London Spy

Olympic history: Athens 1896

London Spy

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A recreation of the 1896 Games in 2011

To mark 200 days before the start of the 2012 Games in London, we begin our Olympic countdown with a look at the first modern games in Athens 116 years ago.

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Baron Pierre de Coubertin

It all started with Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin. Many people had discussed the idea of reviving the Olympic Games, but it was the French academic who became the driving force and the first secretary general of the International Olympic Committee.

Yet the Baron did not have everything his own way. His target was to launch the modern Games in 1900 in Paris. Other IOC members were less patient and the president, Demetrius Vikelas, was Greek, so the Games opened in Athens in 1896.

Cost was a concern. Such were the economic and political problems of the host nation that Budapest was lined up as a possible substitute, but the capital of Hungary was not needed - and hasn't been since.

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The 1896 Olympic 100m

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The Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens, where the 1896 Games took place

The Julian calendar was also a concern for some. It was overlooked by the United States team, who, observing the more modern Gregorian calendar, arrived in Athens the day before the action started and missed out on their planned preparation time of 12 days.

Not that the miscalculation came at great cost to the Americans. Francis Lane, a student from Princeton University, won the first competition of the modern Olympic Games when he took first place in a heat of the 100 metres.

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Fencing from the 1896 recreation

His compatriot, James Connolly, claimed the first gold medal with victory in the triple jump, which was then known as the hop, step and jump, while John and Sumner Paine became the first brothers to strike Olympic gold, Sumner finishing first in the free pistol competition and being beaten by his brother in the military revolver event.

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Hermann Weingärtner competes in the gymnastics

Those triumphs helped the United States secure top spot in the medals table with 11 golds, including two for Bob Garrett in the shot put and the discus.

German gymnast Hermann Weingärtner collected the most medals, with six, while compatriot Carl Schuhmann picked up the most golds with three for gymnastics and one for wrestling.

Overall, the first Olympic Games of the modern area were hailed as a great success, attracting more than 200 competitors from 14 nations.

It helped that nobody drowned in the swimming events, which, with sea conditions occasionally so rough as to force the cancellation of the rowing competition, involved contestants jumping from a boat into the Bay of Zea and swimming towards the shore.

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A medal from the 1896 Games

The hosts were happy, as their athletes won the most medals and the haul of 10 golds included one for Spyridon Louis in the marathon. His reward from the king was a horse and cart to help him in his day job of transporting fresh water to Athens.

Prizes generally were more modest in these inaugural Games. Winners received a silver medal and a crown of olive leaves, while runners-up were awarded a bronze medal.

Gold, silver and bronze medals would come later, with the tradition then applied retrospectively, and there followed a host of other innovations as the revived Olympic Games lived up to the 'modern' tag.

Top three performances

1-James Connolly (USA) - Won the triple jump, the first gold medal of the modern Olympic Games.

2-Spyridon Louis (GRE) - Made himself a Greek national hero with victory in the marathon.

3-Hermann Weingärtner (GER) - Winner of six medals in gymnastics.

Did you know?

- The United States team arrived the day before the action started, 12 days later than planned, because they used the modern Gergorian calendar, and the Games were held under the Julian calendar.

- Conditions in the rowing events were so rough some competitors had to abandon ship and swim to safety.

- Marathon winner Spyridon Louis was offered a gift of his choosing by the king, and chose a horse and cart.

Medal table

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Wresting from the 2011 recreation

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