The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan were officially postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. They are tentatively scheduled to happen in summer 2021 to safeguard the health of the athletes, but many people — including Japanese citizens — are hoping for them to be postponed again.
While it’s disappointing, the announcement got us wondering about the original Olympics where the United States first competed. And, upon digging into it, we discovered that the first game with US athletes was also the first modern Olympic games. They were held in Athens in 1896, and while they were very different from the modern-day games — there was no official “Team USA” and no women were allowed to compete — the event did hold some great surprises.
For example, the 14 American men who traveled across the Atlantic to become the “founding fathers” of Team USA. This is their story.
Reviving the Ancient Greek Games
According to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the first modern Olympic Games were created from a desire to “revive the tradition of athletic competition in ancient Greece that had been dormant for 1,500 years. In June, 1894, a committee held under the auspices of the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques met in Paris, France, to discuss the possibility of producing a modernized version of the games.”
After a unanimous vote, it was agreed that the games would return — and to Athens, Greece, the birthplace of the Olympics — in 1896. The modern Olympics would be held every four years and be open only to amateur athletes.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin was a Frenchman who The Smithsonian Magazine said, “believed in the integration of intellectual discipline with athletic activity.” The energetic 34-year-old baron first presented his idea to revive the Olympics during a “jubilee” of French sports organizations held at the Sorbonne in November of 1892.
“I hope you will help us… pursue this new project,” he said. “What I mean is that, on a basis conforming to modern life, we reestablish a great and magnificent institution, the Olympic Games.”
According to the official Olympic website, it didn’t go well. “His audience laughed and his proposal wilted in failure, but the Baron was not to be deterred.”
While the initial idea didn’t win fans, Coubertin pressed on and gathered allies to his cause. Eventually his idea to revive the Olympic Games took hold and the committee decided on Athens and Paris to be the first two hosts in 1896 and 1900.
The above photos shows the original International Olympic Committee (IOC) members in Athens during the 1896 games.
The Opening Ceremony
Held April and 6, 1896 in Athens, Greece, the opening ceremony was held at the Panathenaic Stadium and offered many firsts.
- First Olympic Opening Ceremony of the Modern Era
- First Use of the Olympic Anthem
- First Modern Olympic Games in Europe
- First Use of an Orchestra
- First Use of a Choir
- First Incorporation of a Religious Service with the Olympic Opening Ceremony
- First Parade of Athletes (not separated by country)
The Opening Ceremony
There were actually two opening ceremonies. The first one on April 5, Easter, was to commemorate the founding of the games and dedicating the new stadium to George Averoff, the man who funded much of the games. It started early in the morning, with athletes, sporting companies, and officials marching into the stadium. It was a huge event, with people crowding around both inside and outside of the Panathenaic Stadium.
We’ve actually found a rare video of the opening, which we’ll post later in the article.
The Opening Ceremony
The second opening ceremony was held on April 6, Greek Independence Day. According to reports, the stadium could hold, 45,000 participants but 80,000 people were in attendance.
It was at this event that an orchestra performed “Cantata for the Olympic Games” by Spiridion Samara, and this would become the official Olympic Anthem moving forward.
Unlike modern games where the March of Athletes happens at the opening ceremony and the games begin the next day, the first events took place shortly after the opening ceremony.
Some of these elements can be seen in the opening ceremony video, which we’ll post later in the story.
Artist’s Rendering of the Day
The Panathenaic Stadium was said to be the location of the original Olympic Games. It was renovated for the 1896 event in under twenty months, and took approximately 600 workers to get the job done.
Nine sports were included in the games; the tenth, sailing, was canceled due to the weather. The others were athletics, wrestling, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, and weightlifting.
Some other quick facts:
- 14 Countries Participated
- 241 Athletes Participated
- 43 Olympic Events
Olympic Victory Medal
Winners of the first prize were given a silver medal, and second place winners were awarded a copper one. Today, of course, the top three athletes are given gold, silver and bronze medals.
The above image is of the Olympic Victory Medal from these first modern games.
So, how many medals did the United States athletes win…?
The United States Team
The United States came out on top with a total of 11 gold medals, though Greece had the most overall with a total medal tally of 46, followed by the US with 20.
The most successful individual athlete was German Carl Schumann, who rather bizarrely competed in both wrestling and gymnastics, winning a total of four events.
So, who was on this first Team USA and how did they come about?
The Boston Athletic Association
The U.S. contingent mostly hailed from the Boston Athletic Association or Princeton, and according to the Team USA website, “most wore their college uniforms rather than the red, white and blue.”
Not everyone in the American media thought it was a worthwhile journey. The New York Times stated, “The American amateur sportsman in general should know that in going to Athens he is taking an expensive journey to a third rate capital where he will be devoured by fleas.”
Nevertheless, the 14 participants traveled by boat and train over 17 days. They arrived the day before the games started.
Athletics Team from Princeton University
With no predecessors to show them the ropes, the US athletes did what they could to stay in shape on that boat ride to Athens.
According to The Sun, “Curtis, Burke, and Clark practised [sic] starting [races], and Blake devoted himself to skipping the rope and running up and down stairs, while Hoyt took to strengthening his arms by lifting himself from the deck to the rigging.”
Team USA Included (in alphabetical order):
- Arthur Blake
- Thomas Burke
- Ellery Clark
- James Connolly
- Tom Curtis
- Robert Garrett
- Bill Hoyt
- Herbert Jamison
- Frank Lane
- John Paine
- Sumner Paine
- Albert Tyler
- Charles Waldstein
- Gardner Williams
Here’s some quick info and photos on each of them, followed by video from that original opening ceremony at the first modern Olympics in 1896.
Part of the Bost Athletic Association, Arthur Blake was a 23-year-old distance-running star who had just won the hotly contested 1,000-yard race. That’s when he met stockbroker Arthur Burnham who congratulated him on his performance. Blake laughed and joked, “Oh, I’m too good for Boston. I ought to go over and run the Marathon, at Athens, in the Olympic Games.”
This offhand comment inspired Burnham to assemble a team from the BAA.
Blake came in second in the 1,500, missing out on first place by less than a second. He also competed in the marathon but pulled out at 23K.
No Women Allowed
Speaking of the Marathon…
As mentioned, no women were allowed to take part in the 1896 Olympics. Organizers felt it would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect.”
However, a Greek woman named Stamata Revithi, did run the marathon the day after the official race, in a bid to persuade the Hellenic Olympic Committee to recognize the achievement. She finished the marathon in approximately 5 hours and 30 minutes and found witnesses to sign their names and verify the running time, but she was not allowed to enter the Panathinaiko Stadium at the end of the race. There is no record of her life after this event.
According to contemporary sources, a second woman, “Melpomene,” also ran the 1896 marathon race. However, there is debate among historians as to whether or not Revithi and Melpomene are the same person.
Burke was 21 when he won the 400-meter race with a time of 54.2 seconds. Three days later he won the 100 in 12 seconds. But racing at the first Olympics wasn’t his only major achievement in life.
After the Olympics, Burke went on to become…
After the Olympics, Thomas Burke went on to become:
- A lawyer
- A coach
- Part-time journalist for the Boston Journal and Boston Post
- One of the founders of the Boston Marathon