1894 was to allow only amateur athletes to participate in the Olympic Games. The various contests were thus held under amateur regulations with the exception of fencing matches. The rules and regulations were not uniform, so the Organising Committee had to choose among the codes of the various national athletic associations. The jury, the referees and the game director bore the same names as in antiquity (Ephor, Helanodic and Alitarc). Prince George acted as final referee; according to Coubertin, "his presence gave weight and authority to the decisions of the ephors."