Issue # 74/ October, 2000
From Elizabeth J. Bailey, Curator of the Emlen Physick Estate
The 1896 Olympics
Eighteen ninety-six saw the rebirth of an ancient tradition – the Olympics. Pierre de Coubertin, a young French nobleman, is credited with reviving the games. He felt that he could institute an educational program in France that approximated the ancient Greek notion of a balanced mind and body. Although the Greeks themselves had tried to reinstitute the Olympic games in the 1800s, they met little success. It was de Coubertin’s determination that led to the first modern Olympics.
To drum up support for his Olympic games, de Coubertin hosted an international sports congress in 1894. Delegates from Belgium, Britain, France, Greece, Italy, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and the United States attended. De Coubertin received unanimous and enthusiastic support from the nine countries in attendance. The group voted to hold the games in Greece, where it all began, in 1896. They further decided to hold the games every four years, moving it each time to a different city of Program cover the world.
Thirteen countries, bringing a total of 311 athletes, competed in the 1896 games. Nine sports were on the agenda: bicycling, fencing, gymnastics, lawn tennis, shooting, swimming, track and field, weight lifting, and wrestling. The games were a huge success and a second Olympiad was scheduled to be held in France in 1900. By 1908 the number of athletes competing in the games had quadrupled from 311 to 2,082. Today, we enjoy many more events at the Olympics. Among the competitions today we see competitions in archery, basketball, boxing, canoeing and kayaking, cycling, equestrian arts, fencing, field hockey, gymnastics, handball, judo, modern pentathlon, rowing, shooting, soccer, swimming and diving, synchronized swimming, track and field, volleyball, water polo, weight lifting, wrestling (both freestyle and Greco-Roman), and yachting. Thousands of athletes compete in our Olympic games today. In fact about 600 were sent from the United States. That’s twice as many as the total number that competed in the first modern Olympics.
Schedule of Events at the 1896 Olympic Games
First Place winners at the 1896 Olympics Contest
Winners did not receive their prizes until the closing ceremonies. Unlike our modern system of rewarding the top three competitors of each event, in 1896 only the top two were so honored. Medals were silver for first place finishers and bronze for second place athletes. Each winning athlete was called, in turn, to come forward before the king of Greece to receive his reward. The King gave each winner a diploma, his medal, and an olive branch. The first place winners were also given various gifts and prizes that were donated by private individuals. The winner of the Marathon race, for example, received an ancient Greek vase. The first place winners of the shooting events all received new rifles.
After the athletes had received their prizes the games were declared closed by the King. However, there was still more to come. The King invited all the participating athletes to a banquet at the palace. Illuminated with torches the party raged long into the night and finally ended with a group photograph of all the athletes. The following day the athletes returned to their homelands.
The Awards Presentation Ceremony during the closing events.
An Olympics featuring winter sports wouldn’t be held until 1924. Named the Winter Olympics, the games were, until recently, held the same year as the Summer Olympics.