When we think of the Olympics, most of us picture billion-dollar spectacles, professional athletes competing at their absolute physical peak, and a whole world coming together to watch.
That’s the Olympics now. The first modern Olympics in 1896 was an altogether different affair. Only 14 countries competed, professionals were nowhere to be seen, and one of the US teams had to spend their spare time writing news reports on the games because no actual reporters thought they were worth covering. Despite being considered a success at the time, the 1896 Olympics now seems adorably amateur . . . and utterly bizarre.
10Everyone Got Participation Medals
Most modern athletes would kill to own an Olympic medal. Even if it’s only a bronze, it still proves that literally only two people on Earth can do your chosen sport better than you. At least, that’s the case today. In 1896, a bronze medal meant something very different. It simply meant you’d bothered to show up for the games in the first place.
That’s right: The first modern Olympics had participation medals, just like your elementary school’s sports day. At the conclusion of the games, every single male participant (female participants were forbidden) was given a bronze medal designed by Belgian sculptor Godefroid Devreese. Winners got silver medals and olive wreaths, while those who came in second place were given copper medals and laurel crowns. Why the organizers thought copper might be considered better than bronze is anybody’s guess.
The classic medal table, with gold for first, silver for second, and bronze for third didn’t come about until the 1904 games in St. Louis. Thankfully, by that point the committee had given up on the idea of participation medals.
9Australia’s ‘Team’ Entered By Accident And Punched A Spectator
Today, Olympic athletes spend years training for their shot at a medal, in effect turning their entire lives into a prelude for the main event. Not so in 1896. Back then, pretty much anybody could show up and decide to participate. We know this because that’s exactly what happened with Australia’s team.
“Team” might be a little bit of a stretch. Australia only entered a single athlete: a mustachioed man named Edwin Flack, who happened to be in England at the time and hightailed it to Athens to watch the games. Once there, he decided to compete, signing up with the British team for two short-distance races and a tennis doubles match. Since Australia was a colony at the time, it was only retroactively that Flack’s medals for the 100 meters and 1,500 meters were added to Australia’s total medal count. He also signed up for the first marathon, leading to perhaps his finest moment.
Flack had never run long distances before. So when he suddenly found himself doing a marathon in the blazing summer heat, he essentially had a breakdown. After doggedly running for miles on end, he eventually collapsed and had to be helped up by a spectator. By this point, Flack was so delirious that he punched the poor guy who had helped him, knocking him to the ground.
8The Discus Winner Had No Idea What A Discus Was
Most people who want to win a medal get there by practicing and practicing for years on end. Robert Garrett was not most people. An American athlete, he entered the discus event because no other American wanted to. There was only one problem: Garrett had never even seen a discus before.
Prior to his arrival in Athens, Garrett had literally no idea what a discus was. For his training, he asked a local blacksmith to make him one based on ancient Greek manuscripts. In what may well have been an instance of epic 19th-century trolling, the blacksmith built him an iron lump that was 30 centimeters (12 in) across and weighed 14 kilograms (30 lb). It was impossible to throw, but Garrett trained with it anyway. He went to Athens prepared to throw a chunk of iron, and it was only when he saw the Greek team throwing real discuses that he realized just how badly he’d screwed up.
Still, Garrett entered anyway, which went about as well as you’d expect. His first two throws didn’t spin so much as flip end-over-end and nearly hit audience members in the face. Then, something unexpected happened: Garrett made his third and final throw—and won the competition. Years later, one of the other American athletes would recall about this unexpected win: “I think no one was more surprised than Robert Garrett himself.”
7The Marathon Winner’s Life Was A Disney Story
Spyridon “Spyros” Louis is still considered a hero in Greece. A while back, they even stuck his face on the €2 coin, reflecting the depth of feeling the nation still has for their first marathon winner. We can’t say we blame them. Louis’s life was like the most awesome Disney sports movie ever.
A dirt-poor donkey driver, Louis’s life prior to the Olympics involved helping his dad deliver mineral water to houses around Athens (which at that time had no central water supply). Like the underdog in any feel-good movie, Louis entered the marathon just to enjoy his natural talent for running. He then proceeded to run so well that he crossed the finish line in 2 hours 58 minutes, beating every single other competitor.
Despite his Disney-ready story, Louis had at least one moment in the race that was less family-friendly but a hundred times more badass. About halfway through, he ran past his uncle’s tavern. Rather than carrying on, Louis went inside and ordered a glass of wine. He drank it leisurely, told everyone present he was going to win, then headed back out and into Olympic legend.
6The US Athletes Had Their Moms Pay Their Travel Costs
Today, a position on the US Olympic team means getting flown to a distant country, slapped with a sponsorship deal, and given a room in specially constructed Olympic apartments. In 1896, things weren’t quite so glamorous. By that, we mean that a third of the team had to rely on their moms to pay for their travel to Athens.
It’s hard to grasp now just how little interest America had in the original Olympics. There were no trials and no qualifying judges. The only criteria for getting on the US team was an ability to get to Athens in time for the games.
Two of the athletes, James Connolly and William Hoyt, were even denied permission to attend by Harvard officials and had to drop out of university to compete. (Luckily, they both won their events.) Four members of the team, who were studying at Princeton, couldn’t even find an organization willing to pay their travel costs. They would have been unable to compete had discus winner Robert Garrett’s mom not agreed at the last second to fund their journey.
5A Local Woman Gate-Crashed The Marathon (Maybe)
Remember how we said earlier that women were forbidden from participating in the 1896 Olympics? Turns out not every woman in Athens got the memo. Reports from the time claim that a woman who went by the name Melpomene took the exclusion order personally. She went on to gate-crash the marathon in protest.
Depending on the version you read, Melpomene either turned up as a spectator and ran alongside the men or she staged her own separate marathon and loudly demanded to have her feat recognized. The first version ends with her being barred from entering the Olympic arena and defiantly running her victory lap outside it. The second, more depressing take has her spending the next few years petitioning the organizers to recognize her achievement only to be repeatedly beaten back.
Unfortunately, the only records kept of the circus around the first games were often very poor. Today, it’s not even certain Melpomene existed. She may have been confused with Stamata Revithi, a poor local woman who attempted to run the marathon to get rich, and may have managed a time of 5 hours and 30 minutes.
4The US Team Accidentally Covered A King In Orange Peel
In 2012, the London Olympics famously opened with the Queen skydiving out of a helicopter alongside James Bond. Fun as this was, it was obviously staged. Modern royals at the Olympics rarely do anything but watch politely. Greece in 1896 was a different matter. The royal family and the US team got on like a house on fire, leading to a strange afternoon where the Americans tried to teach them baseball . . . and almost caused a minor diplomatic incident.
The incident came courtesy of an orange, a walking stick, and a prince’s formal court uniform. Keen to demonstrate baseball, the US team talked the future King Constantine through the rules, then repurposed a walking stick as a bat and an orange as a ball. They gave the “bat” to the future king, hurled the orange at him . . . and watched in horror as it exploded all over his formal court uniform, covering him in bits of orange.
Luckily, the crown prince turned out to be a good sport and laughed the whole thing off. Still, it marked the end of any attempts to bring baseball into the fold of Greek national sports.
3Nobody Believed The Chilean Athlete Had Participated
We briefly mentioned earlier that historical records involving the 1896 Olympics are kind of awful. To see exactly how awful, look no further than the case of Chilean athlete Luis Subercaseaux. Despite participating in three events, the world almost immediately forgot that he’d bothered to show up. Fast-forward to 2016, and the International Society of Olympic Historians maintains that there were no representatives of Chile at the first games.
At the time, Subercaseaux was with his diplomat father in Europe and went to Athens out of interest in the company of the French team. There, he was allowed to compete in a couple of races for the French but told the delegates he was Chilean at the last minute. When his diplomat father found out he’d done so without consulting the government of Chile, he was furious. Subercaseaux was forced to keep quiet about his participation—an easy task since he didn’t win anything and very few reporters were covering the games.
As a result, many still think Subercaseaux never actually took part. However, the meager evidence that there is suggests he probably did. For one thing, his name is down as a participant for the French team. For another, he later became a respected diplomat who was ambassador to the Vatican, suggesting he’s a credible witness. Still, the fact that an entire athlete could be forgotten shows just how different things were back then.
2It Led To A Rash Of Ridiculous ‘Sports’ In Future Games
Modern Olympic games feature 28 sports across a staggering 300 events. The 1896 version, by contrast, featured a mere nine spread across 43 events (some of which were canceled at the last minute). The driving force behind the modern Olympic phenomenon, Baron de Coubertin, evidently felt that this wasn’t anywhere near enough. To broaden the contest in subsequent games, the organizers introduced a crazy number of new events. Some of them were utterly ridiculous.
The 1900 Olympics, for example, included “sports” like firefighting and kiteflying. Although these are no longer retrospectively counted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), others from later games are. Among those that won their competitors Olympic medals were sculpture, painting, town planning, and architecture. At one point, you could even win a medal for writing poetry. Hilariously, one of the first poems to win was by Baron de Coubertin himself. It was called “Ode to Sport,” and a few representative lines go like this:
O Sport, You are Peace!
You forge happy bonds between the peoples
by drawing them together in reverence for strength
which is controlled, organized, and self-disciplined.
Clearly, this was a win based on quality, rather than the writer being the head of the Olympics or anything like that.
1It Wasn’t Even The First Modern Olympics
Alongside being a terrible poet, Baron de Coubertin was apparently also something of a thief. Although he billed his 1896 event as the first modern Olympics, that wasn’t strictly true. As far back as 1850, the small English town of Wenlock had been hosting its own “Olympian Games”: a series of athletic tests leading to prizes. De Coubertin visited the town in 1890, aged 27, and decided to steal the idea for himself.
Not that the two events were identical. Wenlock’s Olympian Games were only open to those who lived around Wenlock, which wasn’t very many people. The town’s version was also an annual event, rather than a four-year one. But the basic idea of reviving the ancient Greek custom for the modern world originated here. Without witnessing it, de Coubertin would have never gone on to found the IOC, and nobody in Rio would be playing any sport this summer that wasn’t soccer.
Some of the Wenlock events are even similar to actual Olympic events. There’s a 1-mile race (comparable to the 1,500 meters) and a 3-mile bicycle ride. On the other hand, the town also instituted some stuff like jousting that strangely didn’t make it into the official version.
Morris is a freelance writer and newly-qualified teacher, still naively hoping to make a difference in his students’ lives. You can send your helpful and less-than-helpful comments to his email, or visit some of the other websites that inexplicably hire him.