The 1896 Games were different from today’s world sports spectacle. Only around 250 athletes from 14 countries competed in the first Games, and most came from Greece. In the last 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, more than 11,000 athletes from 207 countries participated.
Another thing about the 1896 Games: there were no female athletes. The first female Olympic athletes competed at the 1900 Games in Paris, France. They only competed in croquet, horse riding, golf, sailing and tennis. (Golf and tennis had events for women only.) The 2016 Olympics featured more than 5,000 female athletes.
Some of the sports of 1896 were different. For example, the swimming events did not take place in a swimming pool as they are today. The swimmers competed in the open waters of the Mediterranean bay of Zea near Athens.
For longer races, such as the 1,200-meter freestyle, competitors were taken by boat on a wooden raft into the bay. From there, the swimmers dived into the cold water (55 degrees) and swam the required distance to shore. Their swimming lanes were marked by floating, hollowed-out pumpkins!
Some athletes were also different. A 10-year-old boy took part in the team gymnastics competition. Dimitrios Loundras from Greece played on parallel bars and his team came third.
Dimitrios did not get a medal, however. In 1896, the winners received a silver medal, a certificate and olive branches. The runners-up got a bronze medal and laurel branches. Third place has nothing. Gold, silver and bronze medals were not awarded until the 1904 Games in St. Louis, Missouri.
A similar event to today was the marathon. The race followed the legendary route that Pheidippides, a military runner, traveled around 2,500 years ago from the Greek city of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Greeks had defeated the invading Persian army.
Spyridon Louis of Greece won the race. He ran the 25 mile course – marathons didn’t become a standard 26.2 mile race until 1924 – in 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds. Louis could have run faster, but he would have stopped to eat an egg and have a glass of wine in the middle of the race.
Any marathon is difficult. About half of the runners dropped out of the 1896 race. One runner was disqualified for skipping a carriage ride during part of the race.
I told you, the 1896 Games were different.