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home > community > viewpoint > on the trail of pheidippides: olympic track and field at athens, 1896 and 2004

On the Trail of Pheidippides: Olympic Track and Field at Athens, 1896 and 2004
Citius, Altius, Fortius. Faster, Higher, Stronger--this is the motto of the modern Olympics. The true meaning of this simple phrase is dramatically illustrated by comparing track and field events of the first modern Olympic Games of Athens, 1896, with the same events in progress now at Games of the XXVII Olympiad in Athens, 108 years and 5 months after it all began.

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By Skip Cleaver
Posted Thursday, 26 August, 2004

Track and field competitions have been at the core of the Olympic movement from the earliest beginnings, ancient and modern. There are just 15 events that have been included in every modern Olympics. And 12 of those are in track and field. Competitions of speed, strength, endurance, and athletic skill were always at the heart of the Games. Track and field events, and especially the Marathon, are for many the essential core of the Olympic Games.

Legend of the Marathon

The Marathon was invented in Greece for those games of 1896, tracking the path of the legendary Pheidippides from the Plains of Marathon to the center of Athens to announce the Athenian victory over the Persians in 490 B.C. Spiridon Louis, a 24-year-old from the Greek village of Amarousion, won the very first Marathon in 1896, running in the footsteps of Pheidippides and other ancient couriers from Marathon to Athens.

Spiridon Louis was victorious in 2:58:50 (24.7 miles), leading an overwhelmingly dominant Greek team to seven of the top eight positions as they finished in Panatheniac (Panathinaiko) Stadium in front of 100,000 wildly celebrating countrymen. Louis built some new legends in the process. Countryman Charilaos Vasilakos was second (3:06:03). Their historic run along the hilly route across Attica was completed in the same stadium that serves as the finish for the women and men’s Marathons of the Games of 2004.

There is no firm evidence that Pheidippides actually was the runner that ran from Marathon to Athens, but there likely was a courier who did. The Greek and French organizers wanted to commemorate that legendary run, made to announce the Athenean victory over the Persians. The Marathon race was born. The Greeks actually held two Marathon trial races along the same course, and they were well prepared for the big day. The only other country that held such a trial was Hungary, and their man, Gyula Kellner, finished third (3:06:35). Following Kellner it was a Greek sweep.

Pheidippides was a running courier and certainly did run from Athens to Sparta on the Peloponnesian Peninsula, a 150-mile, two day run. His quest--to get the Spartan army come to the aid of the Athenians as the Persians began their invasion of Attica. The Spartans promised help, but did not get to Marathon in time to assist in defeating the Persians. It is better that Pheidippides be regarded as the messenger from Marathon, otherwise the Marathon race might instead be called the Spartan, a race of 150 miles.

A Century of Growth and Change

Changes have been dramatic since Athens of 1896. There are now 24 track and field contests for men. Women, not participants at the first modern Games, now compete in 22 track and field events. Thirty-four events were introduced and then dropped in years between the first and 28th Athens Games.

Today thousands participate in extravagantly prepared venues with millions watching on television. Of the 10,864 athletes from 202 nations this year, 4,412 (40.6%) are women. This percentage has tripled since 1964. More participants from more countries take part in track and field than any other Olympic sports.

The growth of the Games has been phenomenal. In 1896 there were just over 300 athletes participating from only 13 countries, including Greece. That total is far less than the size of the present American contingent alone. Greece, by the way, is one of only three countries—Great Britain and Australia (a one-man team in 1896) are the other two—to send representatives to every single Summer Olympic Games, including the “Interim Games” or intercalated games of 1906 in Athens, and the three boycotted Games.

The first Olympians of Athens would not recognize many of the events being contested there 108 years later. But the Track and Field events, internationally known as Athletics, are essentially the same—they would recognize the original 12. Women’s Olympic track and field was introduced in 1928, after eight Olympiads had passed. It was not until the Amsterdam Games that women’s track and field was introduced with only five events: 100 meters, 800 meters, 4 X 400 relay, high jump, and discus. As with the original men’s events though, all five are still with us in Athens in 2004.

The beginning, the First Olympiad --Athens, 1896

At the first modern Olympic Games there were six men’s events contested on the track and roads. And there were six field events for the first Olympians—four jumps and two throws. The American team (10 men for track and field, 13 total) won nine of the 12 events. Overall, however, the Greek hosts dominated by winning 45 medals to 20 for the Americans (18 of those medals for the USA were earned in track and field). Unlike the scorching Aegean sun and heat of August 2004, the weather for the 1896 Games was nearly ideal, beginning with the opening ceremonies on April 6th and through the Marathon on April 10th.

Most of the athletes of 1896 were participants in track and field, but there were also events in swimming, cycling, gymnastics, tennis, fencing, shooting, weightlifting, and wrestling. However, in all disciplines there were only 43 events in the entire Olympic Games. And today there are 46 events in track and field alone. The other three events contested in every Olympics —in addition to the 12 of T&F—are the 1500-meter swim, individual foil fencing, and individual sabre fencing. Some participants entered several different sports.

Great Success, Limited Attendance

On April 6, 1896, the anniversary of Greek independence, King George I of Greece proclaimed the opening of the first modern Olympic Games in front of 80,000 spectators. Some countries and athletes dismissed the idea, and decided not to participate. Many of the best athletes did not attend, including outstanding athletes and national champions from the United States. Many of the US National Champions happened to be from the New York Athletic Club, and the NYAC chose not to participate. Many European countries sent very limited delegations, or none at all. Nevertheless, it was an historic and inspiring beginning.

There were no universally recognized international rules for track and field. International meets were extremely rare. The track races were run clockwise, for example. For the first Olympics there was no team selection for national teams, and no organization. And there was no money. Athletes had to pay their own way by steam ship from the US.

After two years of planning, construction, and delays, preparations were finally completed in Athens for the revival, although there were communications and scheduling problems that probably kept the numbers of participants down. Representing the USA was contingent of five from the Boston Athletic Association, one form the Suffolk Athletic Club, and four Princeton men; the ten who made up the track and field team. (The BAA members returned with so much admiration for the Olympic Marathon, they founded the Boston Marathon one year after the original Marathon at the Games in Athens.)

Track and Field Events of 1896

The first of the 43 first-place medals awarded in the modern Games came in track and field. It was for the hop-step-and-jump competition, or what we know today as the triple jump. A Harvard University freshman named James Brendan Connolly, a member of the Suffolk (Massachusetts) Athletic Club, won the first Olympic medal in 15 centuries. Connolly was the only national champion on the US team. He was refused a leave of absence by Harvard to participate, so he quit Harvard to win his Olympic medal. And he won a place in history as the first champion in the Olympics of the modern era. He later became a prominent war correspondent and novelist.

Connolly’s winning triple jump was nearly 45 feet (13.71 meters), and his medal was not gold, but silver. Gold was considered a symbol of crass commercialism, so first place awards were silver, and second was bronze. In Athens of 1896 only first and second place received prizes. However, the practice of playing the national anthem of the winner was established, and Connolly heard the Star Spangled Banner and saw the Stars and Stripes raised above the other flags. The tradition began, as his teammates cheered along with thousands in the stadium.

Princeton and the BAA on the World Stage

Because Connolly was the only one national champion to make the trip, expectations for the American team were not terribly high. But their performances were outstanding. Thomas Burke of the BAA won the Olympic 100-meter and the 400-meter events, and the following year served as the official starter for the inaugural Boston Marathon. Frank Lane of Princeton won the first race in the modern era, taking the first heat of the 100 meters. He finished third in the final.

Americans swept the “gold” medals in all six field events. Ellery Clark of Harvard and the BAA won the high jump and the long jump, and later he also became a famous writer. William Welles Hoyt of Princeton won the Pole Vault (teammate Albert Tyler was second), beginning a remarkable 64-year (16 Olympics) winning streak by Americans—the longest win streak in any Olympic event, in any sport.

Princeton Captain Robert Garrett won the shot put. Garrett then shocked everyone by winning the discus, a specialty in Greece, but not then commonly used in the US. It was his first discus competition. He made a practice discus (a very heavy model that was much heavier than that used in the actual competition), and he out-distanced (95’ 71/2”) the champion from Greece. Thomas Curtis of the BAA won the 110-meter hurdles by a few inches in 17.6 seconds.

Australian Edwin Flack won both the 800 and the 1500 meters, and he ran the marathon (the day following his 800-meter win and his tennis doubles silver). Each of the top three 1500 meter runners started the marathon, including Arthur Blake of the US (1500 runner-up), but none finished.

Hero of the Host Nation

Spiridon Louis, a Greek shepherd, soldier, and postal messenger, won the first Marathon in dramatic come-from-behind style. He took the lead over Australian Edwin Flack, 800 and 1500 champion, at 34 kilometers, and was not challenged thereafter. Louis’s fantastic victory caused wild enthusiasm and tearful celebration for 200,000 of his countrymen. They were everywhere along the course and in the stadium. It was the highlight of the Games. This was the inspiration for all other Marathons, including both Olympic Marathons of 2004. Indeed all track and field events for this Olympics are influenced by the original Games.

The Events of 1896 and Today

The original 12 events of the first modern Games of 1896, showing the winning time or distance:

100 Meters 12.0
400 Meters 54.2
800 Meters 2:11.0
1500 Meters 4:33.2
110 Hurdles 17.6
Marathon (40 km, 24.7 miles) 2:58:50 (40.26 km 1900, 40.233 km 1904, 41.86 km 1906, 40km 1912, 42.75km 1920--Standard 42.195km 1908 and 1924 to present)
Pole Vault 3.30 Meters (10-9 ¾)
High Jump 1.81 Meters (5-11 ¼)
Long Jump 6.35 Meters (20 – 9 ¼)
Triple Jump 13.71 Meters (44 – 11 ¾)
Shot Put 11.22 Meters (36 – 9 ¾)
Discus 29.15 (95 – 7 ½)

Other Current Men’s Events and Year of Introduction:

200 Meters 1900
5,000 Meters 1912
10,000 Meters 1912
400 Hurdles 1900
3000 Meter Steeple Chase 1900 (1900-2500 meters, 1904-2590 meters, 1908-3200 meters, 1932-3460 meters)
400 Meters Relay (4 X 100) 1912
1600 Meters Relay (4 X 400) 1908
20 Kilometer Race-walk (road) 1956
50 Kilometer Race-walk (road) 1932
Hammer Throw 1900
Javelin Throw 1906
Decathlon 1912

Women’s Events and Year of Introduction:

100 Meters 1928
800 Meters 1928 (reinstated 1960—not held 1932, 1936, 1948, 1952, 1956)
400 Meters Relay (4 X 100) 1928
High Jump 1928
Discus 1928

200 Meters 1948
400 Meters 1964
1500 Meters 1972
5,000 Meters 1996
10,000 Meters 1988
20 Kilometer Race-walk (road) 2000
Marathon 1984
1600 Meters Relay (4 X 400) 1972
100 Meters Hurdles 1972
400 Meters Hurdles 1984
Long Jump 1948
Triple Jump 1996
Pole Vault 2000
Shot Put 1948
Javelin 1932
Hammer 2000
Heptathlon 1984

Discontinued Events, and Years of Competition, Men:

60 Meters 1900-1904
200 Meters Hurdles 1900-1904
4000 Metes Steeplechase 1900
5 Miles 1906-1908
3000 Meters (team) 1912-1924
5000 Meters (team) 1900
3 Miles (team) 1908
4 Miles (team) 1912-1924
Cross Country (individual) 1912-1924
Cross Country (team) 1904-1924 (not held 1908)
Shot Put, Both Hands (aggregate) 1912
Javelin, Both Hands (aggregate) 1912
Javelin, Free-Style 1906-1908
Discuss, Both Hands (aggregate) 1912
Stone Put (6.4 Kg.) 1906
Ancient Discus 1906-1908
56 lb. Weight Throw 1904-1920 (not held 1906, 1908, 1912)
Standing Long Jump 1900-1912
Standing High Jump 1900-1912
Standing Triple Jump 1900-1904
1500 Meter Race-walk 1906
3000 Meter Race-walk 1906-1920 (not held 1908)
3500 Meter Race-walk 1908
10,000 Meter Race-walk 1912-1952 (not held 1928, 1932, 1936)
10-Mile Race-walk 1908
Triathlon 1904 (long jump, shot put, 100-yard run)
Pentathlon 1906 (standing long jump, ancient discus, 192-meter run, javelin, Greco-Roman Wrestling)
Pentathlon 1912-1924 (long jump, javelin, 200-meter run, discus, 1500-meter run)
All-Around (original decathlon) 1904 (100 yards, shot put, high jump, 880 walk, hammer throw, pole vault, 120-yard hurdles, 56 lb. weight throw, long jump, one mile run)
Tug-of-War 1900-1920

Discontinued Events, and Years of Competition, Women:

80 Meters Hurdles 1932-1968 (replaced by 100 Meters in 1972)
3000 Meters 1894-1992 (replaced by 5000 Meters in 1996)
10 Kilometer Race-walk (road) 1992-1996 (replaced by 20K in 2000)
Pentathlon 1964-1980 (100 meters hurdles [80 meters 1964-1968], shot, high jump, long jump, 200-meter run. Replaced by Heptathlon in 1984)

Return to Athens, the Games of 1906

The Greeks were intensely proud of their original games of the modern era. They wante to host them every four years, but the International Olympic Committee wanted to move to other countries every Olympiad. Pierre de Coubertin of France, founder of the modern Games and President of the IOC, wanted the Games of 1900 to be held in Paris. He believed they would be more international and better attended. They compromised. It was agreed that the Olympics would return to Greece every four years, but in the interim year—1898, 1902, 1906, etc.

War and political problems kept the Greeks from acting on this, however, until 1906. In 1906, after two disastrous Olympics in the midst of International Expositions in Paris in 1900 and St. Louis in 1904, the International Olympic Committee was thankful to return to Athens for the Intercalated or Interim Athenean Games, held in the same stadium as in 1896.

The Games of 1906 were hugely successful, extremely well run, and better attended than the original Games of ten years earlier. They were not considered official, but they did get the Olympic movement back on track and set the stage for the enormously successful London Games of 1908.

Innovations in Athens of 1906 included the javelin, the five-mile run, the ancient discus, the first Pentathlon, the first two race-walking events, the stone put, and more. Ray Ewry of the US won the standing long jump and standing high jump. He amazed all spectators, just has he did in Paris and St. Louis, and would again in London. The organizers amazed the athletes and the world. Unfortunately it was the only interim Games, and the Olympics did not return to Athens—until 2004.

A Contrast in Stadiums

It is an interesting study in comparing the new stadium with the old in Athens. The whole world has that opportunity as the Marathon finish lines are within the ancient Panatheniac Stadium, just a few miles from the distinctive arched roof of the new. Also on display this year, the ancient stade or stadium at Olympia, used for the women’s and men’s shot put. It was ideal for the ancient Games, but far too remote for the 1896 or 1906 Games.

In 1896 and again in 1906 the facilities had an effect on the track and field competition. The stadium that was used was not designed for track and field as we know it, or even as the participants of 1896 knew it. Known as the Panatheniac Stadium--also as the Herodes Atticus Stadium—it was originally built in 143 BC. It was then rebuilt by Tiberius Claudius Herodes Atticus, a Roman administrator under the rule of Roman Emperor Hadrian (117 to 138 CE).

Following Roman decline it was covered and forgotten until 1870, when it was excavated. It was restored in 1895-96 for the first modern Olympics. It was completed through the efforts of Demetrios Vikelos of Athens (the equivalent of the head of the Greek Olympic Committee), with the funding of Georgios Averhof, a wealthy Greek architect and shipping entrepreneur whose statue stands near the stadium entrance.

The stadium had plenty of seating in a very narrow horseshoe shape of gleaming white marble. However, it had a 333.33-meter track for the first modern Games, not the standard 400 meters. And the turns were extremely tight and narrow causing very slow times in the 400 and the 800-meter races (runners had problems staying in lanes).

The turns were twice as sharp as a normal track, with very long straight-aways. The turns are tighter than most indoor tracks, but without any banking. From high in the stadium, the track appears to take on the pattern of a paper clip or parallel tracks rather than a standard oval. The “infield” is only about 35 meters wide, as the two sides of the stadium are much closer to the track--and to each other--than the normal facilities of today.

And they had to run clockwise in 1896, which was very unusual. The extremely tight turns made the running of the 200 meters impossible. Otherwise there would have been 13 track and field events in 1896. The old stadium remains much the same for the 2004 Marathons, but the single lap on the track is counter-clockwise.

Solid Foundations and Traditions

In reviewing the Athens Games of 1896, and in watching what has transpired in the Games of 2004, one cannot help but be impressed with the original foundations, as well as the transformations evident today.
The modern Games successfully began where the Ancient Games left off 1500 years before. It was a remarkable achievement considering there was no model, and they had less than two years to prepare. And now the Games have returned to those roots in Olympia and Athens after six years of preparation. And once again, the athletes are being decorated with olive branches. In the dazzling venues of 2004, the spirit of 1896 is ever-present.



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