1. It wasn’t the first attempt at reviving the Olympics.
Even after the Romans snuffed out the classical Greek games in 393 A.D., the Olympic flame had continued to simmer. Informal Olympic festivals took place as early as the 1600s, and the 19th century brought a series of local revivals including the Jeux Olmpiques Scandinaves in Sweden and the Zappas Olympics in Greece. In England, meanwhile, a doctor named William Penny Brookes started the annual Wenlock Olympian Games, which attracted athletes from around the country.
The fledging Olympic movement eventually coalesced in the 1890s under Pierre de Coubertin, a French baron who gathered support for an international athletic competition to be held in a different city every four years. During a meeting in Paris in 1894, he and several dozen other members of the Olympic Congress voted to host the inaugural games in Athens.
2. Most countries didn’t send official Olympic teams.
Despite the best efforts of Pierre de Coubertin and the newly formed International Olympic Committee, the 1896 games met with little fanfare outside of Greece. Most counties didn’t bother to send official representatives, and a ban on professional athletes prevented many of the world’s top sportsmen from participating. The U.S. team, for example, consisted of 14 college and amateur athletes who traveled to Athens on their own dime. “In effect we selected ourselves,” team member Thomas Curtis later wrote.
Many other competitors were local Greeks or even vacationers who chanced upon the contest and decided to sign up. The most famous of these accidental Olympians was John Pius Boland, an Irishman who traveled to the games as a spectator and ended up participating after a friend registered him for the tennis competition. Boland had to scrounge a racket and take to the courts in leather-soled shoes, but he went on to claim victory in both the singles and doubles tournaments.
3. Swimming events were held in the open sea.
The “nautical games” at the Athens Olympics consisted of four events staged in the nearby Bay of Zea. Competitors were ferried out to a wooden raft, and from there they raced toward shore using a string of floating, hollowed-out pumpkins as lane markers. For athletes used to the comforts of swimming pools, the Bay’s 12-foot seas and frigid 55-degree water turned many races into battles against the elements. American Gardner Williams reportedly bowed out of the 100 meters after just a brief dip in the chilly waters, and Hungarian champ Alfréd Hajós later slathered his body with grease to stave off the cold during the 1,500 meters. “My will to live completely overcame my desire to win,” he later said of the hypothermic ordeal. “I cut through the water with a powerful determination and only became calm when the boats came back in my direction and began to fish out the numbed competitors who were giving up on the struggle.”
4. The winners didn’t receive gold medals.
The Olympic tradition of awarding gold, silver and bronze medals didn’t begin until the 1904 games in St. Louis. The winners at the 1896 games were instead presented with silver medals, certificates and olive branches, while the runners-up received bronze medals and laurel branches. The unlucky third place finishers, meanwhile, got nothing.
5. The games featured a swimming event for sailors from the Greek navy.
Unlike later Olympics, which featured such peculiar contests as tug-of-war and live pigeon shooting, the 1896 games mostly stuck to a conventional athletic program. One of the few exceptions was the 100-meter freestyle for sailors, a swimming event that was only open to members of the Greek navy. Just three sailors participated, with 16-year-old Ioannis Malokinis emerging victorious in two minutes, 20.4 seconds—nearly a full minute slower than the winner of the open 100-meter race.
6. It was the only Olympics with no female competitors.
Like their ancient counterpart, the first modern Olympics were an all-male affair. The exclusion of women was primarily due to the influence of International Olympic Committee president Pierre de Coubertin, who considered female participation in sports to be indecent. While women would later make their debut in the golf and tennis events at the 1900 Paris games, Coubertin remained stubbornly opposed to lady Olympians for the rest of his career, once writing that the games should be “the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism, with internationalism as a base, loyalty as a means, art for its setting, and female applause as reward.”
7. An American athlete won the discus—despite having never thrown one before.
Few Olympic upsets compare to shot-putter Robert Garrett’s triumph in the 1896 discus throw. Discus wasn’t part of American athletics in the late-1800s, so before leaving for Athens, Garrett studied images from ancient Greek art and attempted to build one from scratch. His prototype discus tipped the scales at 25 pounds—far heavier than the regulation weight of less than five pounds—and after struggling to throw it, he all but abandoned hope of competing in the event at the games. It wasn’t until Garrett arrived in Athens that he stumbled upon a lighter, regulation discus and decided to enter the competition after all. He flubbed his first couple throws, but eventually heaved the discus over 95 feet—enough to best the Greek favorite, Panagiotis Paraskevopoulos. “This was a tragedy for Greece,” Garret’s teammate Thomas Curtis later quipped, “but high comedy for us.” American Olympians would go on to dominate the track and field events at the 1896 games, claiming the olive branch in nine out of 12 events.
8. A 10-year-old participated in the gymnastics competition.
By far the youngest athlete at the Athens games was Dimitrios Loundras, a Greek who took part in the team parallel bars event at the age of just 10 years, 218 days. There are no contemporary accounts of how the pint-sized gymnast performed, but his team finished third, enough to put him in the record books as a bronze medalist. To this day, Loundras remains the youngest competitor in Olympic history.
9. The marathon was invented for the 1896 games.
Along with restarting the tradition of a quadrennial Olympics, the 1896 games also produced the first organized marathon. The endurance race was the brainchild of Michel Breal, a friend of Pierre de Coubertin’s who had been inspired by the legend of a Greek soldier who ran from the plain of Marathon to Athens to give word of a 490 B.C. victory over the Persians. The inaugural contest was shorter than the marathons of today—slightly less than 25 miles compared to 26.2—but it proved to be no less grueling. Roughly half the competitors were forced to quit from exhaustion, and another was disqualified after he hopped a ride in a horse carriage for part of the race.
The unlikely victor was Spiridon Louis, an obscure Greek villager who tackled the course at a steady pace, even stopping halfway to eat an egg and quaff a glass of wine. When he staggered into the stadium, he was greeted by cries of “Hellene! Hellene!” from the ecstatic Greek spectators. Greece’s royal princes even ran alongside him as he crossed the finish line. Louis was propelled to national stardom for winning history’s first marathon, but he returned to his village after the Olympic triumph and never ran a competitive race again.
10. There were calls to make Athens the permanent home of the Olympics.
During a banquet near the end of the Athens games, the Greek king hailed the competition as a rousing success and suggested that Greece become “the permanent and stable home of the Olympic games.” Many athletes supported the plan—the U.S. team issued a statement that the games “should never be removed” from Greek soil—but founder Pierre de Coubertin would have none of it. He was desperate to make the Olympics an international competition, and he doubted that the cash-strapped Greek government would be capable of consistently hosting it.
Coubertin and his supporters eventually concocted a bizarre compromise: while the Summer Games would still move from city to city every four years, Greece was made the permanent host of a separate contest to be held in between each Olympiad. The first and only of these “Intercalated Games” later took place in Athens in 1906, but political turmoil canceled the next three contests, and the experiment was eventually abandoned. It wasn’t until 2004 that Athens finally played host to the Olympics again.