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Athens 1896 - Key Moments

ESPN staff
October 12, 2011
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Athens Stadium © Getty Images
The rebirth of the Games
The inauguration of the first Games of the modern era, opened by King George I at the foot of the Acropolis on April 6, 1896, was a huge relief for IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin.

Greece's instability and economic stature, due to numerous conflicts, proved almost insurmountable obstacles.

However, a rich Greek from Alexandria, George Averoff, donated a monetary gift of 1 million drachma, and in a matter of 18 months a superb white marble stadium, able to hold 60,000 people, was constructed.

Baron de Coubertin had dreamed of reinventing the Games since 1892. Two years later, the official announcement was made and Athens was chosen as the site.

Almost 250 athletes, two-thirds of whom were Greek, from 14 countries and three continents arrived in Athens, although the Games were not widely covered by the press.

Nine sports were included in the programme from April 6-15: track and field, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, wrestling, aquatics, weightlifting, tennis and shooting.

An American student at Harvard, James Connolly, became the first Olympic champion of the modern era on the first day of the Games, when he won the triple jump with a leap of 13.71 metres.

The historic triumph of Spiridon Louis
The marathon victory of the little shepherd from Amarousion in the first modern Olympic Games was celebrated as a historic event because it was Greece's only track and field win of the Athens Games. It also guaranteed Louis an eternal place in the nation's sporting history.

Louis won in front of huge crowds and during oppressively hot weather, and later became the flag-bearer who led the Greek delegation in the opening ceremony of the Berlin Games in 1936. That day, he handed an olive branch, a symbol of peace, to Adolf Hitler.

Louis almost never got the chance to compete in this marathon (run between 38 kilometres and 40 kilometres), which was included in the programme at the request of France in memory of the soldier from Marathon. Though eliminated after the qualifying rounds, the Greek runner nonetheless was included in the race because of the support of his colonel.

When the colonel was about to give a lecture to his soldiers, he discovered that he had forgotten his reading glasses. Without hesitation, Louis offered to run the full 22 kilometres to collect the glasses, and he returned in record time to the delayed lecture.

So on April 10, 1896, Louis, then 23, found himself among the 25 competitors at the entry road to the village of Marathon. After a disastrous start, he began a spectacular comeback at the 32km mark while the majority of his competitors began to feel the full extent of the race and the weather.

Princely welcome
Resistant to the heat and the suffering of the marathon, the young Greek caught up with and overtook leader France's Albin Lermusiaux, then Australian Edwin Flack, who won the 800 and 1500. At the entry to the Olympic Stadium in Athens, a cannon shot announced the winner's imminent arrival to the excited crowds. An enormous cheer went up when Louis appeared on the track, waved on by an ecstatic Greek crowd that cried: Hellas! Hellas! (Greece! Greece!) At the end of the race, King George's three sons rushed forward and, ignoring royal protocol, hoisted the young shepherd and carried him to the royal box to receive congratulations from the king.

In 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds, Louis recorded a historic victory that the Greeks were only too happy to embrace. In becoming the first marathon champion of the modern Olympics, Louis symbolically carried on the torch that the soldier Philippides carried from Marathon to the Athenians (a distance of 42 kilometres) to announce Themistocles' victory over the Persians.

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