IT is that time of the year again when the greatest athletes in the world gather together for the most prestigious competition in sports -- the Olympics -- as the 2012 London Games kicked off last Friday.
The first formal Olympic Games were staged in 776 B.C., with the Greeks establishing a set of rules for each of the various events. Records however show that the Games may have consisted of only one event; the stadium race (about 176 meters or 186 yards) won by Coroibis of Elis. Initially, competitors wore short-like garments, but from about 720 B.C., they competed naked. Down the road, the Games expanded in scope – with longer races, including a pentathlon of running, discus throwing, long jump with weights, and javelin throwing with a lever. The Olympics were banned by the Romans in 393 B.C. because Emperor Theodosius decided that the games had become a public nuisance.
The Games were revived in 1896 largely through the efforts of a young French baron, Pierre de Coubertin. De Coubertin was inspired to revive the Olympics after the discovery in Greece of the site of the famous Olympic Games of ancient times. In 1892, when representatives of the Athletic Sports Union of France met in Paris, de Coubertin presented his formal plan for the revival of the Olympics. In June 1894, de Coubertin convened an international conference at which representatives of 12 countries showed up. The conference resulted in the issuance of a resolution calling for sports competitions along the lines of the ancient Olympic Games. De Coubertin envisioned the first modern Olympics being in Paris in 1900, but a Greek motion was passed giving the Greeks the privilege of staging the revival of the Games in 1896. Accordingly, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), then just 12-member strong, was formed.
On April 6, 1896, after a gap of nearly 1,500 years, nearly 50,000 people jammed the stadium of Herodis at Athens to witness the first modern Olympics. Despite the support of 34 nations at the Paris Conference, only 12 sent representatives to Athens. A total of 230 athletes showed up, majority of them from Greece. Many of the “athletes” were actually tourists and students who joined the Games at the last minute to be part of history. A member of the British team, John Boland, was just vacationing in Greece when he heard of the Olympics. Boland ended up entering the tennis events.
The first competition of the modern Games was heat one of the 100-meter race which was won by American Francis Lane, a student of Princeton University. The first gold medallist of the modern Games was James Brendan Connolly of the United States, who ruled the hop, step and jump (now known as the triple jump) event. The US team, made up of college students, dominated most of the events despite arriving only a day before the competition after traveling by ship.
Two events of Greek origin - the discus throw and the marathon - were introduced in the Games. The marathon was included to commemorate the legendary run in 490 B.C. of Pheidippides, the Greek courier who ran great lengths to inform Greece of its armies’ victory over the invading Persians. Arriving in Greece, Pheidippides died after exulting, “Rejoice, We conquer!” Fittingly, the marathon was won by a Greek, Spyros Louis, a post-office messenger.
The oldest gold medallist in the Games was 36-year-old Georgios Orphanidis of Greece, who topped the free rifle event. The youngest winner was 18-year-old swimmer Alfred Hajos of Hungary, who won in the 100-meter and 1200-meter freestyle events. No women were allowed to compete in the Games.
When the first Olympic Games were over, the King of Greece awarded the prizes: to the winners, a silver medal and a crown of olive leaves; to those who placed second, a bronze medal and a crown of laurel. No award was made for third place. Today, the prizes for first, second and third places are gold, silver and bronze medals, respectively.
The United States ruled the first modern Olympic Games with a tally of 11 golds, followed by Greece with 10 golds. The other countries that won gold medals were Germany (7), France (5), Great Britain (3), Hungary (2), Austria (2), Australia (2), Denmark (1), and Switzerland (1).