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First modern Olympics, 125 years ago, was nothing like today’s huge spectacle

The Athens Games had a few hundred participants, and they were all men.

Fencers compete at the first modern Olympic Games on April 7, 1896, in Athens, Greece. Back then, only about 250 athletes took part. More than 11,000 competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. (AP)

Lots of kids are looking forward to the Summer Olympics starting in July in Tokyo, Japan. That is, if organizers don’t cancel the Games because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Games were originally scheduled for July last year.

This month is the 125th anniversary of the first modern Olympics, held in Athens, Greece.

The 1896 Games were different from the worldwide sports spectacle of today. Only about 250 athletes from 14 countries participated in the first Games, and most were from Greece. At the most recent 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, more than 11,000 athletes from 207 countries participated.

Modern Olympics took decades to become a global event

Another thing different about the 1896 Games: There were no female athletes. The first female Olympic athletes showed up at the 1900 Games in Paris, France. They participated only in croquet, equestrian, golf, sailing and tennis events. (Golf and tennis had women-only events.) The 2016 Olympics had more than 5,000 female athletes.

Some of the sports in 1896 were different. For example, the swimming events did not take place in a pool as they do today. The swimmers competed in the open waters of the Mediterranean’s Bay of Zea near Athens.

For longer races, such as the 1,200-meter freestyle, competitors were taken by boat to a wooden raft in the bay. From there, the swimmers dove into the cold (55 degrees) water and swam the required distance to shore. Their swimming lanes were marked by floating, hollowed-out pumpkins!

Some of the athletes were different, too. A 10-year-old boy participated in the team gymnastics competition. Dimitrios Loundras from Greece performed on the parallel bars, and his team came in third.

Dimitrios did not get a medal, however. In 1896, the winners received a silver medal, a certificate and olive branches. Second-place finishers got a bronze medal and laurel branches. Third place got nothing. The gold, silver and bronze medals were not given out until the 1904 Games in St. Louis, Missouri.

One event that was similar to today was the marathon. The race followed the legendary route that Pheidippides, a military runner, ran about 2,500 years ago from the Greek town of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Greeks had defeated the invading Persian army.

Spyridon Louis of Greece won the race. He ran the 25-mile course — marathons did not become a standard 26.2-mile race until 1924 — in 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds. Louis could have run faster, but he reportedly stopped to eat an egg and have a glass of wine in the middle of the race.

Any marathon is tough. About half the runners dropped out of the 1896 race. One runner was disqualified because he hopped a ride in a horse carriage for part of the race.

I told you, the 1896 Games were different.

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