For more than 1,500 years the world was void of the Olympic Games.

That void was thanks to Roman Emperor Theodosius I who was so hell-bent on promoting Christianity, that he put the kibosh on the Olympics as he felt they were equitable to paganism. And so, the world went cold turkey for a very long time.

But then about 125 years ago a fellow by the name of Pierre Baron de Coubertin took a notion to restart the Games. The first thing he did was form the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894. As de Coubertin was from France, the IOC was formed in Paris, which is why the official language of the Olympic Games is French.

In 1896, the first Modern Olympic Games were held in Athens as a tip of the cap to the Ancient Games, though de Coubertin was rather hoping for Paris. Then in 1900 de Coubertin’s wish was realized, and the Olympic Games were held in Paris alongside the Universal Exposition of the same year. That must have been some kind of summer in Paris.

The 1896 Games

The first Olympic event that took place on April 6, 1896, in front of 80,000 spectators was the 100m, which is often considered the flagship event of athletics.

Francis Lane of the USA won that first ever modern Olympic competition in a time of 12.20 seconds. For comparison, Usain Bolt ran the same race in a time of 9.63 at the London Games in 2012. The world record, of course, is Bolt’s time of 9.58 at the World Championships. As an aside, that means Bolt’s top speed during that race was 44.72 km/h or 27.8 miles/h.

The Prizes

Prizes in 1896 differed some from today’s awards. Back then the winner of an event received a silver medal portraying the Acropolis on one side and the head of Zeus on the other, a “handsomely illuminated diploma” prepared by a Greek artist, and an olive branch from Olympia, all of which pays homage to the Ancient Games.

The second-place finisher was awarded a copper medal and a laurel branch. And the third-place finisher was given nothing. Not even a nod of recognition.

Olympic Numbers

1896 Athens Olympics

  • 9 days
  • 14 teams
  • 241 male athletes (zero females)
  • 43 events
  • 9 sports—Athletics, gymnastics, cycling, fencing, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting and wrestling.
  • 80,000 spectators

2024 Paris Olympics  

  • 17 days
  • 206 teams
  • 10,500 estimated athletes (almost half are female)
  • 329 events
  • 32 sports
  • 500,000 estimated spectators for the opening ceremony
  • 15 million estimated visitors between the Olympic and Paralympic Games

A Few Interesting Olympic Facts

Marathon Running—The first-ever marathon race was run during the 1896 Games.

The sport is based on the Greek legend of Pheidippides, who was a messenger during the Battle of Marathon. He was said to have run 40km from the battlefields of Marathon to Athens in 490 BC to announce that the Greeks had defeated the Persians. Apparently, Pheidippides managed to run the distance and deliver the message but died immediately thereafter. A fantastic basis for a sport.

The marathon is traditionally the last event of the Games, finishing in the stadium, which is rather poignant. There is no evidence, however, that suggests a long-distance race of 40km was run during the Ancient Olympics.

Interestingly, until 1921 a marathon had no set distance, though it was usually around 40km. Not sure why they didn’t just settle on 40km, seems the obvious choice. Anyway, the International Amateur Athletic Federation finally decided to nail down a distance in 1921 and went with the arbitrary number of 42.195km or 26.2 miles.

Why that distance? Solid question to which there is no solid answer.

The marathon during the 1896 Games was the inspiration for the first Boston Marathon, which took place the following year. Shockingly, it wasn’t until 1972 that women were allowed to participate as the Amateur Athletic Union prohibited women from running more than 2.4km or 1.5 miles, which is ludicrous.

And the first time women were allowed to compete in an Olympic marathon was during the Los Angeles Games in 1984. 1984! That’s just five years before Taylor Swift was born.

Swimming—During the 1896 Games, all swimming races, of which there were four, were held in the Mediterranean Sea. The neat thing was for the 1200m race, swimmers were taken out in a boat and effectively left there to swim the required distance back to shore.

The first winner, in 1896, was reported to have said that his “will to live completely overcame [his] desire to win.” For his Herculean effort, he was given an olive branch, thus proving his worth and his will.

Anthem—The Olympic anthem that we hear today during the opening, closing and medal ceremonies was written for the 1896 Olympics. However, for the first few decades, each Olympic Games had its own anthem until the IOC decided that all the Olympics should use the 1896 original written by Spiros Samaras and Kostis Palamas.

I Am Aware

I am aware horses failed to get a mention in this, but I suppose not everything is about horses so we will just have to deal with it for now. I’ll slide them back into conversation as soon as possible.