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First modern Olympic Games held in Athens

This Day in World History

April 6, 1896

First modern Olympic Games held in Athens

An estimated 60,000 spectators witnessed the opening ceremonies of the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens, Greece, on April 6, 1896. The ceremonies took place in the Panathinaiko Stadium, originally built in 330 B.C. and rebuilt in gleaming marble for the occasion.

The games were the inspiration of Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, a French aristocrat, and William Penny Brookes, an English educator, who were both interested in the moral benefits of physical education and international cooperation. Coubertin spent much of his fortune over a period of years to try to get the first games staged. When an international congress finally agreed to hold one, Athens was the logical first choice.

By today’s standards, the first games were modest. Just over 240 athletes from 14 nations competed in 43 sports. The Beijing games of 2008, in contrast, included nearly 11,000 athletes from 204 nations taking part in 302 events.

The first games included track and field and wrestling events based on ancient tradition. Newer sports such as cycling and tennis appeared as well. Several standard features of the Olympics today made no appearance at these games. The Olympic Oath was not adopted until 1920. The lighting of the torch did not first take place until 1928. There was no Olympic flag, and women were barred from the competition. Winners did not receive gold medals but silver ones, while second-place finishers got a bronze one, and those who came in third received nothing. However, the Olympic anthem was composed for and first performed at the Athens games.

American James Connolly won the very first event, the triple jump. Big winners were France’s Paul Masson, winner of three of six bicycle races, and Hungary’s Alfred Hajos, victor in two of four swimming races. The games’ hero, though, was Spyridon Louis, a Greek shepherd who thrilled all Greeks by winning the first modern Olympic marathon. He led the parade of top finishers at the final ceremony.

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