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.