marathon to athens map
Marathon to Athens

Albin Lermusiaux of France, jumped out to the lead, but eventually relented to the Greek heat, and quit the footrace at the 32 kilometer mark, carried the rest of the way by horse-drawn cart. Then the Australian, Edwin Flack, jumped to the lead, only to fall at the 37 kilometer mark.

At these first modern Olympic Games in Athens, on April 10, 1896, 80,000 people sat in the Panathenaic Stadium waiting, listening to updates brought in by messengers on bicycles or horses. This was the scene of the very first marathon, an event created for the first Olympic Games. A colleague of Pierre de Coubertin, Michel Bréal, transformed a legendary story of a man named Pheidippides into an Olympic event. In 492 BC, Pheidippides ran from a place called Marathon to Athens, a distance of about 42 kilometers, to deliver new of a Greek victory over Persia, in what is called the Battle of Marathon.

So when the spectators in Panathenaic Stadium saw who was first to enter the stadium, an explosive cheer split the sky. A Greek named Spyridon Louis was to win the final event of the first modern Olympic Games in the spiritual home of the Olympics. Here is how David Goldblatt, author of the book, The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, described the significance of that moment:

It proved to be the most important event of the games, generating the kind of modern mythological hero and collective stadium spectacle that raised the 1896 Olympics above the level of a country-house games weekend or a mere historical recreation…. The man who entered the stadium first was the Greek, Spyridon Louis. The crowd went wild. The king and the crown prince descended to the track to run alongside him and, when the had finished the race, members of the royal entourage and the organizing committee embraced and kissed him.

Coubertin was also impressed, according to Goldblatt. “Egad! The excitement and the enthusiasm were simply indescribably. One of the most extraordinary sights that I can remember. Its imprint stays with me.”

Spyridon Louis

Louis was not a man of wealth. He made his wages by transporting mineral water his father mined to buyers in Athens. After his victory, Louis was showered with gifts, but continued to live a simple life of a farmer and later as a police officer.

Four years prior to his death in 1940, forty years after his momentous victory in the marathon, he could still remember that moment of glory with happiness.

That hour was something unimaginable and it still appears to me in my memory like a dream … Twigs and flowers were raining down on me. Everybody was calling out my name and throwing their hats in the air …

Cartoon Charilaos Trikoupis
Prime Minister Charilaos Trikoupis and the tough economic seas he had to navigate

After all that trouble Baron Pierre de Coubertin went through to get an international congress to re-boot the Olympic Games, the Games were quickly in peril in the early days of the planning process.

From the beginning, the prime minister of Greece, Charilaos Trikoupis, was not interested in hosting the Olympic Games in Athens. In 1892, Greece’s Treasury was bankrupt due to high-priced government programs. Thus, the prime minister was not in the mood for another expensive boondoggle like the Olympics. He thought that if anything, the government should sponsor an event devoted to promoting the agro-industry of Greece.

Equally consequential, the Greeks Coubertin left behind to help organize the Games, quickly agreed that the expense of the Games would outweigh the potential glory, and disbanded.

That’s when the nemesis of the prime minister stepped in. Tripkoupis was at odds with the King of Greece and the royalty in general as the prime minister felt the King’s hand meddled too much in Greek politics. Perhaps royal intrigue was part of the reason why Trikoupis was prime minister 7 times from 1875 to 1895. But despite the prime minister’s influence in keeping the Olympics off the calendar.

Crown Prince Constantine stepped up and declared the re-establishment of the Olympics in Greece as a priority. The crown prince, who was already an honorary president of the committee, took control, establishing a new working committee, and solicited the generous funds of a rich businessman named George Averoff, had new sports facilities built, like the Panathenaic Stadium, and a velodrome.

Crown Prince Constantine
Crown Prince Constantine

Reluctantly, Trikoupis agreed that the Olympics should be hosted in Athens. And unfortunately, the pressure on the Greek government to pay back the country’s debt as it fought its way out of bankruptcy was too immense. The prime minister recommended higher taxes to pay its debt, but that’s not a great platform for a politician to run on. With little support, Trikoupis resigned and eventually lost his seat in the general election.

With the uncooperative prime minister out of the way, the Greek Royalty and Coubertin was able to move forward in the restoration of the Athens Olympic Games in 1896.

first olympic committee 1896
Officials of the 1st Olympic Committee in 1896, Coubertin seated left

Beyond expectations, the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece in 1896 was a success. It was said that 80,000 people cheered the last event – the marathon – with an enthusiasm bordering on hysteria.

Even overseas, the Athens Olympics was praised for its “triumph of sentiment, of association, of distinction, of unique splendour,” and that “the flavour of the Athenian soil, the indefinable poetic charm of knowing one’s self thus linked with the past, a successor to the great heroic figures of olden times – the splendid sportsmanship of the whole affair.”

But Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who today is seen as the father of the modern-day Olympics, did not hear the cheers. He was not given credit for the establishment of these Games by dignitaries or the press, let alone mentioned. As David Goldblatt wrote in his history, The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, “he was equally piqued by the failure of the royal house of the post-stadium crowd to acknowledge his role in inviting and animating the games, writing ‘I don’t care what the Greek newspapers say about me. When it comes to ingratitude, Greece easily wins first prize…You all got your branches…in a full stadium from the hands of the King. I am the only one whose name, if ever mentioned, was spoken only in secret.”

Father of the Modern Olympics, Pierre de Frédy, baron de Coubertin

But indeed, Coubertin was the animating force behind the modern Olympics. His was a particular vision in sports. As Goldblatt describes, Coubertin was a man of the aristocracy and well connected. After visiting England and meeting Dr Penny Brookes and seeing his Much Wenlock Games, Coubertin realized that sport had a way of unifying people. From that point on, Coubertin had a vision for unifying the world, as he knew then, in a vision of sport and sportsmanship.

The late 19th century was a time of optimism. Technology was making the world smaller. And the more people knew the people of other lands, the more they traded with people of other lands, the more they visited other lands, the less likely, some thought, that they would go to war with other lands. For Coubertin, sports was a mechanism for peace.

It is clear that the telegraph, railways, the telephone, the passionate research in science, congresses and exhibitions have done more for peace than any treaty or diplomatic convention. Well, I hope that athletics will do even more…Let us export rowers, runners and fencers: there is the free trade of the future, and on the day it is introduced within the walls of old Europe the cause of peace will have received a new and might stay. This is enough to encourage your servant to dream now…to continue and complete, on a basis suited to the conditions of modern life, this grandiose and salutary task, namely the restoration of the Olympic Games.

Coubertin spoke those words in a conference he organized in November 1882. Goldblatt wrote that the audience was indifferent to his ideas. But he was not discouraged. His next goal was to arrange another conference, in May 1894. He continued to write and meet people from other lands, associates and friends, royalty and heads of states, explaining his vision of a new Olympics, one based on the principles of peace and internationalism. He got 78 delegates from sports organizations from 12 nations to attend his Paris


She was a teenager marching into the National Olympic Stadium during the pomp and circumstance of the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And she was in awe. This athlete, who wishes to stay anonymous, was from a country that was participating in the Olympics for the first time. She held no aspirations of taking home a medal, and at times, she felt overwhelmed.

But when she saw the following words on the stadium screen, she felt they were meant for her.

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part. Just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.

The founder of the modern Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, had an idealistic view of the Games, that people and nations were not gathering to win, but to do their best. In fact, from the very first Modern Games in Athens in 1896, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) requires that each hosting organizing committee provide Participation Medals to all athletes attending the Olympics.

I have one, the participation medal from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Designed by Taro Okamoto and Kazumitsu Tanaka, the medal was manufactured from copper, with an image of three runners and a swimmer on one side, with the five Olympic rings and the words “XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964” in both English and Japanese on the flip side. Only about 5,600 of these medals were created, and as mandated by the IOC, the medal’s dies and molds are returned to the IOC. So in theory, I have one of a limited collection.


To be honest, most Olympians are likely not satisfied with going home with just a participation medal. But high jumper, John Thomas, would have been. At both the 1960 Rome Olympics and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he was expected by the press and perhaps the USOC to win gold. But he won bronze in Rome and silver in Tokyo, results that should be a matter of pride and joy for Thomas. But as he explained to the AP in 1964, “they have no use for losers. They don’t give credit to a man for trying.”

Over 5,100 athletes attended the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and over 500 medals were distributed to people who were in first, second or third. In other words, some 90% of all athletes, or about 4,500 Olympians went home without a gold, silver or bronze medal. But they did take home a Participation Medal. And because of that, someone in Bulgaria thought it was OK to sell it to some guy in Tokyo.