The Olympics... it's not like it was in the old days

Athletes carrying Colt 45s? Sprinters wearing white gloves? Beers before the marathon? The first modern Olympics, Athens 1896, were a very different proposition

David Randall
Monday 09 July 2012 00:15

1 Travelling

The perfect age it took to get anywhere was one of the great barriers to international sport back in 1896. If it wasn't for the almost heroic journey undertaken by the American entrants, those competing at Athens would have been exclusively European. The US athletes left Hoboken, New Jersey, on the SS Fulda on 21 March. Their voyage to Naples took 12 days, during which the ship's captain refused to let them train in spikes on his nicely varnished decks. At Naples they caught a train for Brindisi, then a boat to Patras, and, finally, a train to Athens. After a trip of 17 days, they arrived on 4 April, the day before the Games opened.

2 Opening ceremony

Simplicity itself. No flame, no pageant, no national effort to outdo the previous hosts. Just the brief words of King George of Greece ("I declare the opening of the first international Olympic Games in Athens"), bands and a 150-voice choir performing the Olympic hymn (it is performed at openings still), and the entrance of the athletes competing that afternoon. But the crowd was estimated to be around 100,000, impressive even by today's standards.

3 National colours

In 1896, the athletes were not, with a few exceptions, part of a national team, but individuals. Many, especially the Americans, wore club or college vests, others what was to hand. This was most apparent at the marathon start, where runners were dressed in a variety of vests, shirts, shorts, breeches and caps. The scene resembled more a knobbly-knees contest than international athletic event. The Hungarians alone were a team in the modern sense: they travelled together, wore the same colours and roomed together.

4 Running track

We are so used to seeing the standard 400m track with wide bends that it is a shock to see pictures of the track at the Panathinaiko Stadium used for the 1896 Games. It was 500m long, very long and narrow, the bends so severe that athletes had to brake appreciably to stay on their feet. The surface was cinder, and slow, even by the standards of the day, estimated to add at least 15 seconds to the 1,500m times. For the 100m and high hurdles, the "lanes" were not only marked by paint but had little string fences about 1ft off the ground all the way down the track.

5 Running styles

International athletics had barely begun in 1896, so different styles had evolved in isolation. The best example of this was the start of the 100m, where some runners stood upright, others bent forward a little, and American Tom Burke astonished onlookers by adopting the crouched style familiar today. Once the runners were under way, there were one or two oddities. The Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux wore white gloves in the 100m "because I am running in front of the king". And when it came to the high hurdles, the Americans and Britons qualified easily, mainly because they hurdled while the Greeks ran along, stopped, cleared the hurdle as if it were the high jump, ran on, stopped...

6 Sportsmanship

Two examples, unlikely to be repeated today. In the 100km cycle race, eight of the 10 starters dropped out, leaving only Léon Flameng of France and Georgios Kolettis of Greece. Kolettis had to stop to repair his bike, so Flameng stopped, too, to wait for his rival. In the shooting, the American Paine brothers, John and Sumner, decided that, having each won a shooting event, the sporting thing to do would be to retire, letting others have a chance.

7 Swimming events

The swimming events took place not in a purpose-built pool, but in the sea. Boats ferried swimmers out to a raft from which they dived in at the start of their event. The water temperature was a chilly 13C. In the 100m, an American, Gardner Williams, dived in, screamed out that the sea was freezing, and hauled himself back on to the boat.

8 Drugs

There was no drug-testing at all in 1896, partly because science had not advanced to the point where tests could be carried out, but mainly because the use of substances to enhance performance was widely tolerated. Strychnine was sometimes used by competitors in endurance events, although no case came to light in 1896. Marathon entrants did, however, get a couple of beers each at the start.

9 Cycling events

The most gruelling event at the 1896 Olympics was the 12-hour cycle race. It started at 5am, and by noon only three riders were still going, among them Frank Keeping, butler to the British ambassador. As the hours went by, Keeping and Austria's Adolf Schmal were leading, but in a wretched state. Schmal finally won – after 295km – by a single lap.

10 Gymnastics

No lithe young gals bouncing around the place in 1896, nor even a special arena in which the men gymnasts could perform. Instead, the events – including rope-climbing – took place in the centre of the running tracks. Some countries, including Greece, failed to grasp the concept that your routine's degree of difficulty would weigh with the judges. In the parallel bars, they performed a schoolboy exercise faultlessly, but, much to the crowd's annoyance, lost out to the Germans' trickier, but imperfect, display.

11 Sailors' event

In an experiment mercifully unrepeated, the organisers staged a swimming event exclusively for the host nation's sailors over 100m. Only three men entered and the winning time was nearly a minute slower than in the main event over the distance.

12 Commercialisation

Er, none. There was no Olympic flag, no torch relay (invented by the Nazis for the 1936 Games), no official Olympic symbols (the five rings debuted in Antwerp in 1920), no Olympic mascot, logo or sponsors. And so Athens shops could erect Olympic displays to their hearts' content without fear of the trademark police descending on them. These days, commercial protection of the Olympic titles and symbols must be made law in the host country, and, as we've seen in recent months, is vigorously enforced.

13 Field events

There was nothing too eccentric about these – no tossing the anvil or hurling the girder – but there were some sillinesses. The Americans triple-jumpers, for instance, were alarmed to arrive at their event and find that instead of a hop, skip, and jump, it was a hop, hop, jump. No measured run-ups were allowed, and no one was told how far they had leapt until the event was over.

14 Press coverage

The press generally ignored the Games, or were hostile. As the American athletes departed for Greece, for instance, The New York Times wrote: "The American amateur sportsman 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... and where, if he does win prizes, it will be an honour requiring explanation." A rare exception to press indifference was the Birmingham Post, whose correspondent was Lawrence Levy. He wrote colourful despatches which, in the habit of the day, were printed in the order in which the paper received them, rather than when they were written. Thus, subscribers read of the opening events several days after they had enjoyed Levy's account of the closing ceremony.

15 Athletes' accommodation

There was, of course, no athletes' village; bed and board was where one found it. Some stayed in hotels (the American favoured the De Ville opposite the royal palace), others rented flats, and a few, such as the Irishman John Pius Boland, who was to win both the tennis singles and doubles, roomed with friends. His hosts had entered him for the events, and, unaware of this, he arrived in Athens with no sports clothes. He played in street shoes. Security was not the headache it was to become, although the US ambassador was so fearful for the safety of his country's athletes that he issued them with Colt 45s.

16 Amateurism

How strict was the first modern Games about amateurism? Well, take the story of Italian runner Carlo Airoldi. He decided to travel to the Games in a most unusual fashion: by walking 1,000 miles through northern Italy, Bosnia, Croatia, Albania, Macedonia, and Greece. He duly did so, only to be greeted in Athens by two things: the Crown Prince, and the news from the organisers that, because he had accepted payments for races, he was ineligible to compete. And so he had to turn round and return to Milan. In the eyes of some Britons, accepting money was not the only reason to be denied amateur status. Class came into it as well, and two servants at the British embassy – Edward Battell, who hoped to compete in the cycle marathon, and Frank Keeping, entered for the 12-hour cycle race – were subject to a campaign by some of the expat community charging that they could not be amateurs because they were not gentlemen. Happily, the organisers ruled otherwise. Today, everyone is a competitor, regardless of how much (or little) they have been paid in the past.

17 Medal ceremonies

There were no podiums, medals hung around necks, or playing of the winner's national anthem. In 1896, it was all like school sportsday on a grand scale, with prizes presented as part of the closing ceremony – an event which began with a British weightlifter reading an ode in ancient Greek. Recipients wore their street clothes and some got some unexpected prizes. The discus winner Robert Garrett got a marble bust of the goddess Athena, and American marksmen got a case of wine and a dozen ties each from an Athens department store.

18 Exploitation of victory

Sport, especially athletics, was so underdeveloped as a mass spectator sport in 1896 that few athletes were able to exploit their victories. Launceston Elliot, winner of the one-handed weightlifting, devised a strongman stage act involving a troupe of chorus girls which toured extensively and profitably for many years. Its climax came when he raised aloft his wife, a Kent vicar's daughter, dressed as the Statue of Liberty. The marathon victor Spiridon Louis declined the offers which came his way, including, reputedly, 10,000 francs in cash and the hand in marriage of an heiress (he was already spoken for). Some victors (notably the Americans) were able, once the Olympic Games had become established as a major event, to garner prestige from their 1896 exploits. Others were not, most poignantly the two German medallists Alfred and Gustav Flatow, who were deported by the Nazis to ghettos for Jews, where they duly perished.

David Randall's '1896: The First Modern Olympics' and its companion 'Tweet Edition' are published as ebooks by Black Toad Books at £2.99 and 99p respectively

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