Wars, medals, and olive branches: Five facts about the modern Olympic Games

The first incarnation of the Olympics as we know them took place in Athens 120 years ago today

Olympics, Athens. 1896, 120 year,

The Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, the site of the ancient games, played host to the modern one's first summer games [Wiki Commons]

With 121 days to go until the 2016 summer Olympics kick off in Rio de Janeiro, today also marks the 120th anniversary of the first modern Olympiad. With 14 countries participating in the 1896 Athens games, with spectators treated to only 43 events, the world’s biggest sporting competition has grown in prestige and recognition in the years since, now uniting the world every four years in feats of physical achievement.

In honour of the games, here are some things you may not be aware of when it comes to the reviving the modern Olympics...

  • The 28th Summer Olympic Games are something of a first

The iconic Christ the Redeemer statue looking over the Maracanã Stadium, where the opening ceremony will take place on August 5th [Pixabay]

Since the first modern competition was launched 120 years ago today, there has been a total of 27 Summer Olympic Games held in 22 different cities worldwide. But the Brazilian city will mark the first time the games have taken place in South America, where 306 events across 28 different sports will take place.

The Rio games are only even the second ones to take place in Latin America, with the 1968 games in Mexico City the last time that global community played hosts.

  • The 1896 games, while considered the first modern edition, were not the first attempt to bring the Olympics back

A sporting competition associated with the ancient Greeks, it was the Roman Emperor Theodosius I who ultimately brought an end to the Olympics in 394AD, outlawing what was deemed a pagan festival in the fast-becoming-Christian Europe.

Roughly 15 centuries later, two Greek philanthropists interested in classics attempted to bring back the sporting competition in the hopes that it would encourage the “moral and physical education” of the global community.

The logo used for the first modern games, which kicked off in Athens on April 6th, 1898 [Wiki Commons]

Evangelos and Konstantinos Zappas financed the refurbishment of the ancient Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, which had been opened in 566BC. The pair then used their wealth to finance the first games held there in 1859. These smaller-scale games took place two more times before the stadium played host to the 1896 Olympiad.

  • It takes a village...

Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin is the French man credited with spearheading the revival of the modern games, declaring that it represented a universal understanding of “All sports for all people.”

But the world’s biggest sporting event owes its origins to a far more humble version. In 1890, the Baron visited the village of Wenlock in Shropshire, which has been running its own version of the classic Olympics since 1850. Inspired by this low-key affair, the International Olympic Committee was established and brought the games to the world.

  • Prizes have changed over time

In the Ancient Olympic Games, the winners of the various events received an olive branch, intertwined to form a ring or horse show, as their award.

When the first Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896, the winners also didn’t receive the gold medal that is now so coveted by every competitor. Instead, the winner took home a silver medal and an olive wreath, while the runners-up were awarded bronze medals and laurel wreaths each. The practice didn’t stick, as at the 1900 Paris Games, instead of medals, participants were awarded cups or trophies.

Irish Olympian Cian O'Connor's gold medal from the Athens Games. O'Connor would later have to return the medal after his horse tested positive for banned substances [Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland]

Olive wreaths did make a long-awaited re-appearance at the Summer Olympics, when Athens held the festival in 2004.

  • The modern version of the games has taken place every four years continuously, with the exception of 1940 and 1944

After the now infamous Berlin Olympics in 1936, where Hitler’s Nazi party wowed – and worried – the world with lavish symbolism and architecture, the Japanese capital of Tokyo was selected to host the next competition. With the start of the second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the country forfeited their claim to the Olympics, with the IOC offering them to Helsinki.

Due to the outbreak of the second World War, the games would ultimately be cancelled, with Helsinki and London, which had been selected to host the 1944 games, having to wait. When the Olympics did finally return in 1948, London played host, in what became known as the Austerity Games. Helsinki got its chance too, in 1952, and Tokyo in 1964. Tokyo will also host the 2020 games.

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